The musical, which is staged to mark Sondheim's 80th birthday, takes the stories of the Brothers Grimm and gives them a dark and humorous twist. The popular tales of Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Cinderella and Rapunzel are interwoven with that of the Baker and his Wife and their quest to have a child.
Russell won an Olivier for playing Dot/Marie in the Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of another Sondheim favourite, Sunday in the Park with George, in the West End and on Broadway. Her other recent credits include Amy's View, Guys and Dolls and High Society.
How have rehearsals been going so far?
Very good thank you. Everyone thinks it’s fabulous and we’ve got a really good cast, so hopefully we’ll be able to deliver. I think the whole idea of Into the Woods in the open air is great and it's never been done.
Is this is your first time at the Open Air Theatre?
I worked here years ago, I think it must have been around 1993, but I haven’t been back since. It’s very nice to be working with Timothy Sheader as I’ve seen some of his stuff here and it’s been fab!
Could you tell us a bit about your staging of Into the Woods?
I don't want to give too much away but you do see a Giant in this production and the concept follows through all the way - hopefully when you see it you’ll know what I mean. It’s voiced by Dame Judi Dench, which we’re all very excited about! She’s a big fan of the venue and of Sondheim. When I was there all those years ago she came to see the show which was lovely.
You’ve had great success in Sondheim shows before. How do you feel about his work?
He’s one of my favourite writers. He’s a genius. And I think the three shows he wrote with James Lapine are his best - Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion.
When you took Sunday in the Park to Broadway did you meet him?
Yes, he was around a lot in London and New York. He would come to see the show around once a week. I think he was really happy with the projections because he loved the idea and found the design concept quite staggering. He’s a lovely man, very caring and particular about how things are done. When I did Follies he was involved as well. He keeps an eye on his shows which is great, as all the young actors get to meet him.
Is he full of advice and does he have much of an input?
I think mostly he’ll give his notes to the director, but if the director's happy with him giving his notes to the actors he will. James Lapine is around often too. I think he’s coming back to see our show and then the start of rehearsals for Passion, which is obviously a major revival as well.
Does it increase the pressure on you as a performer, knowing that Sondheim is actively interested and involved?
No, it makes you excited because you want him to like what you’ve done and feel that the show's been honoured. You’re very grateful that you have the opportunity to have an author in the room. Often they have great notes for you - something which you wouldn’t have thought about. When I did Sunday in the Park with George, he gave me a tiny little character note that unlocked everything for me.
Is the Baker’s Wife a demanding role?
Yes, as she's pretty much always on stage, until I finally get a rest in Act Two. I like to have him a cup of tea waiting for me in the dressing room at that point!
- Jenna Russell was speaking to Theo Bosanquet
Into the Woods runs at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park from 16 August to 11 September 2010 (previews from 6 August).
The cast also features Mark Hadfield (Baker), Hannah Waddingham (The Witch), Helen Dallimore (Cinderella), Michael Xavier (Wolf and Cinderella's Prince), Ben Stott (Jack) and Beverly Rudd (Little Red Riding Hood). Open Air artistic director Timothy Sheader directs.