Erik Liberman has had a very busy year on and off the stage. When I heard he was going to play The Baker in Centerstage’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, I jumped on the opportunity to interview him.
Erik: Baltimore is actually our first stop, but we’ll be re-staging in Westport as that theatre is designed quite differently. I’ve never been there, but am looking forward to it.
You are playing The Baker. How do you relate to him? How much is The Baker Erik Liberman-like?
I believe The Baker’s story is universal, and that is the son’s search for his father – both the physical, external father – and the internal one, which re-parents us and eventually allows us to nurture others. I certainly relate to this rite of passage.
Why is Into the Woods so relevant today, especially with today’s political climate?
The show remains relevant for many reasons, one of which is that if we arrest our development at adolescence – always an “I wish,” but not accepting responsibility for what our desires cost us and those around us – we cheat ourselves of our full humanity.
This is especially prevalent in today’s political and environmental climates. The consequences of ambition without accountability – be it Jack’s stealing the golden harp or a country’s exploitation of its natural resources – draw Giants from the sky. Sondheim and Lapine manage to clean up the problem in under three hours… I wish our politicians could do the same!
Your co-star Danielle Ferland, who plays The Baker’s Wife, played Little Red Riding Hood in the original Broadway production. How would you describe her performance? Have you ever seen any of Danielle’s Little Red Riding Hood performance slip out in her performance as The Baker’s Wife? What has been the most fun working with Danielle in this production?
Danielle is magnificent in this production. She nurtures The Baker without patronizing him, and it is through her humor and patience – and ultimately, her demise – that he grows up.
I haven’t seen the original Into the Woods, but am certain that being married and a mother of two has catapulted Danielle far from the land of Little Red, which is quite a different emotional terrain than that of The Baker’s Wife.
As an actress, Danielle is game for anything that serves the play, which she knows so well. That said, she approached The Baker’s Wife with very fresh eyes. It’s been a real joy finding this relationship with her.
This sounds very Passoverish, but how is this production different from all the NYC productions of Into the Woods, and what is it about this production that you feel makes it so special and unique?
Not having seen other productions, I couldn’t answer that accurately. However, I would say that Mark Lamos’ concept tips a hat to E.T.A. Hoffman. As in Coppélia or Tales from Hoffman, we are framed as “dolls” that the Narrator manipulates through both a small-scale theatre and our life-sized selves. That is, until the Narrator dies and we discover our free will and the responsibility that comes with it. In the end, the audience is left with a reflection of their role as both storyteller and player in the theatre of life. I think it’s a brilliant conceit and, from what I understand, quite a different framing device than those used in other productions.
What is the best advice Director Mark Lamos gave you about playing The Baker? How would you describe his style of directing?
I find Mark to be incredibly intelligent and sensitive, having been an actor himself for so long. He also has a wonderful sense of humor! He is what I would call a “layering” director, in that he observes what an actor is doing, tailors it, and offers ideas to deepen the recipe. Gratefully, he doesn’t stop till he knows there’s a whole person cooking in there. The best advice he gave was to assume a parental role with Jack as soon as The Baker has reconciled himself with his father – and therefore has something to impart to the next generation.
Last year you appeared in Shakespeare & Company’s Broadway in the Berkshires benefit hosted by Chip Zien, who created the role of The Baker in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods. What did you admire most about Chip’s performance as The Baker and how is your performance similar and different? Has he seen you perform the role?
I didn’t see Chip’s performance, though he did sing “No More” at the benefit as an homage to Tom Aldredge [who played the Narrator in the original Broadway production], which was extraordinary. We actually had a wonderful chat that night, as I’d been compared to him in the past, and he said he felt a certain kinship with me – and we’d both done Merrily.
The role of The Baker was built around Chip, so I’m certain his cadence and characteristics color the text, and therefore, the performance to some degree. That said, a role filters through the experiences and imagination of the actor playing it. Just as different pianists interpret the same music differently, I would expect our interpretations to be distinct.
Chip has yet to see the show, but we’re hoping he’ll come to Westport, which I believe is closer to his home.
Two of my favorite performers are in the Into the Woods cast: Jeffry Denman and Lauren Kennedy. How would you describe their performances as The Narrator and The Witch? What makes their performances so special and fun?
In keeping with the Hoffman aesthetic, Jeffry plays the part with a nod to The Nutracker’s Drosselmeyer – part Master of Ceremonies, part beneficent father to his “dolls.” Danielle shared something wonderful which was cut from the original: The Narrator says to The Baker, “I always cried when you held me,” indicating he was the baby who “listened” and, in turn, carried on the story for the audience. I think hearing that line informed a certain bond between our characters, regardless of whether it’s part of the existing version of the story. Jeffry is marvelous in the part.
Lauren is such a beautiful woman that wearing The Witch’s mask was, at first, shocking to all of us! Yet the mask allowed her to plumb the character’s despair and rage at being rendered powerful and ugly – then powerless and beautiful as her “true” self (an interesting comment on the relationship between power and beauty).
In the end, unable to manage her grief and the threat of The Giant, she invokes her own transformation back to The Witch. When you think that all this woman wanted was to tend her garden and have children of her own, it’s stunning the road she travels. Lauren does an amazing job with that journey.
What scene that you are not in the show – moves you the most when you watch it being performed and why? And what Sondheim lyrics are your favorites from the show?
I wish I could say I watched the show, but it’s too difficult to perform and observe scenes you’re not in – we’re all running around backstage! Listening from offstage, though, I find Danielle’s “Moments in the Woods” very touching, because of the many sophisticated themes that Sondheim unveils and works through with such power and delicacy – and Danielle’s handling of it. I find the evolution of The Witch’s theme – from “Stay With Me” through “Children Will Listen” enormously moving. Her assertion in “Last Midnight” that, “You’re not good/You’re not bad/You’re just nice” always strikes me… and “Like father/Like son” in “No More” so beautifully illuminates that moment when we decide if we are going to live as functions of our history or participants in our destiny. Of course, “No One is Alone” is poetry from start to finish. I could go on… this show is an embarrassment of riches!
The last time I saw you was at Lincoln Center after I watched a performance of Marc Kudisch in The Minister’s Wife. We sat around and caught up and schmoozed, and I think you were just about to go in for your final round of playing Motel in the Fiddler on the Roof Tour. In that long tour, you played alongside three Tevyes – Topol, Harvey Fierstein and Theodore Bikel.
How long were you on the road, how many performances of Motel the Tailor did you play, and what did you learn from watching these three actors play Tevye? What did you like the most about playing Motel and being in that tour?
I played Motel 375 times and loved it. What an amazing gift to share this story with audiences across North America for 14 months. And to work with three wonderful actors – each completely different as Tevye – was a true master class. The fact that each of them made the role his own was a testament not only to talent, but to Joe Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s writing, which is rock solid. I’d say the greatest gift of the show was gaining a deeper understanding of my Grandparents’ journey, as it was their exodus from Europe which we were essentially channeling – and which allowed us to be standing on that stage. I only wish they’d been around to see it.
You’ve had a very busy year. Besides appearing in Into the Woods, what are some of this year’s highlights for you?
I’m proud that Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, which I helped choreograph, toured the world successfully for eight years and ended its run recently at Kennedy Center, and that Elizabeth Stanley and I did a benefit performance of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
A dear friend, Clara Ponty, is a Paris-based recording artist, and I just shot her first music video (“Sunshine”). I’ll also be recording a final track for “The Beatles Complete on Ukelele,” to be released on iTunes in July, and am delighted to play a small role on the amazing web series, Submissions Only.
You received a Helen Hayes Award for playing Charlie in Signature Theatre’s production of Merrily We Roll Along in 2008. Did winning that award help you in your career? What do you remember about that night when you won?
Winning certainly helped my career, but perhaps the bigger thrill was being embraced by the DC theatre community. The night of the Awards, my entire family was there – rare for our clan – so it was indeed a special occasion! I was happy to be able to acknowledge them, as well as my teachers, who’ve done so much to support me over the years. And to share the evening with Sir Derek Jacobi and the other recipients that night was unforgettable.
You are a fantastic Groucho Marx. You have performed Groucho at The White House for The Obamas and appeared as Groucho in The Most Ridiculous Thing You’ve Ever Hoid at NYMF, and in Minnie’s Boys. Are there plans for other productions of The Most Ridiculous …?
That has been the plan, though I’m not certain when it will happen. It is so difficult getting new works produced these days – let alone a musicalized Marx Brothers radio comedy from the 1930s – but we all have our fingers crossed!
I would really love Minnie’s Boys to be produced again, which there has been talk of since our revival at The York in 2008. The show simply didn’t get its due in 1971, and people who attended our production during its brief run still stop me on the street to share how much they loved it.
What do you like most about playing Groucho?
His sense mischief and irreverence – and the chance to speak lines of such wit and wordplay! Our ears aren’t so attuned to that brand of humor anymore – but it remains timeless and hysterical.
How did you get to the White House to play Groucho for the Obamas?
The Helen Hayes Awards Committee contacted me because the Obamas were interested in having honorees visit The White House on Halloween to demonstrate how actors get into character. I was playing Groucho in The Most Ridiculous Thing… at the time, and they asked if I’d attend. What a thrill! I was invited back last year, and will never forget spending the evening with that wonderful family.
Tell me something about Groucho that most people might not know about him.
Groucho originally wanted to be a doctor, and even after all his success in show business, felt underqualified because he had no formal education – which is ironic, considering the intellectuals he surrounded himself with all thought he was the smartest among them!
Are there any roles that you haven’t played yet that you are longing to play?
George in Sunday in the Park with George, Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Henry II in Anouilh’s Becket, Prince Hal in Henry V, Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard, Konstantin in The Seagull, Cyrano, and almost anyone in Peter and The Starcatcher. Wayne Barker, our Music Director on Into the Woods, won a Drama Desk for writing the music for Peter… What a special show!
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Into the Woods at Centerstage?
The message so beautifully expressed in “No One Is Alone” – that beyond our ambitions, we exist within a community that is impacted by our actions – whether we accept responsibility for them or not.
That thought is furthered in “Children Will Listen,” which speaks of our sacred duty to leave things better than we found them. The fact that Sondheim and Lapine were able to communicate these themes – and that we get to share them each night – is an enormous privilege.
Watch Erik Liberman and Danielle Ferland rehearse “It Takes Two.”
“Hello Little Girl – The Big Bad Wolf (Robert Westenberg) stalks Little Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland) in the PBS filming of the 1987 original Broadway production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Read Amanda Gunther’s review of Into the Woods on DC Metro Theater Arts.