Interview: Evan Harrington Talks ‘Into The Woods’ at Peabody Opera House (2/19)
James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods‘ is coming to the Peabody Opera House for one day only – Sunday, February 19. The show features the critically acclaimed production from Fiasco Theatre, which played Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater off-Broadway. We had the pleasure of speaking with actor Evan Harrington about the show, as well as his Broadway career.
Into the Woods has been around for several decades, but Fiasco is known for putting a unique spin on even well-known shows. Evan says,
“Our production is sort of a bare-bones version of the show, in a sense, that normally the show is done with I think 17 actors – and were doing it with 11 actors. And we are functioning as the actors, the orchestra, the set movers – the whole thing. We are putting together the show in a space where actors are using the things around them to create the story, including each other and instruments that are in the area. We have a pianist playing the majority of music, but then I play guitar in the show, we have a cellist, and a bassoonist – who are also actors. And everybody else in the show pitches in on different instruments. Some people play trumpet; some people play glockenspiel; Some drums, and some cymbals. So it’s like all hands on deck, all the time.”
The Fiasco production played Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in New York off-Broadway, and was extended twice during its run.
“Fiasco is who would get the credit for the creation of the piece. I think those guys came about it because they are of theater company that does mostly classical theater – a lot of Shakespeare. And they decided that they wanted to put on musical. And what better musical to do than ‘Into the Woods,’ with such great text and great stories, and such great highs and lows throughout the story. So it sort of grew out of that. It grew out of it the idea of this company of actors – 11 actors – that already know each other for many years. They’ve all been a part of this company. We are re-creating the show that they created with an entirely new cast, so none of the original fiasco numbers are in the show at this point.”
On how he got the role in the show, Evan said,
“I auditioned, just like anybody else. I heard that they were doing it, and I have loved ‘Into the Woods’ since I was younger. I’ve seen many productions of it, and have been a part of a few myself. When I heard that they were doing that kind of stripped-down version, where the actors play the instruments and it’s all very creatively exciting, I definitely put my hat in the ring and said I’d like to be part of it. So we are in a few months later, and we’re still kicking it out here on the road.”
This production has the actors wearing many hats, but luckily Harrington has had plenty of practice.
“The last four shows I’ve been a part of, I’ve been playing an instrument, or also doing the same thing that this show does – which is create the show out of things in the room. I did a show called ‘Peter and the Star Catcher’ which was very similar as well – the actors make the story. It’s really intriguing and fun to me as an actor, and I think also to an audience it’s one of those things where they really like to see how we do things, and how we put it together. I think that ‘Once’ did that musically, and ‘Peter and the Star Catcher’ did that theatrically. And now this is kind of a combination of some of those things. Certainly I think that those shows prepared me for the shows I’ve been a part of – and certainly this one.”
In Once, Evan played Billy – the comedic bar owner.
“‘Once’ is one of my favorite projects I’ve been a part of in my life, that’s for sure.”
The first production of “Into the Woods” took place in 1986, at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The show made its Broadway debut in 1987. It was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three: Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress (Joanna Gleason).
“People remember it when they hear about it because they they loved it when they saw it the first time. Everybody tries to put their stamp on ‘Into the Woods,’ or Sondheim shows in general. People really like to revisit his work, and put their own kind of stamp on it. What’s unique about this production is that this is the first time I’ve seen the show completely flipped on its ear a little bit – and approached in a different way. I think people usually do ‘Into the Woods’ kind of straight-forward. They kind of bring it up, and they do the fairytale characters. And they think they have the fairytale set, and the costumes, and we are really making the audience use their imagination to see what we’re creating. And then we’ve established this language with them throughout the beginning of the piece; We set ourselves up for success for the rest of the show. It’s a very audience friendly, but different version. People who have seen it and have been telling me about it, say it’s so interesting to see what’s happening on stage. We never strip it all down; You can see what we do the whole time. We’re all on stage the entire show, and were all creating the sounds, the sites, the songs – everything. That’s what I think is really interesting about what ‘Into the Woods’ is doing now.”
Not everyone realizes that the classic Sondheim show has been around for so long.
“There are also people who who said to me, ‘Oh, they made a play about that movie?’ They have only seen the film, and have not seen the show, and didn’t even know there was a show until the movie came out. You’ve got a mixed bag. You’re reintroducing it to a new generation of audiences with that movie, and I think that’s why the time was right for this tour to start hitting. Because of that popularity of the film, I think we are getting a lot of young kids seeing the show, and families. And that that has been interesting because a lot of those families didn’t know it was a Broadway play before that.”
Evan loves bringing the story to such a wide array of audiences.
“You have all kinds of people that are either people who love”Into the Woods,” and have known it since 1987. Or people who have only seen the movie version of the show. Or people who have heard that the Fiasco production is really interesting, and just want to come out and see what we’re doing.”
There may be several changes from the original book, but that doesn’t mean the creatives didn’t get the approval.
“The guys who directed the show got some license from the writers, from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, to sort of nip and tuck little things here and there to change it to fit their vision. So that was cool, and they obviously had more of working relationship with those guys than we did. But it was neat to know that that all that stuff was approved; a little line cut here, to sort of facilitate the things they wanted to do was approved by the people who originally wrote it. And they know that we’re out on the road, and they’ve given us their blessing to do the show the way that we want to do it.”
Evan’s role in the show is the Baker – whom along with The Baker’s wife is the glue that helps the individual stories in the show stick together.
“The Baker is one of the central figures in the story. I think the Baker and the Baker’s Wife story is what sort of ties the whole thing together. They both want to have a child, and in order to get that child they have to reverse a curse that’s been put on them by the witch. In order to reverse the curse, they have to go out and collect items to bring back to the witch: ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’s’ cow, Rapunzel’s hair, Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, and Cinderella’s slipper. So that’s kind of what the crux of the story is. You follow these two characters, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, through fairytale land, and you see all the problems that they come up against. And that’s what’s really cool about it, the way that Sondheim and Lapine have intertwined actual fairytales that we all know and love, with these two sort of made up characters, and given them a quest.”
When asked if he shys away from watching interpretations of his characters, like James Cordon’s in the 2014 film, Evan said,
“I don’t think about that. I’ve seen the film, and I love it. I have a young niece and nephew that love that movie, and they got to see the show and point out some differences. I honestly try and approach every time I do a play as, ‘this is the text I have to work with, and these are the songs.’ As an actor you have to just go with the people you’re in the room with, and work with the situation that you’re rehearsing in. Because then you create the piece for yourself. You’re doing your own work, and surely those things are going to be influences somehow. But I don’t seek out copy, or seek out to do anything that someone else has done. But you can’t really avoid any kind of mistaken comparison that might happen one way or another; it’s certainly not on purpose. But you take what you can do and you move with that. When you have good writing, those things tend to fall right into place.
It’s no mystery as to why Into the Woods has enjoyed so much success over the years.
“The writing is so good in the show; it’s one of their best musicals. People do it all the time for a reason, it’s very accessible. And these characters have so many real emotions that are happening; I think that’s one of the genius things in the show as well. You might think, ‘oh, it’s just a fairytale,’ but really they’re dealing with real human problems. The desire to have a child – that’s such a real thing for people, and not being able to have one. You try to approach it as though you are these people dealing with these problems. The scope of the fairytale part of it sort of fades away when you really focus on what the obstacle are that they’re having to overcome.”
About the genre, the actor had to say,
“Fairytales are parables to teach us lessons, and that’s exactly what the Baker and The Baker’s Wife learn in the show. They have to learn these lessons – the whole cast really, even the fairytale characters.”
There are so many great parts of the story, but when asked to choose just one, Evan said,
“I think it’s fun because no matter which version of the show I’ve done, the whole opening 20 minutes of the show is like getting shot out of a cannon a little bit. Everything starts out with a bang; We meet the witch and then off we go. We meet all these characters, and it’s 20 minutes non-stop from the moment the downbeat hits until we finish the prologue. It just revs, and it goes. I think that’s always been my favorite part of the show. I think it it sets you off on such an adventure right off the bat, that the rest of it kind of rolls downhill in a great way. It’s challenging musically, but this particular version – having to add the element of having to play instruments – is always a challenge, but it’s such a fun challenge. And and I think that this really creates an ensemble effect for all of us, because we’re having to listen to parts of the show you might not always listen to if you’re playing the Baker. You might have a break at this point, but in this version I’m playing a symbol, or I’m running around to pick up a guitar or whatever, in the middle of a scene that involves someone else . So that’s that’s unconventional in the way that makes it really exciting. We get to support each other, and I always tell people that it’s all about keeping the ball in the air. Everybody’s passing the ball around, metaphorically of course, and we all have to just keep floating it floating until the end of the show. That’s an exciting challenge to be in an ensemble of actors who can do that.”
When asked how different it is to not only memorize lines, but also musical cues and songs, Evan said,
“Not just this kind of theater, but theater in general I’ve been doing for twenty years. And playing music for twenty years professionally. So obviously it’s in my wheelhouse of things I enjoy doing. So it’s not challenge that I don’t want to do, not like a headache, but more like, ‘yes, I want to do this.’ So figuring out the logistics of all of it was tricky in rehearsal. But once the show is in your bones, you’re responding to things that are given to you every day.
Like when something does go little ‘awry,’ or doesn’t work out exactly – someone hits a wonky note on a glockenspiel, or someone hits a funky note on the guitar – you notice those things and you move on. But it’s a challenge to sort of stay in the pocket with the show; to just be present all the time, and make sure that you are keeping that ball in the air. I think shows like “Star Catcher” and “Once” really prepared me for that, because those shows are both also kind of non-stop – they just keep moving. You’re having to pay attention to the scenes that are happening on stage when you’re not in the scene directly. So I certainly feel like I had my training wheels already.”
Talking about his past roles, Evan played the part of Brian in Avenue Q on Broadway.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my career to do a lot of unique things. ‘Avenue Q’ was my Broadway debut, so that was a very exciting time for me, and my family. When you have been trying to achieve a dream your whole life, and you finally get there, that was what I remember most about ‘Avenue Q.’ And also, obviously the fun and the irreverence of the show. And the tight-knit cast – it was a small cast. Dealing with a lot of really funny people has has been a blessing in my life. I’ve had the fortune to be in some really great comedic roles, and some really great comedic shows. So that really makes me happy to think about. I haven’t thought about ‘Avenue Q’ in a while; it was such a fun time in my life, that’s for sure.”
On landing his first Broadway role, Evan said he did it,
“the same way you get any job really with acting. You pound the pavement and you just addition your butt off until you hit the lottery. I moved to New York many years prior to that. So I had been in New York kicking around, waiting tables, and doing regional theater here and there – trying to make ends meat in those ways. When you get to a Broadway callback situation, you’re in a room with a bunch of other people, and then slowly that room whittles down to a few less people, and a few less, and a few less. It took a long time; it wasn’t like an overnight audition. It took me a while before I finally got involved in the show. But since then, the same process has repeated itself for all the other Broadway shows I’ve been in. Or regional shows, or tours. The process is very similar, you kind of get whittled down just like you would in any other kind of performance competition, or even acting competition.”
Harrington also played Piangi in The Phantom of the Opera for several years on Broadway. The role, which involves operatic vocals, was different for the actor, but not necessarily out of his wheelhouse.
“I’m a trained singer, so I have a degree in theater. But I also took voice lessons for many years. I was never a serious opera singer, in the sense that I never really wanted to do that kind of disciplined work. It sounds kind of lazy I suppose, but the discipline of being opera singer really takes a lot more than it does to be a theatre singer. At least for me it did. And I was also more interested in the material of the theatre world, as opposed to the classical material of the opera world. And even contemporary opera didn’t really excite me as much as contemporary theatre did. So I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a few operas, and enjoyed them, and then of course that skill helped out when I was auditioning for the comedic guy, Piangi, in ‘Phantom.’ He’s a pompous, opera tenor guy, so that certainly was fun to play as well. I get to stretch my chops quite a bit, which is nice.”
About Phantom, Evan had to say,
“I feel really lucky to have been a part of Broadway history. It’ll be 30 years old next year, and still running on Broadway. So I feel like I have my little place in the in the history books with that show. I was in there for a while, and I really enjoyed my time there. As an actor, I think we all want to stretch and grow, and get into different projects, so it’s nice that that I’ve been able to parlay the success from ‘Avenue Q’ and ‘Phantom’ into other shows, and keep working.”
This isn’t the actor’s first time performing in St. Louis. A few years ago, Evan was a part of the national tour of ‘Once,’ which played the Fox Theatre.
“I also played there with ‘The Music Man’ in 2001. I’ve been lucky enough to do so many different projects, and I’m just racking up a few more on my list.”
See Evan Harrington in Fiasco Theatre’s production of Into the Woods at the Peabody Opera House! Tickets are available for two showtimes, February 19 at 2pm and 7:30pm. Tickets range from $30 – $82, and are available through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit peabodyoperahouse.com or the official tour website.