December 22, 2014
Long before he became the Artistic Director of Drury University’s theater programs, Robert Westenberg could boast of a successful career on Broadway, television and film. Today he’s found a new love directing and mentoring students, but he was recently pulled back into the Broadway spotlight in an unusual way – for the reunion of the classic Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Into the Woods.” Coincidentally, a film version of “Into the Woods” starring Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep and others opens in theaters nationwide this month.
The Tony Award-winning show is a mash-up of classic Grimm’s fairy tales, interwoven with a plot about a baker and his wife as they wish to have a child. Having previously worked with Sondheim and Lapine in their production of “Sunday in the Park with George,” Westenberg was brought on as an original cast member of “Into the Woods” when it debuted on Broadway in 1987. He had dual roles as both the Wolf and Prince Charming. Other notable cast members included Bernadette Peters as the Witch, Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife and Springfield native Kim Crosby as Cinderella. (In their own version of “happily ever after,” Crosby and Westenberg first met while working on the show and eventually married.)
To mark the 25th anniversary of the show’s final performance, the cast reunited for one night on stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in southern California last month. Humorist Mo Rocca moderated interviews with the creators and cast, who performed selected songs and scenes. A second show was added due to demand and the audience included at least a few fans were are stars in their own right, including no less than Barbra Streisand. Besides several glowing reviews from the LA Times, Wall Street Journal and others, the raucous reaction from a packed house took everyone involved by surprise – proving that the musical’s cult following remains as strong as ever.
We spoke to Westenberg shortly afterward about the musical, the reunion and the performance.
Q: How was the reunion? What was it like to reconnect with these greats?
Fantastic. I did that show for two years, and I had not seen some of those people for almost the full 25 years since we closed. And it was exactly the same as when we left off – it was as comfortable as you’d be with your family. We know each other like you’d know a brother or sister. We worked for years together day after day after day. It was just a wonderful mix of mutual respect. So the reunion aspect was spectacular.
Q: What about the performance aspect of it all? I know there was no small amount of preparation involved…
It was fun. Rehearsing it was fun. Stressful, but fun. We had two shows. The first show had a certain magic to it for us in the cast. It was extraordinarily scary because we didn’t know how it was going to be received. Mo Rocca was someone we’d just met. He’s incredibly good. Very genial, and does his homework. He’s also quick on his feet – he was just feeding off of everyone.
As we began there was a blackout, and you heard the iconic voice of the narrator from the album, say “Once Upon a Time…” And the audience – it was an explosion that was hard to describe – 3,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs. We thought ‘Oh my God.’ We were rock stars for that moment in time. I thought, ‘You know what, I know I’m not a rock star, but I’m going to eat this up. I’m going to enjoy this.’
The performance itself was stressful for me because I had a cold in the weeks before. So I was nervous as hell, but when the number was over it was like I’d found the cure for cancer. It was insanity. I’m just a Joe Blow who mows his lawn every week and comes to work. I don’t perceive myself in that way in any way shape or form. Then to have people perceive you that way is bizarre. It’s fun and unrealistic, but a kick in the pants.
Q: Why do you think “Into the Woods” has had such enduring appeal?
Jim and Steve talked about that during the reunion. They were pleased at its strength and longevity and the fact that it’s one of the most-produced shows in high schools across the country. It’s large enough to be able to contain a variety of different viewpoints. If you ask one particular person what “What Into the Woods” is, their interpretation could be wildly different than somebody else’s.
Q: Stephen Sondheim is a Broadway legend. What is it about his style and his body of work that people have connected with over the years?
I find him utterly compelling. He loves plot-driven, situational writing. Actors love to do Sondheim because his characters are almost always solving a problem, and that’s actable. There’s an action connected to it. As Bernadette put in it at the reunion, with Steve, you just have to go where he takes you and go there fully. He will lead you, ultimately, where the character is supposed to go. One of his main thematic motifs is that he always works from the specific. He believes the universal can only be achieved when you’re coming from the specific because that’s what people recognize. It’s in the details that people see themselves.
Q: What was the biggest surprise for you in all of this?
I’ve worked with Sondheim a long time over a number of years. I love Steve and, man, do I respect him. He’s a bona fide genius, and true artist and a true professional. But he is not warm and fuzzy. But there was a different Steve there. There was a humanity to him that was abundant. A softening. There was a moment at the end of the second show when Mo asked what this has meant. (Sondheim) said, ‘It’s upsetting – I don’t want it to ever end.’ There were three of us who put our hands on his shoulders, and his head went down. It was powerful.
Q: How do experiences like this and your prior career help bring the study of theater to life for your students?
My job is to create a truly pre-professional atmosphere here, fully integrated with the liberal arts and fully cross-pollinated with all the other disciplines. But at the same time we are deeply focused on making sure the skills and the craft and the opportunities that are provided here are something that will translate into the real world. What I’ve done is basically cherry picked from my 30-plus years of experience and training to deliver what I think are real world applications. These are things that are doable, that are not so esoteric or so limited to the privileged few who have the talent. It’s a blue-collar approach to acting.
Q: Does that point get driven home a bit more when you’re whisked away for an event like this reunion?
Hopefully it gives me a little more street cred and gives a little more weight to what I say, but also I hope it gives students a role model in terms of what’s achievable. It’s not some pie in the sky level of stardom. It’s not about stardom. It’s about work. It’s about technique. It’s about this whole class of working actors who live in New York or elsewhere and are in show after show and make a living at it.
Interview by Mike Brothers, Director of Media Relations. All photos by Doug Gifford.