The Public Theater's Passion for Musicals Takes Us Into the Woods, Under the Moon

By Matt Wolf
August 1, 2012

Oskar Eustis, Stephen Sondheim and Donna Murphy celebrate the special atmosphere that is Central Park's Delacorte Theater, now home to a new production of Into the Woods.



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You might think that the New York Shakespeare Festival (the predecessor to The Public Theater) existed to do only Shakespeare, but in fact that's not the case when it comes to a nonprofit institution that has spread its theatrical wings well beyond the Bard. Richard Nelson, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, Larry Kramer, Suzan-Lori Parks, David Henry Hwang, and David Hare are among the many contemporary writers from whom The Public has commissioned new work, past and present, while the musical theatre remains crucial to the work of the organization that, let us not forget, first gave us A Chorus Line nearly 40 years ago and premiered the revolutionary musical Hair in 1967 at their downtown home on Lafayette Street.

So it should come as no surprise to find this summer's Shakespeare in the Park 50th anniversary at the Delacorte coupling As You Like It with Into the Woods, marking in the latter instance an opportunity for the ever-popular Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical from 1987 to be seen in much the same sylvan setting indicated in its title. And at this point in his altogether singular career, it doesn't seem too fanciful to mention Shakespeare and Sondheim in the same breath. The comparison, says Oskar Eustis, The Public's artistic director, is more than apt, not least in descriptive terms: "What I love about Into the Woods is that it demands a breadth of population when it comes to who gets to possess the stage; it doesn't limit itself to one class or social strata" — any more than Shakespeare has ever done. And, of course, As You Like It follows its own journey into the Forest of Arden, so the transformative milieu of the natural world is a theme shared by both pieces of work.

For a democratic venue like The Public Theater, musicals are an essential part of its ongoing repertoire, which is intended to appeal to everyone who comes to a free show at the Delacorte. With Into the Woods, Eustis saw an opportunity to expand upon and fashion anew a previous alfresco production of the same show that was seen in London's Regent's Park two summers ago. "There's no question," Eustis says, "that this production is a descendent of the earlier one but it's one that we are rehearsing, designing, and making here." Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel remain onboard as the show's directors, but the Delacorte cast constitutes an American who's who, starting with Sondheim veteran and two-time Tony-winner Donna Murphy as the Witch; three-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams as the Baker's Wife; Tony Award winner Denis O'Hare as the Baker and Chip Zien, who was the Baker in the original Broadway production, as Mysterious Man.

George Rose in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1985
photo by Martha Swope/©The New York Public Library

Unsurprisingly for a New Yorker, Sondheim has long been a Delacorte habitué, and speaks of having considered beginning the second act of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George in Central Park, though that idea was later abandoned: "When we started writing that show, James Lapine and I thought, 'What would people in our time be doing in a park in New York on a Sunday,' and our first thought was that they would be at the Delacorte." In the decades since Sunday, Sondheim has of course been represented at The Public Theater, both with his own musical, Road Show (2008), and, in 2007, as composer (with Michael Starobin) of the music for that season's Lapine-directed King Lear, featuring Kevin Kline.

And while early talk has surfaced of a further collaboration with The Public on a project yet to be named, the 82-year-old maverick was sounding more than pleased to be launching this Into the Woods before a different crowd from the commercial norm. "There's a completeness about the audience that comes to the Delacorte that you don't necessarily get elsewhere," said Sondheim. "The city is like a mosaic, and there's an energy you find as a result at the Delacorte that you don't experience on Broadway, where the audience tends to be the same over and over."

His current leading lady, Donna Murphy, was in the Central Park ensemble of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985 before acceding to Betty Buckley's co-starring role during the subsequent Broadway transfer. Working at the Delacorte is "incredibly liberating," says Murphy, who talks of perhaps returning on yet another occasion, this time to try her hand at Shakespeare. "The whole experience is both trumped and enhanced by mother nature, which you can't manufacture and you can't control. I remember during Drood looking behind me and there was Belvedere Castle and looking up and the moon was rising and a soft breeze was blowing the hair on my wig, and I thought, 'OK, you don't have a thing to complain about; this is about as beautiful and perfect as it gets.'"

Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith in The Pirates of Penzance, 1980
Photo by Martha Swope/©The New York Public Library

There are hazards to musicals outdoors, to be sure. Patricia Routledge played Ruth in the famous Delacorte Pirates of Penzance, featuring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith, that later moved indoors to the Uris (now the Gershwin), where the English Tony winner was replaced by Estelle Parsons. "I learned not to attempt too full-throated a sound," laughs Routledge, recalling during a recent London Q&A the risks involved in performing in Central Park, "lest I end up with a mouth full of midges." But that's a small price to pay for The Public Theater over time articulating a commitment to the genre that has seen the Delacorte move on from Pirates to Two Gentlemen of Verona to Hair and now Into the Woods, even as The Public's downtown home has spawned such diverse musicals as Caroline, or Change; Passing Strange; Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; The Total Bent through to this coming season's Giant, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, and the Fatboy Slim/David Byrne collaboration, Here Lies Love.

Eustis, as might be expected, talks of a "fantastic arc of Public Theater musicals that I'm really proud of and one in which this revival of Into the Woods absolutely plays its part." Here, as with many a Shakespeare text, is a piece that in Eustis' words "understands the whole constellation of human life as a tapestry that goes from the public to the private and back again, so that they can't be separated one from the other." And if this new setting for the show demands that you hear Into the Woods afresh? Well, to cite Sondheim's own lyric, "children will listen." And let's hope adults will, too.

(This feature appears in the summer 2012 Playbill for Shakespeare in the Park.)

(Matt Wolf is London theatre critic for The International Herald Tribune, which is seen online at nytimes.com, and theatre editor at theartsdesk.com.)

50 Years of Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte:

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George Rose, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Kevin Kline in The Pirates of Penzance, 1980
Photo by Martha Swope/ŠThe New York Public Library