2012 Jul 28

The Leafy Tale of the Princess and the Queen

Both Donna Murphy, who plays the Witch, and Amy Adams, the Baker’s Wife, in the Public Theater’s revival of “Into the Woods” — Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical based on stories from the Grimm brothers — have solid fairy-tale credentials. Ms. Adams was Giselle in “Enchanted,” the 2007 Disney movie about a cartoon princess who springs to real life in New York City. Ms. Murphy, in “Tangled,” the 2010 animated version of the Rapunzel story, was Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s abductor. She also tried out for the role of the Witch in the 1987 premiere of “Into the Woods,” losing out, after several callbacks, to Bernadette Peters.

But the director of the current show, Timothy Sheader, an Englishman, was only dimly aware of those connections. He had to be reminded that Ms. Adams had some musical theater in her background and hired her mostly because she is a movie star with three Oscar nominations on her résumé. He hired Ms. Murphy for the reason any sane person would: because she is a legendary Broadway performer and a Sondheim veteran (a Tony winner for her performance in “Passion”) whom Ben Brantley of The New York Times once called a “superwoman.”

Mr. Sheader is artistic director of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theater in London, the rough equivalent of our Shakespeare in the Park. This production of “Into the Woods,” with Liam Steel as co-director, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through Aug. 25, is a version of what he staged in London last summer: as far as anyone knows, that was the first time “Into the Woods” had played in real woods, or among real greenery, anyway. In New York it takes place on a multilevel treehouse of a set and makes unusual physical demands of the cast members, who run up and down stairs and ladders.

Mr. Sheader said recently that though he knew Ms. Murphy’s recordings, he had only seen her once, in last year’s “People in the Picture,” a musical in which she played both an old woman and her younger self and aged during the show from 30 to 70 and back again. That performance sold Mr. Sheader, who said: “I was drawn to her physical choices. I loved the way she probed and inhabited that character.”

“For the Witch,” he added, “I wanted someone who could mine the depths of the part and show the journey of the character. And of course, I wanted someone who could sing it.”

As for Ms. Adams, who is making her New York stage debut, Mr. Sheader knew her almost entirely from her movie work and especially “The Fighter,” in which she played Mark Wahlberg’s tough-talking girlfriend. “She’s one of those American actresses that people in England are drawn to because of their style,” he said. “I like to do something different, and she felt like an exciting choice. The thing about these outdoor productions is that the time commitment is short enough that sometimes you can get people who might not otherwise be available.”

The short schedule also means not much time for rehearsal. “Into the Woods” is a complicated show, with a large cast and several plots taking place at once, and the actors had just four weeks to get ready. They worked in a rehearsal hall off Times Square and not long ago moved to the Delacorte, where they alternately sweltered and were pelted with rain. At the end of the first day outside, Ms. Adams said, she “looked like someone who had gone on summer vacation and it went very, very wrong.”

While still indoors they worked for close to an hour one morning on the important scene in Act II when several of the characters, including the Witch and the Baker’s Wife, confront an angry giant (in the recorded voice of Glenn Close) demanding that Jack, who has killed her husband, be turned over to her. Ms. Murphy, 53, is famously meticulous in her preparation, and wearing a long black dress and white overblouse, her long auburn hair perfectly parted in the middle, she radiated a force field of stillness and concentration. When she sang the plaintive “Witch’s Lament,” about her inability to protect Rapunzel, she held nothing back. Her cry filled the hall.

Ms. Adams was wearing boots and baggy paratrooperlike pants, her hair pulled into a ponytail. Though she is 37, she could have been mistaken for a stage-struck teenager. At Mr. Sheader’s suggestion she tried various ways of saying “Oh, no!” when coming upon the giant, her striking blue-green eyes seeming to widen on cue.

“They both work very differently,” Mr. Sheader said. “The Witch is a bit of an outsider’s part, and Donna has done a lot of work on her own and a lot of work with Liam. Amy has spirit and chutzpah and a desire to succeed, and if you think about it, that’s the character as well. She and the Baker are the two most human figures here.”

Chip Zien, who is the Mysterious Man in this production, was the Baker in the 1987 premiere. He has, in effect, become his own father in the show, and he has a long perspective on it. Referring to Mr. Lapine, he said: “Back then James was having a child, and I had just had my kids, and the show seemed very much about being a parent: What do we do with our kids? How do we raise them, can we protect them?” He added: “It still is about that, of course, but now we have this young cast who were in the show in college or in theater school. I see them asking questions that never even occurred to me. It’s a little embarrassing.”

Like several people he pointed out that in rehearsal Ms. Murphy never marks, or walks through a bit, to save her voice and her resources. “She’s incapable of that,” he said. “It’s all fully realized, fully energized. She’s very particular about every detail.”

About Ms. Adams, he said: “She has a really charming voice, and she’s filled with a spunky warmth. I could be wrong, but my sense is that acting is easy for her. Maybe she goes home at night and really worries, but I don’t see it. She doesn’t stew a lot about how this is going to happen or whether it’s going to work. Let me put is this way: She’s not Jewish.”

That Ms. Adams can sing and dance is no news to anyone who saw her in “Enchanted.” She worked for years on the dinner theater circuit in Colorado and Minnesota before finally getting a few breaks in Hollywood. But sitting with Ms. Murphy in a tiny cinder-block dressing room at the Delacorte one recent afternoon, she said that though she had been working for months with a private singing coach, there were times during rehearsal when she had felt she was in way over her head. “It’s been 13 years since I was on a proper stage,” she said. “But at this level? I was never at this level. I was a dancer and a chorus girl.”

“I’ve had no formal training, and I can’t read music,” she said, laughing. Referring to Paul Gemignani, the music director, she added: “Paul will yell at me, ‘Amy, it’s in 12/8,’ and I’m like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ ”She went on: “This is a huge challenge for me, and it’s very humbling to see how talented everyone is and how hard they work. There were moments when I thought, ‘What have I got myself into?’ ”

Ms. Murphy said she had her own moments of doubt. “For me the clock usually goes off two or three weeks into the process, and I ask myself, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ It happens no matter how well-suited I think I am for a particular role.” In the case of “Into the Woods,” she went on, what happened was she remembered trying out for the part in 1987 and not getting it. “It seems like a distant memory, but I remember exactly what I wore to the audition, and I remember James’s direction.”

“I was disappointed,” she said, “but not surprised.”

Ms. Adams remarked that being part of an ensemble as large as that in “Into the Woods” was a little like belonging to a big family. “You guys all live in this world, and you’re all so gifted,” she said, her eyes welling. “That’s why I feel so much pressure. I feel like you deserve a top-of-the-line performance. I owe you all a huge debt of gratitude, and I don’t take it lightly.”

Ms. Murphy smiled and said, “You were very well prepared, and you bring an openness and a work ethic that is very conducive to all the work we’re doing.”

Ms. Adams shook her head. The difference in work ethic, she explained, is that Ms. Murphy works full out all the time. “I would be on the floor needing to be revived if I did what she did,” she said. “I can learn a lesson from her. I tend to work from a much more touchy-feely place: Let me find it. Let me see it. Sometimes I don’t know what my performance is until it’s happening, and then I see it and I feel it.” She laughed. “That scares people. It scares directors.”

She went on to say that what appealed to her about acting onstage, instead of on screen, was the chance to do a performance from beginning to end. “I wanted to take responsibility,” she said. “I wanted my performance not to be up to an editor.” She added: “I don’t know how it will go over with an audience, but what I wanted to get out of this, I’ve already gotten. I wanted to take on a challenge that seemed insurmountable. I wanted to do something I didn’t think I could do.”


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