Into the Woods’ Jennifer Mudge Talks Bernadette, Darth Vader & Her ‘Incredibly F*#^ing Freeing’ Witch
February 20th, 2015
by Jennifer Mudge
The acclaimed McCarter Theatre Center and Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods, now running off-Broadway at Rodunabout Theatre Company, makes you reexamine everything you know about the beloved Sondheim/Lapine musical and the characters that inhabit it. It’s the musical you love but presented in a way that lets you love and understand it more. And like any good production of Into the Woods, audiences come away pretty much in awe of The Witch, played here by the magical Jennifer Mudge.
BroadwayBox caught up with Mudge to talk about her inspiration for creating this completely unique Witch, avoiding the Bernadette trap and how the character’s core remained despite her physical transformation.
Let’s start where we always start: who or what were the three biggest inspirations or muses that you pulled from when creating the Witch?
Well, for sure my Mom—she's not a witch! She's just an incredibly intuitive, mercurial, Mama Lion-loving woman. Honestly, she always makes it onstage into my performances—she's way more interesting than I am. I find all the mothers I know in life making their way into my thought-process on this one—the Witch's relationship with her mom, and then her attempts and failings at being a mom. I also thought about the children in my life—specifically my niece Cheyenne—and the way they play in an uninhibited way ... There is no limit to imagination, or any real problems to creating a world of giants, witches and talking wolves. Also, Cheyenne reacts straight from her gut, and I really wanted my Witch to be direct in that way—she is not afraid to say what she thinks, even when it's unpopular. Also, Darth Vader. Really. I wreak havoc with my hands. And have you seen my black velvet coat?
So how did you approach this iconic character? What was the process like of making it your own?
The most basic facts about the Witch include that her relationship with her mother was complicated, and that she is now a doting single mother facing challenges of raising a teenage daughter. There are so many exterior and frankly, daunting, "magical" aspects to her that I really just started with the basics. I'm of course a huge fan of the original production, and Bernadette Peters, but we were all very conscious that we cannot and should not do our best "imitation." Because we weren't there for the original conversations—all we really know is the final product. And we've spent a lot of time and care going through each beat, note and line to investigate exactly what is going on—and I think that exploration with our exact group, forced us to do OUR version—as strange, quirky and personal as it might be. So it kind of led us to a true inside-out exploration. And I really do believe that all of the Witch's "villainous" deeds are just results of completely reasonable decisions that other people don't like. I find her very rational. Ok, maybe a little vengeful.... Just like.... Humans.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Finally, do you have different muses for the Witch in Act 1 vs. Act 2?
I was actually very conscious (this time around at Roundabout) of wanting to make sure that she is the same Being throughout—although she obviously looks very different, she is still the same woman. I mean, I eat a bug off the floor wearing the black velvet coat and dominatrix boots in Act 2, and sing an extraordinary ballad (“Stay with Me”) to my child while wearing rags in Act 1. And I love that juxtaposition! I think there is an incredible built-in (by Sondheim and Lapine) dichotomy to the Witch that I try to honor by just staying in the moment of each step of her journey every night: her needs and desires (and external appearance) change throughout the show, but her basic character does not. By the end, I think she is really in a Greek tragedy place—that floats through my brain every night in Act 2, that I am literally Andromache—hence, “Last Midnight.” There's no place else to go. Which is also why I love that she comes back to reprise (this is the third time she sings this melody) “Children Will Listen.” The first time is sung in anger to Rapunzel at the top of “Stay with Me,” the second is “The Lament,” where all hope is gone, and the third is resurrected, hard-won wisdom.
See Jennifer Mudge’s incredible, fully-realized creation in ‘Into the Woods’ at off-Broadway’s Laura Pels Theatre.