On Thursday, April 23rd, Lyric Theatre will present its production of Stephen Sondheim’s popular musical Into the Woods. Under the direction of New York director Jessi D. Hill, the show will run only one weekend, closing April 26th with a matinee.
I had the opportunity to sit down with actor Maggie Blackburn, who portrays fairy tale princess Rapunzel. Here is her take on the rehearsal process and how to make fairy tales real.
Smile Politely: When did you audition?
Blackburn: I don’t remember exactly, but it was right before Christmas during first semester, so they got it done ahead of time. For me it was awesome because then you knew the results before Christmas break — so you could deal with the results if they were bad, or start learning material for some of the larger roles. They planned it out well. They used to do just one audition for all three shows in the beginning of the school year; so, if you had a bad audition, you didn’t get cast in anything. So I think this is a much better set-up.
SP: When did you start rehearsing?
Blackburn: We actually overlapped our coaching during The Merry Widow; so, when we were in tech week for The Merry Widow, we started coaching for Into the Woods. They got a jump start on the coaching because our director couldn’t get in until the Monday after The Merry Widow closed, so we needed to get started quickly. The minute she got there, though, it was very much a “let’s go” situation; within two days, we were staging things and getting everything set up
SP: Have you been enjoying the rehearsals?
Blackburn: I love it. Our director is really good about trying not to waste our time. It can be a bit tricky, because Rapunzel and the Prince’s parts are kind of spaced out, so there have been a couple times we’ve had to sit around for an hour, but then I’m able to do my homework. And with that, if we’re not needed, she’ll get us out of there, because there’s no point in keeping people around if they’re not needed. She’s also trying to do everything in order, which is really nice because it gives us a feeling for where things happen.
It’s been a really fun process because she’s really looking for a more honest acting point, which I thought was a really interesting take on it. A lot of people think that, if it’s with Lyric Theater, all of the focus will be on the music, but she’s focusing on the acting, and then music comes second. She really wants this to make this more realistic; at first I was confused because I wasn’t sure how you could make fairy tales more realistic, but I’ve discovered that you really have to study the part and come from an organic mindset. Like, with Rapunzel, if I was her and I was locked up in a tower, how would I feel? A lot of people have portrayed her as ditzy, but to me she’s just bored out of her mind and naïve because she’s been locked up in a tower for 18 years. She doesn’t know what goes on in the world.
SP: Is it hard to portray the range of emotion that Rapunzel experiences?
Blackburn: Sometimes. Since it’s so back-and-forth, you have to be committed to it, and I’m still trying to figure out when it clicks for her and what word or action prompts her to go from sad or angry. It’s a really tricky role; people wouldn’t think it would be, but it is. Rapunzel will come out screaming, but then you have to ask yourself, “Why is she screaming before she even comes out on stage?,” so you have to create a context in your head before you go on stage. It’s important to find some sort of motivation for what you’re singing because, if you don’t, you’re just singing. And if you feel silly about it, you look silly, so context is really important.
SP: This sounds like a very introspective process. Is that difficult for you?
Blackburn: It’s a trick, and I’m still working through it. Sometimes I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing, but that’s where the director comes in and gives you direction about what she thinks is happening. Sometimes it does get overwhelming, though.
SP: Have you been in plays and musicals throughout college?
Blackburn: Yeah. I auditioned my freshman year, just on a whim to see if I could get in the chorus of one of the shows, and I actually ended up getting into all three shows. Ever since then I’ve tried to at least be in the chorus of shows because, even in the chorus, it forces me to be more organic and [imagine] that this is real life. But now I’m in the spot where I think I’m far enough along that I’m ready to start getting bigger roles, and Rapunzel’s been a great transition. It’s been an easy transition, too, from a chorus member to Rapunzel. Since it’s not a super large role, I don’t feel like this is The Maggie Show, which would have felt uncomfortable. I really am enjoying this part right now.
SP: Is there anything you wish was going differently with yourself or your cast members?
Blackburn: It’s kind of tricky. At first I was wondering why I would be called from 5-6 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., and not just block it all at once; now I like the idea now of going in order and really getting the feel for how the show is progressing. For my castmates, I guess I just want them to really commit to their roles. We’re all still looking at our books, and it’s a bit all-over-the-place, so once that’s fixed it’ll go more smoothly. I don’t think I’d change anything right now, which is perfect because usually I’m like, “This could go better.” I think it’s been a really good process because we hit the ground running so there was no time to think about all the in-betweens.
SP: When is your tech week?
Blackburn: It’s usually a week before the show, but sometimes they’ll have it a week-and-a-half if we’re running really on schedule. The week of the show we usually have the Monday off and then we run Tuesday through Sunday. Those are very long weeks because you’ll sit there from 6-11 in the theater, so it’s very tedious but so necessary. Tech week is a bittersweet sort of thing because we get to see the props and we get to see how everything looks on stage, but at the same time it’s exhausting. All you’ll hear is “Hold please,” and they’ll fix things, and then you’ll go another ten seconds and you’ll hear “Hold please” again. It’s hard to keep your energy up because you’re standing around for the majority of rehearsal.
SP: In what ways do you think the show is different from the movie?
Blackburn: They changed a lot [for the movie] because, in the movie, they keep Rapunzel alive — which doesn’t happen in the show. The show is much darker, and I think they made the movie lighter because kids went to go see the movie, and you don’t want to scar them for life. Disney’s never been great at not killing people though, so they probably could’ve kept her death in because there’s a lot of deaths that happen in the second act. The narrator, the Baker’s Wife, Rapunzel, and Jack’s mother all die, and it doesn’t make sense for the Witch’s song in the second act to be about her daughter because she’s just generally lamenting about children not listening. It takes on a much deeper meaning, though, if she’s staring right were Rapunzel just got killed, so it’s going to bring a whole different light to it because her kid didn’t listen, and she died, so it’s a much more poignant message.
Also, in the show Rapunzel sings a little bit more than she did in the movie. The show has so many hidden messages and themes going on, and one little detail overlooked changes the whole shift of the show. In one of Jack’s songs he’s singing about giants in the sky and how they’re big and terrible and wonderful, and at one point when he’s singing he talks about how she feeds him and loves him, and he has this brief pause where he’s realizes that he’s never had that from his own mother. So, even though they’re these terrible giants, they’re more of a mother to him than his own mother; and there’s those little nuances that, if you overlook them, it completely changes the character. Because you don’t necessarily see him as this little boy anymore. I love the show because every time you look at a different aspect of it, there are different things you notice. My goal is to make the audience feel what we’re feeling and be able to relate to us because the show is wonderful, and we want to them to have the same effect that we did.
Our director is also taking a totally different perspective and making it modern. Little Red’s cloak is more of a raincoat and not a cloak. She’s a total feminist too; so she doesn’t think the witch has to be ugly and that she can be cool and evil. She’s also taking it from the perspective that the narrator is telling the entire story, so he’s the one controlling some of the cues as the characters start to develop their own ideas and morals. She’s really focused on how can we take it from the movie and make it different from what other people have done. Like, they’re doing things when the giant crashes down [so that] the audience should feel it under their seats, and there’s going to be a lot of illusions. It’s going to be amazing, I’m so excited for it to open.
SP: So, in terms of marketing, is the show more for teenagers and adults?
Blackburn: I would say so. The first act is funny and standard Into the Woods, but it’s definitely an older show because there are a lot of innuendoes. With Little Red and the Wolf it’s so creepy; and, as an adult, you’re literally cringing inside you feel so uncomfortable. Then in the second act everyone gets their wish, but then the giants come and everything comes crashing down, and you see that getting your wish isn’t always exactly what you want. There’s a lot of adult themes, like when the Baker’s Wife cheats on her husband with the prince; as a kid you can just gloss over that, but as an adult you can’t. Being in college, you really get to dig in and look at all those themes, and they all hit you differently because we’re all going through things like that. People get cheated on all the time, have their hearts broken and even die, so the message in the show about how you’re not alone is a really comforting one. This is a good show for kids our age because there are still some funny parts but also parts that make it more mature and help us as performers at this age to grow a lot. When you’re older, you’ve got that experience and can try to dig deep and make those emotions happen for yourself, and that can make you a better singer, actor, or whatever you’re trying to be.
Into the Woods will be performed at Krannert Center’s Tryon Festival Theater. Performance dates are April 23-25, at 7 p.m., and April 26th at 3 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased here.