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Into the Woods

Into the Woods: Designer Statements

Posted on: January 28th, 2015 by Roundabout

 

With only 10 actors, one piano and boundless imagination, this witty and wildly theatrical re-invention is Into the Woods like you’ve never seen it before! The creative team share their vision for the musical below.

Derek McLane, Set Design
When Fiasco approached me, they said they didn’t want a forest, but they needed a container to put the show into. I felt I needed to create some abstract version of the woods. So I thought: What if it was all inside a piano? Upstage, there’s a giant exploded piano harp, with hundreds and hundreds of piano strings in different layers, going from bass strings to treble strings. They’re over-scaled, but they’re laid out in a way that’s very true to the pattern and angle of the strings you would find in a grand piano. On the sides of the stage are a number of stripped-down piano harps. All of this is open so everything can be lit-through—which is part of what gives it that evocation of the woods, even though nothing looks like the woods.

In a funny way, Sondheim’s work—some of those shows have been done so many times that it’s almost like doing a classic. There’s such a long history of significant productions, so you actually feel an obligation to try something original. It would be a wasted opportunity not to. (This quote was originally printed in American Theatre Magazine and is used by permission)

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Photo by Joan Marcus

Christopher Akerlind, Lighting Design
Derek McLane’s idea that he has created a container for this Into the Woods is so interesting to me. I like to think that my best work has simply allowed a play, musical, or opera to happen, rather than having decorated or added literal interpretation of atmosphere to it. This is what I think of as Elizabethan lighting; a tribute to the idea that Shakespeare and his company created 38 or so great plays with next to nothing but text and performance. Though new to this production and the Fiasco folks, I’ve felt an immediate aesthetic kinship in our pre-production conversations. The lighting will have less color and fewer artificial textures than in typical musical theatre productions. I’ll be looking for simple gestures that frame, enhance, and caress these hardworking performers.

Whitney Locher, Costume Design
Audience members familiar with other productions of Into the Woods will probably notice right away that certain characters and elements are missing from this production, most notably the Narrator character, who is replaced by all of the cast members taking turns as storytellers. Because it is the actor’s role as storyteller at the heart of Fiasco’s approach to every project they undertake, it is my job as costume designer to enable each actor to transition quickly and easily into different characters with the simple addition or subtraction of such things as a hat, cape, or jacket.

Conceptually, this piece has been set in an attic of memory — filled with objects that could have come down through several generations. The costumes combine modern and period elements to capture a similar feeling of existing somewhere in between the Edwardian era and now. The color palette has been kept intentionally neutral so that the pops of color in added garments provide some fairy tale flair. It has always been imperative in my collaborations with Fiasco that the actors are never hidden or overwhelmed by the costumes and that my work helps to support and enhance their performances.

 

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Darron L West, Sound Design

For the Sound Design of Into the Woods, the early discussions of how we were going to re-imagine it centered around the desire to make a chamber piece, but would utilize simple storytelling with only the things we absolutely needed to tell our story and to have the company of actors provide all the sound effects and music in the show. In the early creative stages, the rehearsal hall was filled with things you might find in your grandmother’s attic or an old, dusty music store. Piles of instruments and odd things that make noise were scattered around the room. The instruments and items that appear on stage in the production are the ones that made the cut from the early days of rehearsals. Many of the actors are also musicians, so Into the Woods has been re-scored using mostly portable instruments. The entire score is performed with piano, guitar, cello, banjo, toy piano, bassoon, bells, autoharp, and French horn. Even “Little Red,” Emily Young, dusted off her trumpet to have on hand for the princes’ fanfare moments in the show. As rehearsals progressed, it was clear that we needed a textured tonal instrument to assist in the Witch’s magic moments. So I brought my water-phone into rehearsal, which became a major element for the magic sounds throughout the production. It’s a beautiful handmade brass instrument with metal tines attached to a brass bowl that is filled with water, and the tines are bowed like a violin.

Along with the traditional instruments, there are a countless number of sound effect makers manipulated by the cast in the show: coconut halves (for the princes’ horses’ hooves, of course), various small whistles, and water pipes for the bird sounds you hear as they advise Cinderella in the story. From the start, we knew that the piano would be the major musical element driving the production, and the piano score of Into the Woods is very lush on its own. Not to mention the extraordinary arrangements that Matt Castle did with the cast. Even the set on stage is a giant instrument and played frequently during the production. The giant piano harp walls have been rigged with contact microphones that pick up the vibration of the strings and, during the show, the strings of the harp walls are struck with any manor of things: mallets, drumsticks, metal pipes, guitar picks, sticks and even the actors’ elbows. A fun fact about the piano harp walls is that on average it takes close to seven hours to complete the tuning before our technical rehearsals can even begin.


Into the Woods is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Into the Woods, Uncategorized, Upstage


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ITW-0003M-StandardArtFiles-300x300pxThis week Into the Woods, a new production of the classic musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this time re-invented by the team from Fiasco Theater begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre.

Roundabout has a long and happy history with the work of Stephen Sondheim, having collaborated with him on some truly thrilling projects: the first Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures, the biographical Sondheim on Sondheim, and even the renaming of the Henry Miller’s Theatre for this great artist. But while I love the original works themselves, what I have come to admire about Steve in recent years is his willingness to let the next generation of artists try their hand at creating new visions for some of his most iconic pieces. He would have every right to be protective of his best-known work, but instead, Steve has seen the rewards in allowing his shows to be approached through new eyes. Productions like Joe Mantello’s vibrant, Tony-winning Assassins or Sam Buntrock’s technology-infused Sunday in the Park with George wouldn’t be possible without Steve’s own excitement for seeing what a fresh perspective may bring.

If you’ve had the good fortune to see their Cymbeline or Measure for Measure, you’ll know that Fiasco Theater is one of the most exciting groups to appear on New York stages in recent years. They have an ensemble-driven energy that forefronts performance and makes for decidedly unfussy productions, stripping shows down to their emotional cores and making use of the natural elements around them. When Fiasco’s directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld wanted to step away from Shakespeare and try their hand at a musical for the first time, they landed on Into the Woods as a perfect match for their aesthetic. I know that many artists wouldn’t even entertain the idea of letting a young group like this play with their work, but thanks to the open minds of Sondheim and Lapine, a truly stunning new production came to life.

With an ensemble of 10 actors, all playing a variety of instruments on stage, this Into the Woods is a beautiful new take on a beloved piece. As characters from different fairy tales connect, each has a unique sound, from brassy princes to a guitar-driven Jack and his beanstalk. Wonderful touches of ingenuity abound, with a taxidermy wolf, sheet music birds, and a surprisingly evocative cow bell. When a feather duster can become a hen and curtains can turn into two terrible stepsisters, we are in a world where imagination drives storytelling, and anything can happen.

I’m so proud to be working with the artists from Fiasco and to be sharing this incredible new take on Into the Woods with you. I think it’s a truly special production, and I hope that it will be as memorable for you as I have found it to be. I’m eager to hear your thoughts, so please email me at artisticoffice@roundabouttheatre.org to share your feedback.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

Sincerely,

Todd Haimes
Artistic Director


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, From Todd Haimes, Into the Woods


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Interview with Music Director: Matt Castle

Posted on: December 15th, 2014 by Ted Sod

 

ITW-0003M-StandardArtFiles-150x150pxEducation Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews the Directors of Into the Woods.

Ted Sod: Will you tell us where you were born and educated, and how you got involved in the theater as a music director?

Matt Castle: I was born in Sacramento, California and lived there until age 17. I attended University of the Pacific for my undergraduate degree. I was in the music conservatory there, so almost all my classes outside general ed were music. I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I did music education because it seemed somehow legitimate to have a statement of career goal inherent in the curriculum. I took two years off, and then still not knowing, I went to grad school for a master's in composition at Northern Illinois, University of Illinois. I was 28 by the time I moved to New York. I came here to be an actor. As is the case with many actors when they first move to New York, I had a limited resume – community theatre and college shows. And I had no idea what was involved in being an actor in New York, so it took me a few months to figure out how to get a head shot and how to put together some form of a resume. I started taking whatever work I could get, and that included playing piano, which is what I had been doing for a living since I was in high school. It turns out that my experience as an actor, director, writer and teacher all came in handy in the work that I do as a music director.


TS:  Tell us what the music director does on this particular production of Into the Woods?

MC:  It started as one thing, and it expanded into something else. The Fiasco folks knew as we went into production at the McCarter Theatre that they needed someone who was sufficiently strong as a piano player to hold up the show just with his two hands. It turned out that I would need to be able to reduce what I see on the page down to something that's playable by one person. And it is not easy to do full service to the music with just two hands on the keys. So, that was one prong of my job. The other was to interact with the actors because everyone in the room in a Fiasco show is involved with the table work. Since I'm also an actor and understand what they're doing as actors, I can be a full participant in the table work and had a lot to contribute there.

And, moreover, I can translate what is happening in the music as text, non-verbal text, into something usable for the actors. It’s just a musical/analytical tool that I have.

Matt Castle

Matt Castle


TS: Is there any other instrumentation? I've seen other shows of Fiasco, and many in the company play instruments.

MC: The part of the show that has expanded the most is the instrumental component. When we started at the McCarter, we had a permission slip to work on a piano-based version of the show, with the addition of other instruments where we might deem necessary, with the proviso that we do not use any orchestral material known to have been created by Jonathan Tunick. We could not do service to Jonathan Tunick's work without doing it in toto.

The more I learned about what the actors could do, the more inspired I got about the ways we could use instruments. The show is not fully, utterly re-orchestrated, but my husband and I are both engaged on the show as co-orchestrators. We're there to oversee and approve the use of instruments in the show however they're going to be used. For instance, we have an actor who plays cello very well, and an actor who plays bassoon very well, and more than one actor who plays guitar well. All three of those instruments appear fairly frequently in the show, and then we have a number of pianists. So while they don’t ever come to share the keys with me -- at least not in the two productions that we've done so far -- their piano skills are still useful in other parts of the show.

The set is made partly of old piano harps that have been mounted on walls. And they are tuned by our sound designer, Darron West, so that if you hit them they make a noise. Darron’s treated them with microphones. People can make all kinds of musical sounds, which contributes to the sound of the show.


TS: Is it complicated wearing both hats, playing the show and musically directing? Or is that something you’ve done often
?

MC: It is a thing I've done more often than not.


TS: Did Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine see the show? Did they give you any specific notes?

MC: Stephen and James both saw the show, and they both were warmly enthusiastic with what we had done, but they didn’t take part in the rehearsal process. The artistic directors of Fiasco had a meeting with Lapine before we began rehearsal at the McCarter, and they got a clear sense from him of what he would and would not be okay with. Sondheim did reach out to me directly and approved the changes that we had made to the score: cuts, changes of feel, changes of vocal range, changes of vocal arrangements in some of the choral moments. We never tamper with melody or melodic contour. We never tamper with the accompanying harmony. Beyond that, we're limited by how much counterpoint we can achieve with my two hands and the other instruments that we have on stage.


TS:  Can you give us a flavor for how you collaborated with Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the co-directors?

MC: I will try.   The reality of how the rehearsal room works is it is democratic in terms of the airing of ideas, brainstorming for how to stage things, discussion of what characters are doing, what is happening in a scene. People who are not in a particular scene make observations about what is going on, a change that they saw somebody try and what was interesting about it, what maybe didn’t work about it. That's not a dynamic that will work for every show and every group of actors. But with this particular cast it is brilliantly successful, and very stimulating. It's the most fully participating room of actors I've ever been in, which is really saying something.


TS: So when they decided to bring some people in from outside the company – the understudies, for instance -- were you involved in that casting process?

MC: I was involved. I also went through a process of being vetted, interviewed, tried out, and then ultimately hired. I was outside the company until I became part of it. So I've had experience with Fiasco from both sides of the audition table, so to speak.

Casting understudies was a challenge. Of course, hiring understudies for a show that's already happened is always a challenge. Because what we do in our production has become so connected to the specific abilities of our 10 actors, finding four actors who can cover them reasonably well is a daunting task. The instrumental aspect of the show has been the one that had to give way. If we can't find someone who plays this instrument for this role, especially the bassoon that Liz Hayes plays (she plays Jack's mother), then we'll have to come up with another solution. We're creative people; we'll come up with something.


TS: Can you talk about playing Sondheim? Is this the first time you’ve played a score of his?

MC: I’ve played many of his shows. His music is made with such integrity of purpose, such excellence of craft and such passion for the story that it is rewarding to play every time. At home alone, in a piano bar, on a Broadway stage -- it is always rewarding to play. His writing is layered and multi-faceted, and he takes great care to make sure that everything is there and works on every level. All I have to do is remember that I am the luckiest person in the world because I am on stage playing his music.


TS: Is there a part of the score you love playing every night?

MC: There are a few parts that stand out. Some of them stand out because it was so challenging to reduce the intricate orchestral arrangements. That's the case with “Your Fault” and “Last Midnight.” Then the ones where we've transformed the music in some kind of way like “Hello, Little Girl” and “Giants in the Sky” -- the way we use the instruments and the way we characterize the music is not what people are accustomed to. The whole show feels like playing chamber music, which it literally is because there are one to 10 singers, one to 11 singers including me. Everybody has an essential part to contribute. We collaborated on this and made it together.


TS: What rarely-seen musicals you would like to music direct and/or conduct?

MC: City of Angels. The Secret Garden. Once Upon a Mattress. Mame. I love those shows.


TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who might want to be a music director?

MC: Learn to play piano, improvise, become a singer. Understand how to harmonize your voice to somebody else's. Understand how singers sing and how they learn. Understand other instruments and the jobs that other people do in the theatre. Regard music as text and devote yourself to the study of how musical text serves character, emotion and story.


Into the Woods begins previews December 18 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Into the Woods, Upstage


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