Into the Woods is such a rich and appealing musical that many directors have been eager to put their own spin on it over the years. In these wildly different productions, all design elements have, of course, changed drastically from one vision to the next. But perhaps no singular aspect of the musical has seen as many distinct interpretations as the cow, Milky White. Here, we look at several takes on Jack’s loyal bovine pal and how they speak to the the vision for the production as a whole.
Original Broadway production, 1987
In director James Lapine’s original production of Into the Woods, Milky White was a hard, plastic cow, made to be about the actual size of the real animal. With sad eyes and ribs on display to show his hunger, he was a rather pitiful creature. This Milky White was also fairly static, with immobile limbs and a set of wheels on which he could be pulled. Only his jaw could move, which was handy when it came time to eat the magical items requested by the Witch. Helpfully, this Milky White was light, making him easy to pick up and run off with when needed. With little personality of his own, this original take on the cow was more of a prop than a participant, making Jack’s affection for his pet rather one-sided.
Broadway revival, 2002
With Lapine directing his own show once again, the Into the Woods librettist decided to take a distinctly different approach the second time around. In this interpretation, the show traded some of its darkness for a lighter touch, making the fairy tale piece friendlier to a young audience and casting younger actors as Jack and Little Red accordingly. But the biggest change was to Milky White. Critic Charles Isherwood wrote in Variety, “This revival...isn’t wholly dependent on its scene-stealing bovine for the new spring in its step, to be sure. But you could say that Chad Kimball’s nimble performance in this mute role...is emblematic of the way some minor tweaking has resulted in a major mood swing for this knotty musical.” In other words, Milky White had gone from solid plastic to dancing flesh, with actor Kimball fitted into a cow suit from costume designer Susan Hilferty that allowed for movement and expressiveness, giving the animal a new and memorable on-stage presence that gave the production an added dose of whimsy along with a delightfully deeper onstage bond between Jack and his old pal. As Isherwood went on to say, Kimball somehow “manages to imbue Milky White with almost human complexity of feeling, without benefit of even a single Sondheim lyric.”
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 2012
This revival played in the ideal setting of the outdoor Delacorte Theater under the direction of Timothy Sheader, who helmed an earlier version of the show in London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theater. Sheader’s vision presented Into the Woods as though the stories were being conjured from the imagination of a little boy who had run away from home and whose toys became the characters of these fairy tales. Keeping with this point of view, Milky White was depicted as a collection of brambles the boy might have seen forming a cow-like shape in the forest. He was given a slightly abstract cow’s head and was manipulated by an actor, from the puppetry design of Rachael Canning. While not as strongly present as the Chad Kimball cow, this puppet version still had an impact on audiences. One critic wrote, “There can never have been so anthropomorphically moving a Milky White as the sad, responsive cow Jack tugs around the stage.”
Fiasco Theater, 2014
In the current revival at the Laura Pels Theatre, the team from Fiasco has re-envisioned Into the Woods with a simplicity that allows clear storytelling to shine through. Stripped down to its basics, we are able to see the complexities of the piece with beautiful clarity, utilizing a smaller ensemble and a few key props that might be found discarded in any attic. Appropriately, this means that Milky White is not a big plastic prop, a puppet, or a scene-stealing, intricately-costumed man. Instead, he is simply one of the actors from the always-on-stage company, Andy Grotelueschen, who indicates that he is transforming into Milky White by adding a cow bell around his neck and an expression of concern for both his own fate and that of his dear Jack. Wordlessly, his face speaks volumes, with nothing more than honesty required, in a perfect example of the aesthetic that drives this production.
For more interpretations of Milky White, visit this page.
Into the Woods is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Into the Woods, Upstage