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“Into the Woods”: Once Upon a Time at Dr. Phillips

(L to R) Jason Forbach and Gavin Creel. Photo by Mike Smith

If you took part in a high school theater program in the past few years, chances are you have performed either “Beauty and the Beast,” “Addams Family” or “The Little Mermaid.” Coming in at a close number four is the emotionally complex and musically challenging Stephen Sondheim classic “Into the Woods.”

Now playing at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts through June 11, it felt like the entire opening night audience had either performed in the show or binge-watched the movie. Never has an audience been so thoroughly engaged and enthusiastic. And who would blame them? It’s not often that the actual Broadway cast takes the show on the road. To have the Dr. Phillips stage packed with so many Broadway A-listers is a rarity and one reason why the audience was packed to the rafters.

Another rarity is scoring an interview with Broadway star Gavin Creel, who plays the dual role of the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince. We caught up with Creel while he was on the road in Nashville.

Gavin Creel Photo by Mike Smith

Thank you for your time today, Gavin. It’s a joy to talk to you. 

It’s my pleasure.

I understand you’re playing Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf.

Yes, that’s me.

What a fantastic duo role you’ve got there. I know this question is cliché, but I have to ask, which is your favorite role?

The Prince. Sometimes I forget I was ever the Wolf, you know. The show finishes and then I’m thinking, “Oh yeah, I did that earlier.”

I love playing the Wolf, but it’s basically just two scenes. It’s really quick. I’m grateful and glad that I get to do both roles because it’s just fun to start off as one and finish as the other. But I love playing the Prince. I love the daffiness of him. I love the chance to have a bit of physical and vocal variety. It’s a lot of fun to play.

They’re both fabulous roles.

Thank you (laughing). I’m thanking you as if I wrote the roles. Thank you, Steve. Thank you, James Lapine.

You were a member of the original company. What was the process like for the entire cast, bringing this to Broadway so soon after the passing of the composer Stephen Sondheim?

Yes, it was an amazing process. We had the best time starting at The City Center. We thought it was going to be ten days of rehearsals and ten days of performances. It came together quickly; I’ve never seen a show come together so quickly. It sold out like crazy at The City Center, so we wanted to give more people the opportunity to see it.

The Company of Into the Woods Photo by Mike Smith

So, you moved the production to Broadway.

Yes, and once we finished the Broadway run, 99% of us went on the road, which never happens. It’s not something that is done as often, or ever anymore, that a closing company on Broadway would go on the road.

What do you think was the incentive to go on tour?

I think it has a lot to do with our love for the show and our being watched over by Steve. Frankly, the pandemic has changed me personally. I think a lot of us really appreciate it when you’ve got a good thing. Employment doesn’t look the same as it did before, and we appreciate it more, all of us.

That’s an interesting point, the changes brought about by COVID. Have you noticed a change in your audiences?

I feel that audiences aren’t the same as they were before, that they’re hungrier and more responsive in ways that I didn’t expect because it’s a beautiful show. But it’s Sondheim; it can be complicated. It’s a quasi- children’s story, and it can be viewed as children’s theater in some ways, even though it’s more complex than that.

We’re in Nashville right now, and we were wondering, “What will Nashville think of the show?” We’ve been all over the country, and these have been some of the loudest crowds right here in Nashville. I can only imagine that Orlando audiences will lose their minds. I hope they do. 

People have a genuine love and reverence for “Into the Woods.” Why do you think audiences connect with this story?

Truly, there’s this neat thing that happens with time. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 47 years old, but inside I feel so much younger. The older I get, the people I thought were old when I was younger are just like me. We’re all just kids inside.

When I was in high school, “Into the Woods” for me was a cd I got from the library. I listened to it and fell in love with “Giants in the Sky,” “Agony” and “Your Fault.” All the words and the music, I was enchanted by listening to it. The show had just opened four to five years prior.

The truth is, “Into the Woods” is 30-plus years old now. I think back to when I was in high school; the old-fashioned musicals to me felt like they had been cracked out of the magma of the earth, that they were just always there. But technically, they were less old than “Into the Woods” is now.

For example, “Camelot” was written in the 40s and 50s, when musical theater was becoming an art form. It was when Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing their classics. We call them classics, and we call them dusty or out of touch because they don’t speak to a modern audience.

I think one of the biggest factors that “Into the Woods” has existed in the American music theater canon for almost 35 years is the fact that people remember it; they did it in high school; they did it in community theater or saw the movie or watched the Bernadette Peter’s version—it’s just been in our language for so long.

I understand this production has been refreshed, yet it is true to the original version.

Exactly. What’s great about our production, it has a modern wink. Starting off as a concert at City Center, we didn’t have crazy sets and costumes and things like that. Everything is played in one. The orchestra is on stage. It was a concert, so we’re actually going back to what made the piece great in the first place, which was me listening to that cd from the library.

It’s the music that sits forward. The lyrics sit forward. James Lapine’s story sits forward. We’re giving you the material as clearly and as colorfully and as boldly as we can. And that’s what I think makes our production special. It calls on the nostalgia, but then it strips everything away and sits right in front of you and says, “Remember how wonderful this was?”

L to R Gavin Creel and Stephanie J Block Photo by Mike Smith

Written by T. Michele Walker

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