Director Gary Griffin goes 'Into the Woods' at Writers Theatre

“Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim's fairy tale-inspired musical opening next week at Writers Theatre, wasn't a show director Gary Griffin wanted to direct.

“It wasn't on my radar,” said the 10-time Joseph Jefferson Award winner who helmed Broadway's “The Color Purple” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.”

The popular, oft-produced musical is a little too mainstream for Griffin, who favors more obscure Sondheim musicals like “Pacific Overtures,” which Griffin staged for Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2001 and later transferred to London where it won the Olivier Award for best musical.

Still, Griffin agreed to direct a 2015 revival of “Into the Woods” for the Saint Louis Municipal Opera Theatre partly because the 10,000-seat outdoor theater offered a unique environment in which to stage a musical about what happens after fairy tale characters have seemingly earned their happily ever after.

He hadn't intended to revisit the show until Writers Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam invited him to stage it. That it would be in the round - the Glencoe theater's first production so staged - and therefore more intimate further piqued his interest.

“I'm interested in making the show immersive,” he said. “I'm interested in making the audience feel they're in the woods with us.”

Returning to “Into the Woods,” Griffin, renowned for his masterful Sondheim interpretations, found a new appreciation for its message.

“It's always going to be relevant because it's about community and responsibility; parents and children,” said the Rockford native, who calls James Lapine's book of the musical a “marvel of construction.”

Some directors are disinclined to “brush the dust off” a play or musical, particularly if it was the subject of an iconic production in the past, said Halberstam, who's returning to the stage for the first time in 17 years to play The Narrator.

Not Griffin.

"I'm interested in making the show immersive," director Gary Griffin said of Writers Theatre's revival of "Into the Woods."

“Gary has a gift with American musicals,” Halberstam continued. “He understands the musical canon in practical terms and approaches it from a practical viewpoint.”

“He looks at huge, iconic musicals with the same vitality that (Tony Award winner) David Cromer looks at 'A Streetcar Named Desire,'” Halberstam said, referring to Cromer's 2010 Writers production. “He's got strong ideas how to stage them based on a deep understanding of the material. He's not subverting the intent of the author. On the contrary he's being respectful of the book, the score and the lyrics.”

During rehearsals, Griffin cautioned the cast about falling into the trap of creating cartoonish, two-dimensional characters and playing the laugh, “which belies the point of the musical,” said Halberstam, adding that if Sondheim and Lapine didn't want a second act (which is darker and more emotionally intense than the more lighthearted first act), they wouldn't have written one.

In a similar vein, Griffin finds the two princes especially intriguing. They didn't handpick their privileged lives: They were born into them, he said. And he wants to illuminate their struggles and the struggles of others forced into lives they didn't choose.

As for Griffin, he reports a renewed affection for the soul of this musical and the emotional connection it forges.

“To work on his (Sondheim's) material is to learn a lot and have a lot demanded of you,” he said.

“I'm grateful theaters are willing to produce these shows.”

“Into the Woods”

<b>Where:</b> Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or

<b>When:</b> 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 (except Aug. 17) and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. (except Aug. 18, Sept. 1 and 15) Sunday through Sept. 22

<b>Tickets:</b> $35-$80

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