Into the Woods

Milky White: One Cow, Many Visions

Posted on: March 9th, 2015 by Roundabout


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.

Original Broadway production

Original Broadway production


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 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.”

Into the Woods Public Theater/Delacorte Theater

From The Public Theater production, 2012. Photo:

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.

Andy Grotelueschen, Liz Hayes and Patrick Mulryan

Andy Grotelueschen, Liz Hayes and Patrick Mulryan from Fiasco Theater.


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.

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

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Ensemble-Based Theatre Companies

Posted on: February 9th, 2015 by Roundabout


Steppenwolf Photo 1

Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Illinois


“In general, our culture is trained to honor the individual genius. But there is such a thing as group genius which is built from the notion that the group can create something entirely unique and powerful and which is distinct from what the individual can create. And it is from this that the ensemble model is built.”
-Theresa Chavez, Artistic Director of About Productions, from the 2003 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference



Ensemble-based theatre cannot be cleanly defined. For some companies, the ensemble of artists may change from production to production; for others, a core group of collaborators may always remain the same. Some ensemble companies create work based around a consistent theme, or directed towards a consistent demographic, or told through a consistent set of storytelling mechanisms or aesthetic principles. Some companies devise work from scratch, though the concept of “devised” work is as difficult to define as the concept of ensemble theatre. Some companies create work based on an established text. And some companies (like Fiasco Theater) create work that retains all of the original text but reinterprets its style of presentation.

What ensemble theatre has in common, across its many forms, is a communal, artist-centered approach to theatre-making, in which traditional roles (writer, designer, dramaturg, actor, director) emerge out of the creative process (or not at all) rather than being rigidly imposed upon it. Though a hierarchical structure may eventually take shape (in fact, many ensemble-based companies cite the importance of one directorial vision), the collaborators in an ensemble company often wear many hats, or different hats at different steps in the process. Time is also an important part of the ensemble process: while “traditional” theatre companies often devote only four to six weeks to rehearsal, ensemble-based companies may create a theatre piece over many months—or even years.

Below is a brief sampling of some well-known ensemble theatre companies. Each listing is accompanied by a snippet of the company’s mission statement or philosophy, evidence of the richly varied landscape of ensemble-based work—a landscape that, in the last half-decade, has been rapidly expanding throughout the United States.

Brooklyn, New York
“We combine aggressive athleticism with emotional performances and intellectual rigor, keeping the brain, eyes and heart of the audience constantly stimulated…We devise plays by examining a wealth of material, ranging from existing texts (fiction, theory, drama, etc.) to images taken from visual art and film, and then combining that research with original writing and staging.”
Notable Production: MISSION DRIFT

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Chicago, Illinois
“Steppenwolf’s artistic force remains rooted in the original vision of its founders: an artist-driven theater, whose vitality is defined by its sharp appetite for groundbreaking, innovative work.”
Notable Production: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Dog and Pony DC
Washington, DC
“We believe: The audience completes our ensemble. A highly collaborative, necessarily exhaustive and inefficient process ensures the most enduring ideas reach their fullest potential. The playfulness and generosity of the invitation to our collaborators amplifies the impact of the work.”
Notable Production: BEERTOWN

Elevator Repair Service
New York, New York
“ERS’s theater pieces are built around a broad range of subject matter and literary forms; they combine elements of slapstick comedy, hi-tech and lo-tech design, both literary and found text, and the group’s own highly developed style of choreography.”
Notable Production: GATZ

Lookingglass Theatre Company
Chicago, Illinois
“Lookingglass uses visual metaphor, gesture and daring theatricality to create transcendent staging. Fiction and non-fiction are converted into stage pieces. Actors are often required to play multiple characters outside their traditional range.”
Notable Production: LOOKINGGLASS ALICE

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, Upstage

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Sondheim on Creating Into the Woods

Posted on: February 4th, 2015 by Roundabout


The following is an excerpt from Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981 – 2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. Thank you to Alfred A. Knopf for allowing us to share the author’s insights with our audience.


9752_10152605170954983_8564591556323886762_nAfter the exhilaration of Sunday in the Park with George, I wanted immediately to write another show with James Lapine. I suggested that we write a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, the one movie musical I had loved in which the songs not only defined the characters and carried the story forward but were wonderful stand-alone songs as well. James replied that it would be frustratingly difficult to invent a fantasy quest that could sustain itself for two hours or more because there were too many possibilities: a shining irony when you consider that the last line of Sunday in the Park with George comes from the young artist looking at a blank canvas and exalting, “So many possibilities.” But indeed, how do you go about inventing a picaresque adventure peopled with fantastic creatures? When you have infinite choices and no point to make, every plot is possible and every character is arbitrary except for the principals. In Candide, for example, Voltaire had a simple moral observation to propound and tailored a plot to illustrate it, but the episodes are arbitrary (which is one reason the musical Candide has had no definitive script and score since its premiere in 1956). We had nothing we wanted to say, merely a desire for a form, which is not a good way to begin writing a play. (Content Dictates Form.)

Then James came up with the notion of inventing a fairy tale in the tradition of classic fairy tales, one that could be musicalized and fleshed out into a full evening, which excited us but died aborning. After a couple of tries, James realized that fairy tales, by nature, are short; the plots turn on a dime, there are few characters and even fewer complications. This problem is best demonstrated by every fairy-tale movie and TV show since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all of which pad the lean stories with songs and sidekicks and subplots, some of which are more involving than the interrupted story itself. And those are all less than two hours long. It seemed to be an insoluble, self-defining problem until we remembered something he’d concocted a year before when we were looking for a quick way to make a buck.

It was an idea for a TV special: a story involving TV characters from situation comedies (for example, Ralph and Alice Kramden, Archie and Edith Bunker, Mary Richards and Lou Grant, etc.) in a car accident which brings to the scene characters from the cop shows (T.J. Hooker, Joe Friday, Cagney and Lacey, etc.) who take them to the hospital where they are treated by Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby and Ben Casey, etc. I loved the idea and proposed to James that we write a brief treatment and sell it to Norman Lear, the most imaginative producer of such fare. Lear loved the idea, too, and declared he couldn’t wait to see the script. We explained that we weren’t interested in writing the script, just selling the idea. He in turn explained that he wasn’t interested in buying the idea, just in reading the script. This concluded our conversation. Now, in 1986, James came up with the notion of applying the TV idea to the Brothers Grimm. We would write a story in which the lives of famous fairy-tale characters would collide and intertwine in a mutual meeting ground, and where else but the woods, where so many of the stories take place? To weave them together, James invented his own fable, that of a Baker and his Wife, a pair who would go on a quest that would touch and involve such characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel, the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and, of course, a Wicked Witch. The pigs and Snow White got left behind in San Diego, where the show tried out, but the others remained to populate an olla podrida of (mostly) farcical and (finally) tragic events. We ate our cake and had it, too: it would be a fairy-tale quest.

And ah, the woods. The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wise or destroyed, and a major theme in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which is the book that everyone assumes we used as a source, simply because it’s the only book on the subject known to a wide public. But Bettelheim’s insistent point was that children would find fairy tales useful in part because the protagonists’ tribulations always resulted in triumph, the happily ever after. What interested James was the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings. (Dishonesty was something Bettelheim preferred not to deal with, as the posthumous revelations about his falsifying his academic credentials would seem to indicate.) James was also skeptical about the possibility of “happily ever after” in real life and wary of the danger that fairy tales may give children false expectations. As his play Twelve Dreams had demonstrated, he was drawn not to Bettelheim’s Freudian approach but to Carl Jung’s theory that fairy tales are an indication of the collective unconscious, something with which Bettelheim would be unlikely to agree. James and I talked about fairy tales with a Jungian psychiatrist and discovered that with the exception of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which apparently is native only to the British Isles, the tales we were dealing with exist in virtually every culture in the world, especially the Cinderella story. African, Chinese, Native American – there is even a contemporary Hebrew version in which Cinderella wants to dance at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

In inventing the story of “The Baker and His Wife,” James contributed his own cultural fairy tale, an American one. The Baker and his Wife may live in a medieval forest in a fairy-tale medieval time, but they are at heart a contemporary urban American couple who find themselves living among witches and princes and eventually giants. Cinderella gets transformed into a princess, Little Red (which is how we always referred to her) gets eaten by a wolf and comes back to life, Rapunzel gets rescued by a prince, but the Baker and his Wife are merely trying to earn a living and have a baby. Their concerns are quotidian, their attitudes prototypically urban: impatient, sarcastic, bickering, resigned – prototypical, except that they speak in stilted fairy-tale language and are surrounded by witches and princesses and eventually giants. This makes them funny and actable characters, and their contemporaneity makes them people the audience can recognize.

In any event, the gimmick – or, more respectably, the idea – of mashing the tales together gave us a form, much as gimmicks have done in the past (see Schnitzler’s La Ronde). If we were to focus on the consequences of the little transgressions each character makes in pursuit of his or her heart’s desire, it followed naturally that the first act would deal with the traditional telling of the tales up to the Happily and the second with the Ever After. The first would be farce, the second melodrama (still with laughs, of course). As I say, Content Dictates Form – or should.


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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