The Baker's Wife Finds Another Moment In The Woods
Joanna Gleason, so intrinsically linked with Into the Woods, reflects on a career on the stage, the resurgence of Sondheim’s musical, and living in the moment.
Musical theater nerd rage hit an all-time high in June, when composer Stephen Sondheim mentioned changes that had been made to Into the Woods, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, in its long-awaited adaptation to a feature film.
Chief among these alterations, Cinderella's Prince (Chris Pine) would no longer seduce the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt), an interlude that leads to "Moments in the Woods," widely regarded as one of the best songs in the show.
As it turns out, Sondheim spoke too soon, but the outrage wasn't surprising — at least not to actor Joanna Gleason, who originated the role of the Baker's Wife in the 1987 Broadway musical and won a Tony Award for her performance. While Gleason's theater work began before Into the Woods with I Love My Wife and The Real Thing, the Sondheim musical was her big break, precipitating a busy career in theater, film, and TV.
Since Into the Woods, Gleason has remained indelibly linked to the beloved character of the Baker's Wife, and to her show-stopping number, "Moments in the Woods," a bittersweet reflection on the impossibility of fulfilling conflicting desires.
As Gleason pondered the vast appeal of "Moments in the Woods," sitting in a café in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel in Manhattan, she noted that the song is relatable to everybody. "It's not just the Baker's Wife," she said. "It's, I want this and I want this. Why can't I have this and this? … Listen, in every strata of society, at every level of intelligence, emotional or otherwise, you have people who find themselves in this kind of dilemma from time to time."
Gleason was primed to wax philosophical on the role with which she's most often associated, a surprisingly complex character whose initial wish to have a child proves only to be the surface of a rich interior life. While Gleason's career spans well beyond Sondheim, she's only too happy to be asked about her most iconic role: "It's a thrill," she said, gushing.
Luckily, Gleason continues to have opportunities to step back into the Baker's Wife's sensible shoes. In the cabaret show she wrote and is planning on touring, following a stint in October at 54 Below, she tells stories from her time in Into the Woods and performs songs from the musical. And on Nov. 9, she's taking the stage with the show's creators and original cast for an Into the Woods reunion concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. Along with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine, the performances will reunite Gleason with co-stars Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, Robert Westenberg, Kim Crosby, Danielle Ferland, and Ben Wright.
The evening performance sold out so quickly that a second daytime performance was added. As with anything related to Into the Woods, the success of the reunion concert — and the show's enduring appeal — hasn't surprised Gleason.
"First of all, it's Sondheim," she said. "There he is, in the flesh, and then James Lapine, and all of us — most of us, actually. It's an event."
But it also speaks to the power of Into the Woods, which Gleason summed up in her assessment of what the show still means to her.
"My gratitude that it was filmed by PBS so that generations could see it, my constant amazement at its having been not just entertaining but pulled, tugged at such strings, especially in young people, about the uncertain future, about how dark it is out there, about how going from childhood to adolescence and adolescence to adulthood, and wanting things — also a chance to do it in your school, and play those roles, get inside them, be part of a great musical, that to me over time just means that it's a precious, precious thing," Gleason said. "And we get to honor it. I don't know that people would feel that way about Mamma Mia, frankly, which is a whole different experience."
The name Sondheim carries a particularly heavy weight for Broadway fans: The composer behind classics like Company, Follies, and Sunday in the Park With George is a 20th century theater giant.
Gleason, of course, was well aware of his reputation when she auditioned for Into the Woods in the '80s. And while she was excited about the opportunity to appear in a new Sondheim musical, she was equally intimidated — especially since she considered herself "an actor who sings" rather than a musical theater star.
"I didn't have a portfolio, and I didn't have songs prepared with charts and stuff like that," Gleason said. "Also I wasn't all that confident, truly."
At that point, Gleason had already done a Broadway musical, 1977's I Love My Wife. She'd also performed in musicals in Los Angeles.
"I actually had done a few musicals, but this was New York, and this was Sondheim," she continued. "I just thought, I don't know why they'd hire me with all these amazing voices around. And it was also ushering in the era of the Betty Buckleys and the Patti LuPone and the Bernadette [Peters], the people with these amazing distinctive voices, and I thought, We'll see. Maybe there's an acting role in there."
Gleason ended up getting the role of the Baker's Wife, of course, but her insecurities didn't end there. Into the Woods, like all of Sondheim's musicals, is a vocally challenging show. "Moments in the Woods," she explained, is a harder song to sing than anything else she performs in her cabaret show.
She shared some of her concerns with Sondheim during rehearsals but was quickly shot down.
"I went to him after I first heard 'It Takes Two,' and I said, 'I think it's a little high for me,'" Gleason said. "And he said, 'Well, I wrote it for your voice, and if you have a problem with that, go see a shrink.'" She laughed warmly at the memory. "I just was struck dumb, and I thought, Well, he's right. That's not his problem."
Looking back on Into the Woods remains a pleasant experience for Gleason, who has learned not to try to compete with what many consider her essential role. As the reunion concert nears, she counted all the blessings the show has brought her over the years.
"The high points were, you work with Sondheim, and this incredible friendship with Chip Zien that we've maintained over all these years, my love and affection for everyone in the show," Gleason said. "And OK, are you pushing me to say it? The Tony. Not a bad thing. It's kind of like, how do you top that? And then you realize, well, you don't have to top it. You just have to keep going. The point is you got to do it."
When it comes to acting roles these days, Gleason is selective. She recently appeared in the The Skeleton Twins, playing Judy, absentee New Agey mother to adult twins Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader). The part, for which she only spent two days on set, is small but rich, which is increasingly hard to find, as far as Gleason is concerned.
"Those are the parts to me that are worth doing," she said. "Otherwise you're getting sent a whole lot of stuff that is the mother who's clueless, the parents who are clueless, and if they're written by men — and they usually are, young men — if there are clueless parents, it's the father who has anything interesting to say at all, mothers no. It's very clear how they feel about their mothers because they don't know how to write them."
Finding these complex film roles can be an even bigger challenge when you're not an A-list star, as Gleason noted.
"You have to hold a lot of currency to get a movie that's about you or to even get a role that's about you for a second instead of just serving the piece like you're the parsley on the dish," she continued. "It may come down to dollars on cents of who puts the money together for the movie. I got The Skeleton Twins because there was no money. So it didn't matter who you get! If it doesn't matter who you get because you can't afford them anyway, get me!"
The Skeleton Twins, co-written by Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman, wasn't the only exception to the kinds of parts Gleason has gotten used to rejecting. In 2011, she played Gloria in the off-Broadway play Sons of the Prophet, a role she considers to be one of her most challenging. That's a credit to playwright Stephen Karam, another one of the few she believes is getting it right.
"[Karam] wrote three women over 50 that are spectacular roles because he pays attention, because he's a writer, because he's sensitive, because he has no axe to grind with his mother," Gleason said. "I'm so tired of these movies where the women — the women over, whatever, 35 — are these neutered, clueless, to be mocked, stereotyped, unimaginatively written, sometimes they don't even bother to name them — it's just called the Mother. So I think, I don't have to do that. There's nothing that says I need to do that at this point in my career."
It's not as though Gleason isn't busy: In addition to acting and performing in her cabaret show, she teaches a monthly acting workshop and takes tango lessons. She's also writing constantly — Gleason recently completed her first screenplay, which is already generating interest. She also plans to direct it.
Like most of what she does, Gleason's as-yet-untitled film was born out of passion — and as a result of seeing scripts that didn't thrill her. The story, about a woman who inherits a former gay nightclub in Joshua Tree, California, simply occurred to her.
"I had a story in my head," she said, matter-of-factly. "It's very funny and it's kind of sweet ... We'll see what happens."
As for how she'll find the time, Gleason acknowledged that — even with everything she turns down — she has a lot on her plate. But that's all the more reason to focus on the projects that excite her.
"I want to do everything!" she said.
If wanting everything at once sounds like a familiar sentiment, that might be because it underscores "Moments in the Woods," a song that — despite its challenges — Gleason can't remove from her repertoire.
"Must it all be either less or more, either plain or grand?" the Baker's Wife wonders. "Is it always 'or'? Is it never 'and'?"
There are limits, of course, which is why Gleason doesn't take on everything. It's also why she moved away from the frenzied life of New York City, preferring the "tiny farm" in Connecticut she shares with her husband, actor Chris Sarandon.
"We gave up New York, only because we like the life better," she said. "We did it for decades, and it was time for us, 'cause we're at a certain age, to just say, We want a different quality of life. Because I teach and I tango. I wrote a movie … There's a whole lot of other stuff to do besides walk the streets of New York to try to get to an audition."
Gleason is very settled in Connecticut, where she holds family gatherings for the holidays, which she calls her dream. "I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.
When she does leave the farm, it has to be for the right reasons: attending the occasional Broadway show, which she admits can be a hassle; her cabaret show, which she hopes to bring to the West Coast soon; and special events, like the Into the Woods reunion concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which will mark the first time she's seen some of her former cast mates since Sondheim's 80th birthday concert celebration, also filmed for PBS.
Now that Gleason is producing more of her own content, she's noticed more offers coming through, and she doesn't think it's a coincidence.
"Stuff is starting to come to me out of the blue," she said. "So you ask yourself, Really, out of the blue? Or is the vibe, 'I'm ready, send things to me'?"
None of this, however, has changed her approach to taking on new projects. You can't do everything at once. "OK, maybe if you're in the woods," Gleason suggested, again reflecting on "Moments in the Woods." "In parenthetical time, in a life that you live in parentheses, then you can have that — but then you can't because you have to go home."
For now, fully steeped in the real world, Gleason is practical about her next steps.
"What do I really need to accomplish at this point?" she wondered. "After 40 years of doing this, you get to [be selective]. If things have gone well" — she paused to knock on wood — "and they've gone well, you get to."