Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved musical Into the Woods has made the journey back to Broadway — and boy, is it everything you wished for and more! The revival, which debuted at New York City Center courtesy of the Encores! series in May, is playing the St. James Theatre for a limited time and features an all-star cast, including Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker and Patina Miller as the Witch. NY1 journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with James and Miller to talk tackling the late great Sondheim on stage, and more.
Patina, this is your first time back on Broadway in almost a decade. What was your return performance like?
PATINA MILLER: My first night back, I was excited. I was a nervous wreck. It just felt so surreal to be on a stage after so many years away.
You’ve said that this show is near and dear to you. Why?
PM: I love Sondheim. I got to learn this material with Billy Porter when I got out of college. I did a show called Being Alive with Billy, which was an R&B–gospel interpretation of Sondheim, with all his classic songs set to Shakespeare. I got to do that and dive into the lyrics of it all and the music, and that’s when I fell in love with Into the Woods. We did a couple of numbers from the show, and “No One Is Alone” is a song that really stood out to me. It was at a time when I lost my grandmother, and that song really got me through the mourning.
Brian, if you’re a student of musical theater, you know Into the Woods. But how about approaching this show as a father? How has the show enlightened you in that regard?
BRIAN D’ARCY JAMES: It completely changes my perspective on it. The first thing that comes to mind is listening to Patina sing to Alysia [Velez], who plays Rapunzel — that moment of a parent wanting to protect a child from growing up and having to launch themselves into the world. I have a 20-year-old daughter now, so I can say I know exactly what that is. And the last time I played this part, 21 years ago [at Minnesota’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts], I had no reference point on that. I understood it theoretically, but I didn’t understand it emotionally.
Patina, I have to point out the legacy of the women who have played the Witch on the New York stage. Bernadette Peters, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, Donna Murphy, Heather Headley… You’re in amazing company.
PM: I feel so honored to be able to carry the torch now. These are women I have so admired and have so much respect for and their work speaks for itself. I feel so proud to be able to now at this moment tell this story. The Witch is a role that you hope to be able to do at some point in your career. And to be able to sit with this character and do my own interpretation of my Witch in a long legacy of phenomenal women is fantastic. I feel blessed.
I need to point out that this is the first Sondheim show on Broadway without Sondheim.
PM: There’s a lot of weight to that. James Lapine came to visit us in the rehearsal room and he said to us that Steve would’ve been so proud. More than anything, I hope we’re honoring Steve’s legacy.
James wrote to the company on opening night. In his note, he wrote: “You are all exceptional artists. You are such a good company that, frankly, I wish you would come back together every year for a two-month engagement.”
BDJ: That means the world. I have immense respect and admiration for James Lapine. I got to work with him on a development of a show and I got to understand his approach and his mind and his abilities as a director and communicator. And to be tasked with having to put Into the Woods into the world again and knowing that James is championing us along with sharing comments about how he felt Stephen would’ve felt about it — that’s gold. “I’m so happy he’s so happy!” [Laughs.]
This production feels like church and a rock concert rolled into one. It’s cathartic, it’s moving, it’s healing, and the audience goes wild! Do you feel that energy?
PM: Yes! We do feel it. We say backstage we feel like we’re at a rock concert singing Sondheim. It makes us all feel like rock stars. I can’t put it into words; when that curtain goes up, to hear the audience and how excited they are! So many people have been touched by this show. And we’re all coming together in this holy experience celebrating this work.
Brian, your Act 2 number “No More” had me in tears, and you too were very emotional performing the song. What are you thinking about during that moment?
BDJ: I lost my dad quite early, when he was 50 years old. The father–son connection and story line is always resonant for the people who play it and the people who watch it. David Patrick Kelly [who plays my father], I’m blown away by him. And the fact that I get to be on stage with him really grounds me in the sense of that relationship with a father — a lost relationship and regrets.
When Into the Woods first opened on Broadway in the fall of 1987, we were in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Now, all these years later, we’re going through the COVID crisis. I feel like we need Into the Woods right now as a comfort.
PM: James Lapine told us the show always shows up when we need it. In ’87 it was the AIDS crisis, in the early 2000s it was 9/11, and here we are with COVID, and women’s rights being stripped away. Things are so heavy right now. And this show is what we need. We need to be healed.
This show is so philosophical. What’s your favorite lyric?
PM: I love “Children may not obey / Children will listen / Children will look to you for which way to turn / To learn what to be / So careful before you say / Listen to me.” I think it’s so true. It starts with the children and starts with what we tell them. We have a duty with children to be aware of what we say because it can be good or bad.
BDJ: There’s the line where the Mysterious Man says, “Where are we to go? / Where are we ever to go?” And just the enormity of trying to figure out what it is and who we are and what are we doing here. That line is so resonant to me. It’s the biggest question you could ask: We’re all looking for direction and the right way to proceed. But if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re lost — thus, “into the woods.”
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