It was 1987, and Chip Zien had landed the role of the Baker, alongside Joanna Gleason, in INTO THE WOODS. Their cab pulled up in front of the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) on West 45th Street. Zien and Gleason stared slack-jawed at a giant boot – presumably the INTO THE WOODS Giant dangling a leg over the theater marquee.
“That was a thrilling moment,” recalled Zien. It meant that he was really going to be in a Stephen Sondheim fractured-fairy-tales musical. Gleason would earn a Tony award for her role as the Baker’s wife. Zien has worked nonstop since in film, television and theater.
Now Zien is INTO THE WOODS all over again, this time in the role of Mysterious Man, in the upcoming free to the public, Shakespeare in the Park production.
“This is definitely one of Sondheim’s classics,” Zien said, “but I’m extremely biased.”
The musical weaves the plots of several familiar fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel. Another ingredient in the fairy tale gumbo is a Baker, his wife and their goal of starting a family.
“When I heard that the production was happening I got a lovely email from James Lapine,” the co-creator of the musical, Zien said. Lapine said something along the lines of “they had been discussing the Central Park production and my name had come up.”
It was easy for Zien to re-enlist. He wanted to be part of a new generation of actors participating in the towering Sondheim musical. Even more important: he would be able to score free tickets to one of the city’s hottest live theater events: The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary at The Delacorte Theater. This will be Zien’s first performance at The Delacorte.
A funny thing happened on the way to being the Mysterious Man. “At an early reading of the show I actually read for a Prince,” he said. The play’s Princes, as befitting a fairy tale, are tall and imposing. Such casting, given Zien’s stature, was … ambitious. “I played it a lot taller.”
As the Mysterious Man, Zien has an integral role in the musical, which takes classic fairy tales and spins them into bittersweet gossamer. “It’s a serious musical with hauntingly beautiful songs,” he said.
The witty and often heartbreaking classic is laden with large messages. “Always be careful what you wish for, and be responsible for others in this world,” Zien said. “And always commit to the highest standard you can.”
There are a few alterations in the park production, and one of the most dramatic changes from the original production is having the Narrator played by a 12-year-old boy, instead of an adult.
Zien recently caught a glimpse of the elaborate stage he will be performing on and was stunned by its size. “The stage seems so much bigger than the Broadway one. It’s phenomenally energetic to imagine the cast running around on multiple levels,” he said. “Everyone will be running up three stories of platforms and stairs throughout the show.”
Zien has an integral duet with Denis O’Hare, who plays Zien’s former role, the Baker. When the two rehearsed together, Zien sometimes found it difficult to remember which lyrics to sing. “When we sang together it was cheerful and emotional and we were all trying hard not to cry,” he said.
The cast also includes Amy Adams (the Baker’s Wife) and Donna Murphy (the Witch).
When Zien first played the role of The Baker, he and the cast mates were 25 years younger and raising children, he recalled. The messages of the show were not lost on him. “I have the sense of passing the torch to another generation who will learn from and enjoy the show,” he said.
Previews of INTO THE WOODS begin July 23 and the show runs through August 25.The Delacorte Theater in Central Park is accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. For more ticket information, go to shakespeareinthepark.org