- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2002

NEW YORK Vanessa Williams as a hideous crone? Well, it's a stretch although she plays one in full witch makeup for much of the first act of the Tony-winning revival of "Into the Woods," the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairy-tale musical in which there is no such thing as happy ever after.
Wearing a tan sports jacket, open-collared white shirt and tight bluejeans, Miss Williams sits in a theater-district restaurant and works her way through a plate of fried calamari and a steak salad. It's not exactly a dieter's delight, but then, the actress doesn't need to count calories.
Her beauty-queen good looks flawless skin, almond-shaped eyes and hair pulled back tightly in a stylish bun still get stares. If those glances bother her, she doesn't let it show, preferring instead to concentrate on the subject at hand: working for such theatrical heavyweights as Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine in a remounting of their 1987 musical, which just won a Tony Award for best musical revival.
"You don't usually get a chance to do a revival with the original creators," she says, explaining why she wanted to take on a show and a role closely associated with its first star, Bernadette Peters. "This is a chance to re-create a role differently."
Miss Williams didn't see the original but caught the road company in the late 1980s in Los Angeles when Cleo Laine played the Witch in this dark, disturbing variation on the Brothers Grimm. In the early 1990s, the actress had a meeting about doing a television version of "Into the Woods," but it never came to fruition.
"At this point in my life, at almost 40 (March 18 is the big day) and having a body of work, I don't have to audition, but when I heard Sondheim and Lapine were involved in this new production, I immediately said, 'Yes, of course I'll audition.'"
She sang "There Won't Be Trumpets" from Mr. Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle" and did a bit of the Witch's monologue and was hired.
The creators were equally enthusiastic.
"I can't remember who suggested her, but she just seemed wonderful," Mr. Sondheim says, "and we leaped at it." He even added a song from the London production, "Our Little World," for the Broadway show. It's a number for the Witch and her daughter, who happens to be Rapunzel.
"It's just a little song, but it offers them a chance to kind of romp together," the composer explains. "The way it was done in the original production, you never saw the mother and the daughter together having a good time."
For Miss Williams, "Into the Woods" is not quite the workout she had in her previous Broadway outing, replacing Chita Rivera in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." In that, she recalls, "I had five dance numbers and had to climb walls."

Although she had done theater since her undergraduate days at Syracuse University, "Spider Woman" cemented Miss Williams' New York stage credentials. Reviews were enthusiastic, and she also sold tickets. Miss Williams initially went into the show intending to stay with it for just three months, but she stayed for nine and would have remained longer if she hadn't had to resume promoting her recording career.
"People then knew I was out there and could do it," she says.
Mr. Sondheim, Miss Williams says, has been extremely helpful in her quest to find the Witch.
"His notes are very concise and can completely hone and improve your performance whether it is a word that needs to be emphasized or whether it's the diction, and he doesn't say it in an intimidating way," she explains.
Unlike "Spider Woman," "Into the Woods" is an ensemble musical. "I don't have the burden of being onstage all the time or having to carry the show," Miss Williams says. "The Witch comes in and out of the action."
That is a good thing, particularly because of the haglike makeup she wears for much of the first act and before she transforms into a most glamorous, divalike Witch.
The extensive makeup prosthetics tailored to her facial contours requires a lot of work, but then, she says, so do the intricacies of Mr. Sondheim's lyrics, which demand complete concentration.
"Every line moves the plot point along. You really can't relax," Miss Williams says.
She is committed to "Into the Woods" until November. After that, she has a concert version of "Carmen Jones" set for the Kennedy Center, and next spring she most likely will do Richard Rodgers' "No Strings" for Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert at New York's City Center.
Married to Los Angeles Lakers star Rick Fox, Miss Williams makes her home in suburban Westchester County, along with her four children, including the most recent addition, Sasha, born in 2000.
"It's the 14-year-old and the 12-year-old and the 8-year-old who are harder to deal with than the 2-year-old," she says with a laugh.
"You don't know if you've made the right decision in terms of your family or career. Sometimes you beat yourself up. My kids luckily understand that this is my life and this is my passion. They support me, even though they wish Mom was there all the time."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide