Into the Woods—the much-loved Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical that finds the lives of several Grimm fairy tale characters intertwining as they venture through the woods in pursuit of happy endings—has once again journeyed to Broadway. This third revival of the 1987 musical, a transfer of the recent New York City Center Encores! production, opened at the St. James Theatre July 10 and recently extended its initial limited run at the St. James Theatre, now through October 16, with the cast extending through September 4.
With the return of the show comes another welcome return: Tony winner Patina Miller is back on Broadway after an eight-year absence, appearing as the Witch, the complicated foe to the musical’s lead Baker and Baker’s Wife. Not that Miller hasn’t been busy while she’s been away, though…the Sister Act and Pippin star spent six seasons as a series regular on the CBS political drama Madam Secretary and currently leads the cast of the Starz series Power Book III: Raising Kanan, as Raq, the queenpin mother of one of the Power universe’s main characters. She’s also in recent years become a mother herself, a life role that has greatly informed her latest stage role.
Playbill chatted with Miller about her turn as the Witch (a role she also played in the 2019 Hollywood Bowl production) and about the timelessness of Sondheim and the lessons taught in Into the Woods.
How is the experience of performing Sondheim's work unique from other musicals?
I think there is something about his work and the way it relates to real life. Sondheim has been able to tap into humanity, and that’s why we are all able to connect at a deeper level to the work. No matter your age, his words stay with you. I do feel that’s what’s different about Sondheim, not only his ability to hit you with lyrics but also the music—and it all means something, and it’s a very special thing to have a piece of work that stands the test of time. This show in particular has really come about when the world needed it. He’s really able to get into it, get into the deep-rooted issue of what we go through and especially in Into the Woods.
What’s your favorite lyric from Into the Woods and why?
My favorite lyric from the show is “Children may not obey but children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be. Careful before you say listen to me, children will listen.”
I think it’s so perfectly a reminder for all of us that not only are children our future, but that you have the ability to shape a child’s mind. It starts at the beginning. To be careful of what you say because children are always listening. They may not obey, but what you say carries weight. This is the next generation; they’re getting the information, and it can affect them and the choices that they make for the rest of their lives.
Do you see the witch as a villain? Why or why not?
I don’t see the witch as a villain; I think she’s a truth teller. I see the witch as a woman who is heavily flawed…a woman who has had a lot of damage and trauma in her life. She wants to change her life, to be transformed. She wants to be with her daughter. I see the witch as a wounded mother who wants to so desperately connect with her child and shield her and protect her from the world and she goes through great lengths to do that. A lot of the witch’s ferocity comes through her desire to keep her daughter safe and with her.
What do you think is the greatest lesson of Into the Woods?
The greatest lesson of Into the Woods is to be careful of fairy tales. They seem perfect, but life isn’t a fairy tale. There is going to be hardship, and there are actions and consequences for everything. Life will have its up and its downs, but it’s the living that’s the most important.
How has your experience of the work changed as you’ve grown older?
I worked on a lot of Sondheim material when I graduated from college. Some things I understood, but there are lyrics/depth that I didn’t get then. It was very surface especially as it came to Into the Woods and the stuff with Little Red. Later in life, after having a child, after experiencing heartbreak—the highs and lows in life—you kind of get what he means. The lyrics hit differently. It’s very easy to immerse yourself in the piece and tell the story because you get it. On the page, you can say it’s a grumpy old witch or it’s a mean old wolf, but when you think about it, these are just archetypes and the witch and wolf can be anyone. And you realize, the witch is a mother who just wants to protect her child and a lot of this stuff comes out of that desperation.
What are some of the moments that have made up own your life?
There have been so many moments, it’s hard to get them all down to a few sentences, but becoming a mother was the moment my life changed. I’m a different person now because of it.