'Into the Woods': Original Broadway Cast Reunites With No Mention of the Movie

Into the Woods
Doug Glifford

"Into the Woods" reunion at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

Woe is the superfan when the mainstream comes calling. We’re looking at you, pre-HBO Game of Thrones cosplayers, dance music fans before EDM, and anyone who wore neoprene prior to the Alexander Wang for H&M collection.

Such exposure was imminent for the community theater hoofers and Drama Club nerds who gathered at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, California this Sunday (Nov. 9), for a special event celebrating Into The Woods. The 1987 fairytale mashup musical put Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (and his beanstalk), and other Grimm familiars in the same time, place, and conflict, becoming one of the most performed shows in the American theater canon. Disney’s big-budget film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, hits theaters Christmas Day.

But other than an ad in the Segerstrom program guide, there was no mention of the flick – from the stage, or among the sold-out crowd, which host Mo Rocca identified early as “a Shiite level of musical theater fan,” including recognizable ones like Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Evan Rachel Wood, and Andrew Rannells.

New 'Into the Woods' Trailer Features Lots of Singing -- Finally!

Instead, the event was a celebration of the show’s nearly 30-year heritage, bringing together members of the original Broadway ensemble cast for a one-night-only reunion. Its mythic creators, writer/director James Lapine and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, were also in the house. Thanks to a rare video recording of the full show by PBS, eventually distributed on DVD, three generations of theater fans know and love this cast, including Joanna Gleason, who won a Tony Award for her performance as the wry, resourceful Baker’s Wife; towering baritone Robert Westenberg in the dual role of The Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince (see what they did there?); and Sondheim muse Bernadette Peters as the misunderstood Witch.

The evening played out like a thespian Comic-Con. Lapine and Sondheim shared tales from the show’s development, admitting that they never really had a conflict. “Steve had a rule,” said Lapine. “‘Whoever cares the most wins.’” The actors wore recital garb, not costumes – Westenberg pranced through the Wolf’s “Hello Little Girl” in a light grey suit sans fur – and sat on chairs that could have been lifted from a doctor’s office waiting room. (We may be close to it, but the theater ain’t Hollywood, kids.) The crowd roared for every backstage anecdote and light speed rhyme, still executed flawlessly all these years later.

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The actors, now in their 40s, 50s and 60s, have not all stayed the theater course. Ben Wright, who was a teenager when he originated the role of Jack, is now a financial advisor in North Carolina – but he can still nail the high note at the end of “Giants in the Sky,” a fast-paced number he likened to skindiving for the breath control required. Westenberg and his Cinderella (Kim Crosby) got married in real life, and moved to Missouri, where they teach acting. Their three children, he said, are “nonplussed” by their parents’ 20-something theatrical adventures. “They might look us up on YouTube,” added Crosby 

As many shows do, this one belonged to Peters, who tore throw the Witch’s three big numbers with what felt like a renewed ferocity. The other actors relaxed into the evening’s nostalgia; Peters still sold it to the balcony.

Apart from the universality of the characters, Woods is not an obvious choice for Disney. The tunes aren’t hummable (a barometer that Sondheim detests), the lyrics are dense, and Act II turns dark, forcing the characters to face the consequences of their Act I actions, which in some cases are catastrophic and bloody. It remains to be seen how the Mouse will navigate such prickly territory.

But on this night, the original was still the only, and the actors who birthed the beloved characters – living far quieter lives than the Hollywood stars who would soon take their place – got their standing-ovation due, one last time.