Tag Archives: “Into the Woods

Stephen Sondheim: 62 Years In Westport

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the Westport Country Playhouse 2012 season opens tomorrow (Tuesday, May 1) with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

What you may not know is that the composer/lyricist’s connection to the Playhouse goes back more than 60 years. In fact, Sondheim may have longer ties to the Playhouse than just about anyone else on earth.

In the summer of 1950 — just after graduation from Williams College — a young Sondheim was one of a dozen Playhouse apprentices.

Stephen Sondheim (crouching, top of photo), during his 1950 apprenticeship. The photo was taken at the Jolly Fisherman restaurant. Also in the photo: future film director Frank Perry (front row, left) and Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary (2nd row, 4th from left).

According to a 2006  New York Times story,

He was 20 but not totally untested: he had written two shows in college, one of which was staged. He had won a composition prize that would help finance his further studies. And Oscar Hammerstein II, a neighbor from previous summers in Bucks County, Pa., had been giving him assignments in musical theater writing, critiquing the results without condescension.

Still, he had not moved many sets or called lighting cues from a booth and didn’t yet have the practical knowledge of stagecraft that would eventually inform his scores, helping to create the seamless style of works like “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” decades later. And if there’s one thing a summer theater apprenticeship can deliver on, among the many things it necessarily cannot, it’s the promise of plenty of time spent living the less glamorous life backstage.

An undated photo of the Westport Country Playhouse -- before the most recent renovation.

He applied to the Playhouse because it was near his father and stepmother’s home in Stamford. Perhaps more importantly, he said, “in those days (it was) the most prestigious summer theater in the country.”

One of the great things about his apprenticeship, he added, was that

you got to be an assistant stage manager on at least one show during the summer. I got to do it on a show called “My Fiddle’s Got Three Strings,” directed by no less than Lee Strasberg and starring Maureen Stapleton. It was my first taste of the Actors Studio. When the actors started reading, I couldn’t hear one word. You want to talk about mumbling.

Back then, Sondheim told the Times, there was a different show each week. Apprentices learned everything — from getting props and parking cars to selling Cokes and cleaning latrines.

Nothing was beneath anyone. “We were kids in the theater,” he said.

Stephen Sondheim today.

The occasion of that Times piece was a tribute to Sondheim. The Playhouse benefit was hosted by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

We think — rightly — of that wonderful couple as two of the Westport Country Playhouse’s most devoted benefactors.

But Stephen Sondheim was there nearly a decade before they moved to town.

Starting tomorrow, he’ll be there — in the form of “Into the Woods” — once again.

That’s a lot more than a little night music.

Taking Teen Actors “Into The Woods”

David Roth is a Stephen Sondheim aficionado.

In the spring of 2002 Roth was in his 2nd year as director of Staples Players. In the aftermath of 9/11 — with Americans still shell-shocked and saddened — he replaced his original spring production choice with “Into the Woods.”

The Sondheim musical weaves together several popular fairy tales. It’s funny and uplifting. A major theme — how people from different walks of life band together in the face of crisis — fit well with the country’s post-9/11 mood. It won the prestigious Moss Hart Award — one criteria of which is “social relevance.”

Ten years later, Staples Players are again producing “Into the Woods.” This time, though, 9/11 has faded from most Americans’ memories.

And something else has changed: Two years ago, Lucy Roth was born.

Amanda Horowitz (Little Red Riding Hood) and Clay Singer (Jack, of beanstalk fame), in the 2012 Staples Players production of "Into the Woods." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Being a father — and working with co-director Kerry Long, who plays dual roles as his wife and Lucy’s mother — has caused Roth to examine “Into the Woods” with fresh eyes.

“I realize now there’s another theme: the legacy parents leave for their kids,” he says.

“After Lucy was born, Kerry and I see how our actions are reflected in her.”

Songs like “Children Will Listen” have influenced the couple’s direction of the current production, Roth says.

A tale of 2 princes: Cinderella's (Charlie Greenwald, left) and Rapunzel's (Tyler Jent). (Photo/Kerry Long)

In fairy tales, Roth now realizes, “there are almost no fathers.” Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella — all referenced in “Into the Woods” — have forced the director to think deeply about fatherhood.

In the show’s “new” fairy tale, a baker and his wife try to begin a family. They finally succeed —  but the wife dies, and the baker must bring up the child alone.

“We’re focusing on those things more,” Roth notes. “Last time we concentrated more on the havoc the giant was inflicting on people, and how they overcame it.”

Roth and Long have used their insights as parents to help their teenage actors understand the dreams their parents have for them. “We share some of our own personal experiences,” he says. “We describe our discoveries as parents, and how we’re learning about life through Lucy.”

Joanna Gleason — who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the baker’s wife — spent time with the Staples cast. She too discussed how the show resonates with her as a parent. (Then she went into the studio, to tape some audio. She will be heard on the Staples stage, as the voice of the giant.)

David Roth and Kerry Long have taken their young — but very talented — Staples actors on a long journey “Into the Woods.” This weekend and next, audiences will marvel at how far they’ve all come.

(“Into the Woods” is performed at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and  Sunday, March 16, 17, 23 and 24, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 18. Click here to order tickets; click here for more information.)