A Fairy Tale for Music Lovers
“[I]t’s a beautiful, funny, gorgeous, heartbreaking and meaningful piece that people really love.” – John Bell, music director of Into the Woods
Q&A with John Bell, music director of Into the Woods
Once upon a time, “Into the Woods” traveled across the land from Broadway to the Queen City …
On April 11, the traveling production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony®-winning musical, Into the Woods, will land at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater for a six-day run. Tickets are available now.
Into the Woods tells the story of fairytale characters you know – like Little Red Ridinghood, the Wolf, Jack, Cinderella and more – in situations the Brothers Grimm never imagined. Each character is on a quest to find their own “happily ever after” … only to learn “ever afters” don’t always go the way we expected.
The original Broadway production of Into the Woods won four Tony awards in 1988, including “Best Original Score.” The current revival won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album this year. Directed by Lear deBessonet, the current revival ended a limited (but extended) run on Broadway in January before heading out on the road for a similarly limited run in a handful of cities.
The touring cast features many of the big-name stars reprising their roles from the Broadway run, including Montego Glover as The Witch, Stephanie J. Block as The Baker’s Wife, Sebastian Arcelus as The Baker and Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf.
An interesting aspect of Into the Woods is that the orchestra appears on the stage amidst the actors, making its players characters in the story.
To learn more about the magic of this touring revival, we spoke with music director John Bell . who has worked on several revivals, including Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady, and has been with this production since its inception.
You’re on the front end of the tour, having been to D.C. and now Boston. How has the audience’s reaction been to this revival of Into the Woods?
It’s been amazing. I’ve actually been with this production since its first incarnation at New York City Center. We’ve found that the audience response is absolutely ecstatic. And it has been since the first night at City Center last May. And that is really what has propelled the show forward.
I describe this show as a gift that keeps on giving. We were supposed to do it for two weeks in May of 2022. And here it is – March 2023 – and we’re still doing it. I think that’s because, first of all, it’s a beautiful, funny, gorgeous, heartbreaking and meaningful piece that people really love.
It’s very near to people’s hearts. They know all the great lines and lyrics. But I also think [it’s beloved] because it tells a story about a community, particularly in the second act, a community of people dealing with a sort of existential crisis represented by the giant in this play. But if you think about all of us, the public, we’ve had quite an existential crisis of our own for the past few years.
As you mentioned, you’ve been with this production since the beginning. What’s it like for you to go on the road with so much of the cast intact from that first iteration?
It’s amazing, isn’t it? I mean, it’s really an unheard-of kind of situation.
It’s a testament to the fact that we don’t want to stop doing it, and we feel that it’s meaningful and we don’t want to stop sharing it with the public.
It really is a very happy company. And of course, that all comes from the energy from the very top, our producers and Lear DeBessonet, the director, and Lorin Latarro, the choreographer, and Rob Berman, the music supervisor, Jordan Roth, Nicole Kastrinos, our GMs.
When you are lucky enough in show business to find yourself in a situation like that, you’re not quick to give it up.
An unusual aspect of Into the Woods is that the orchestra appears on the stage with the actors. What does that give them as performers, as opposed to being in an orchestra pit where the audience isn’t really watching them and maybe forgets that they’re there?
Because of this setup, the whole thing functions more as a chamber ensemble. It just allows everyone to be much more reactive to the piece and to the actors’ work. Whereas sometimes when you’re playing in a pit, you can barely hear the actors. The energy exchange is more readily available. For musicians, it’s so much more fun. It removes any sort of barriers between people, which I think is also so important. We’re all colleagues, and we’re all here for the same purpose. It’s just a beautiful experience.
This is a musical that people have grown up with. What new surprises in this show are waiting for people who feel like they know Into the Woods really well?
This is something that James Lapine (Into the Woods book writer and original director) talked to us about. [B]ecause it traffics in these fairy tales we all know and it deals with so many of the great truths of the human condition, anytime you revisit it – as they’ve revisited the show since the ‘80s – it automatically lands differently based on the state of the world.
These lines and these lyrics and character relationships that you think you know – well ell, now when you hear them afresh in 2023, knowing what we know about things and having lived through a global pandemic and all sorts of turmoil in the world … I’m even hearing some of this stuff differently.
When I watch a musical, I like to regard the music and the orchestra almost as a character. What are some musical cues or moments in Into the Woods where the music is functioning as a narrator or another character?
One thing I know audiences have responded to is that there’s a lot of magic in the show. The witch is a magical character and casts spells and all of that. Any sound effects that go along with that are all live and played by the orchestra.
A lot of it is our percussionist, but there are other instruments involved too. I think it’s fun for audiences to get to see the orchestra almost acting like a Foley artist (artists who create the everyday sounds heard in films, television shows and video games) in those moments. So, that’s cool.
The Wolf’s song is really delicious and sinewy, and there’s some great orchestration for low strings that create “wolfy sounds.”
Did you grow up loving fairy tales?
I definitely remember my parents reading to me all the time as a kid. I feel like the fairy tales I’m most familiar with are probably the ones from Into the Woods because I started watching that video when I was about 12 or 13 and never stopped.
That sounds like a fairy tale all its own. “Once upon a time, a boy fell in love with the music of Into the Woods … and he grew up to be its music director. And, they all lived happily ever after …”
Jump Into the Woods
Into the Woods is playing at the Belk Theater April 11-16. Tickets start at $35. See showtimes and purchase tickets here.
This story was sponsored by Blumenthal Performing Arts. A portion of this sponsorship will help fund a H.U.G. Micro-Grant awarded to a creative based in Mecklenburg County.