by Charles Finn
This interview took place on March 1, 1997 after a performance of Into The Woods at the Interact Theatre in North Hollywood, California.
"I just love it -among many other things. And I feel very close to this material. When I saw it I was going through a tremendously hard time in my own life involving divorce and children and so many of the sort of deep issues that this talks about. And I wasn't going to a therapist because I couldn't afford to. This was my therapy. I had dear friends in the show. Chip Zien is my dear friend and Johanna Gleason is my dear friend, and a couple of other people -Marin Mazzie took over later. So I just went to the show again and again and again, and then I brought everybody I knew. So I saw the show about 20 times on Broadway. And each time I saw it, it just moved me more and more and more until, finally, I would, like, even be passing through on a matinee day and I would run in and stand in the wings and watch it for half an hour until I had to go. I feel close to the show because it got me through. It really did get me through a period of my life that there were moments where I didn't think I was ever going to emerge from it. And rather than a person or another event, it was this exact show that made me able to cry, sitting there in the audience, and think about all these things -the things that are said rather... you could even say glibly, because they're song lyrics, you know? 'Giants can be good... witches can be right...' I mean, all these little things sort of come in and they're clever, and they rhyme and all of that... If you really think about them, they're very deep. And if you're going through them, they hit home. They actually are... they like... they saved me. That's how I felt. This show sort of saved me. Plus, I just love it. I'm a musician and a composer, and I love this music. I think there's not a dud in the group, of all these songs. And I also love my company, and felt it was a very good show for this company, because we're not singers -we're not a musical company. But we have enough musical people amongst us that I thought we could do great justice to this play. Maybe not sing it as brilliantly as it can be sung, but perhaps it's cast too often with singers. I mean I've seen it a lot, too. You get a lot of people out there with giant voices. And you don't get a lot of what the play's about. I knew that my group could deliver the play."
What was it in the play that you wanted to send to the audience? Was there something you were aiming for with this production?
"Not a thing. But to make sure that this audience got as much as I got of what this play is really about. About parents and children, about the growing-up process, and the pain of it, as well as the adventure and excitement of it. The loss that parents feel as their children evolve away from them. Born to. Something you love to something you lose - that lyric is so right. And so painful. And very little is said about that. About how hard it is if you do your job well as a parent (and I'm a parent of four). If you do your job right, they evolve away from you. If you do it wrong they cling. And it's very painful. It's excruciating. And yet you mustn't try to stop the process. And, of course, in this show the Witch does. And it becomes the tragedy that leaks over onto everybody. So, in many productions I've seen they concentrate on the slapstick humor. They concentrate on, of course, the magic and the puffs of smoke and all that. And the giant singing. And the scenery and the trees. All of which is marvelous. But - even including the Broadway production, and I'm not saying our production is better than anything, this is what I was trying to accomplish in this room: that is to say, 'okay, let's just listen and watch and see what these people are really going through' and treat them as people -even though they're witches and Jack And The Beanstalk characters. See the mother with the child that she loves, but who is also frustratingly obtuse. See she's not just a slapstick, silly mother the way she's usually played. She's funny. But she suffers tremendous pain. Don't make her die standing up with google eyes and then expect the audience to feel for Jack when he loses his mother. Let her die, really, with pain. And let it be a shocking, horrible thing for everybody else. And then, when Jack hears the news, we all remember. I think it makes much more mature sense to the audience than it did, for instance, on Broadway when they sat up in a tree and said 'your mother's dead' and we saw her die like a..."
"Yeah. I'd never understood that. Lapine's a friend of mine. And I haven't talked to him about that. But I've always wondered why he made that choice. And there were several others that he made and therefore they sort of get passed on -where almost the point of Into The Woods is to be hysterically funny. And I think the humor is there - it's just 'there' there. And it's so brilliantly 'there' that you don't have to go for it too much. But the other stuff can get lost in the shuffle. And audiences can leave this place saying, and I've heard them a lot, saying "You know, honey, I didn't like Into The Woods very much...the second act..."
That seems to be notorious with Sondheim and second acts...
"Yep. But see whereas I can participate in that argument with Sunday In The Park, that the second act, although it has brilliant moments, isn't as brilliant as the first act. It doesn't take your breath away like the first act does. In my opinion."
The closing scene always did for me.
"The closing scene, yes, but along the way... There are moments where [breaking a stick in two gesture] ... chromolumes... I don't know... You know what I mean? But not this one. This second act, I think, just takes you further than you ever thought you were going to go -like any really good play. And I think an enormous amount of credit, although Stephen is my idol and friend, goes to Lapine who really got this show right, I think. And he gets short shrift. It's always the 'Sondheim show'. And, of course it is. But Lapine knows his stuff."
It starts with the book.
"It really does. And getting a good book for a Broadway show, as Stephen would be one of the first to admit, is the big hurdle. But boy did Stephen do good work in this show. Jesus Christ! I mean number after number. It's a great score!"
This is the third Sondheim production I've seen you associated with. I saw you do Merrily at the La Jolla Playhouse...
"Wasn't that wonderful?"
That was a lot of fun.
"I wish they'd brought that [to Broadway] Lapine decided not to bring that in - that bastard. I was so mad at him. And he's admitted it to me since, saying 'I should have done it.' Because I think he directed that really well."
And then I saw The Doctor Is Out, and it was Getting Away With Murder by the time it got to Broadway. How did that change from when I saw it?
"Not enough. Not enough. They worked on it. They tried. George worked very hard. Stephen did. Jack O'Brien did a very good job. Made some cast replacements. They were excellent -even though I thought the original people were excellent too. They changed some people because of conflicts, I think it was, to replace them. I always felt there was something missing in it. I felt that when I read it, I felt that when we rehearsed it, I felt it in San Diego, and hoped it would be different by the time we got to Broadway. I talked to George about it... but, you know... I'm not a writer."
It seemed it couldn't decide of it was going to be a comedy or a thriller.
"That's part of it. They wanted both."
And it wasn't funny enough for a comedy or hard enough to figure out for a thriller.
"Yes! They wanted it to be really scary. And if it's really scary, then you have to watch out for what laughs you get. You can have a comedy that gets scary..."
"Exactly! Exactly. But you have to, right from the beginning, you have to say 'this is not a silly thing'. That's really what it is. Because in Sweeney they established right at the outset that this was going to be scary and weird and dark and deep. And then when they gave you the humor, it fit in with that. It was macabre. It was...grotesque and funny. It was never stupid-silly. In The Doctor Is Out they allowed themselves, I think, to get a little silly. Silly humor. And right from the outset they did that. And then they tried to get dark and serious and it was too late. Plus, at the end, in my humble opinion, in a thriller you've got to have such a switch. They did it in the first act -that was cool. I killed everybody and the curtain came down and they said 'now what?' At the end they didn't have a twist. I stayed the murder. You know? It should have been that I was a woman, or the doctor was never dead... or.... you were expecting and waiting for a twist and you didn't get it."
The only twist I got was in reading the review I finally got the association of the characters' names and the Seven Deadly Sins that I never got seeing it live.
"No. It was too... it was too... It was a little bit of an intellectual exercise by Stephen. Very smart, and somehow right. But maybe 'righter' for a book where you can read it through and get it, rather than late in a suspense-comedy to have to explain that. The audience couldn't get it. They wanted to get on with pushing people down elevator shafts. They didn't want to listen to some...'Oh I see! The sin of this, and the sin of this...' It was tough. It was a problem, and they didn't manage to solve it, God bless them. We all tried. I think the critics were a little too harsh on them though, to be perfectly frank. Clive Barnes wrote "Don't Give Up Your Day Job, Steve" as the headline! I mean.. hello!
Critics seem to get into those headlines... You're doing Ragtime next? Playing Tateh?
When does that open?
"June something. May 29th is the preview."
Are you still composing?
"Yes... In essence. I'm not doing anything right now. I don't have a project on. I wish I did. But I just don't. I've been acting, directing... and doing all that stuff..."
Any future Sondheim that you know of?
"I always want to. I've always wanted to do..."
What's the one that if someone just handed you the money and said 'Direct it'?
"It would be Company or Sweeney."
Are those your two favorites?
"Well, [Into The Woods] and Company and Sweeney, and Sunday In The Park, in spite of some problems, are 'The Four.' Follies not."
You guys have done an amazing job in this small space. I looked around and said "Obviously there's not going to be a tower rising out of the floor, and things like that." You solved some of those staging difficulties very well.
"To me the biggest problem was the poor Witch - changing her. Having no real 'thing' to do. On Broadway they got away with having another person be her for a while, but here I couldn't get away with it. Everybody's too close."
I don't think anybody missed it.
"No, it worked okay. And how about our pianist, playing all those notes? That's amazing! We had a synthesizer play too. But for two people to play this score is sort of a miracle. A miracle."
Also, I noticed you had some additions to the score. I had heard "Our Little World" from London would be in, but I was hearing notes and words I hadn't heard before.
"Yeah. Stephen sent me the stuff."
Were these things he had cut, or were they new?
"There's a whole bridge that the two ladies [The Baker's Wife and Cinderella during "A Very Nice Prince"] sing that's on the album and was in Broadway show because I saw it a lot of times, but they cut it somewhere along the line on Broadway. So that by the time they made the video it was out. It was cut. And in the score that they give out and publish it was cut. So it's not done anymore. But I missed it. And so I asked Stephen would he send it to me? And he did. They also cut the bridge in "Moments In The Woods"
But I remember hearing that somewhere.
"Again, it's on the album still, but not her little rejoinder 'Princes and commoners - maybe this isn't the wrong story!' That was something they had cut before Broadway. But he sent it to me and it was all there. And there was another little piece in the Witch's 'Lament' [And if you neglect them they just disconnect you]. And that came at the end of the song after 'from something you love to something you lose'. That's where it came in the music he sent me. But I'd never heard it before, anywhere. And I said, 'I like that little section, but it can't come after 'something to lose' she has to..."
That has to be the climax of the song.
"Right. So I myself stuck it in as a sort of intro to 'No matter what you say..' and it really works that way, I think. And I wanted to put those little things in just to wake people up who've seen it that many times. It just makes a little moment of something."
Of course I'd love to see all of the notes put back in.
"Sure. But, you know, these cuts are made for reasons, and you could argue that that little section shouldn't really be there. It's a little cleaner without it. I disagree, and I've told him. 'I don't know why,' I said, 'you cut those.' And he couldn't remember."