Brian d'Arcy James on how fatherhood made him see 'Into the Woods' anew

This interview is part of New York Theatre Guide's Road to the Tonys series on artists whose unique or long journeys with their show culminated in a nomination.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Brian d'Arcy James, a 2023 Tony Award nominee for Into the Woods, first played the lead role of the Baker more than 20 years ago at Minnesota’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. When he returned to the part for the latest Broadway revival in 2022, he brought wisdom and understanding he didn't have before. Not just as a more seasoned actor — he's since starred in numerous other Broadway shows and earned three other Tony nominations — but as a father.

"I have a 21-year-old daughter now; I didn't have a child then," James said. "Doing the show now, I had such a different perspective on the role."

One of Into the Woods's main messages is "children will listen” — lessons reach new generations through stories, so it's important to tell them thoughtfully. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical makes that point by mashing up multiple classic fairy tales and showing both the happily-ever-after and the harsher realities that follow. The Baker, for one, becomes a father at the same time he must reckon with the lifelong absence of his own father.

"It's the depth of understanding that I was able to latch on to in terms of what Sondheim was trying to achieve with how we tell stories in general, and also how words matter," James said of how real-life fatherhood made the show more meaningful. "Obviously, 'children will listen' is a clue about that — not only what we say to children, but what we say to each other."

The Baker learns that lesson, perhaps, most deeply. After sudden grief nearly leads him to abandon his child, words of wisdom from his father's spirit change his mind. When he returns, he must pass down that same wisdom to his biological son and other young characters who feel frightened and alone.

He learns the importance of being there for your children, even when you're afraid of getting it wrong — a feeling that James now understood firsthand, too.

"As a father, the definition of being a parent is being their role [model]," James said. "You're constantly teaching a child to evolve and hopefully get better and be part of that community. This show does all that. Having experienced all those successes and failures myself as a father, as you do — the little ones and the big ones — it really makes me appreciate just what [Sondheim]'s tackling in this, what it says about individual desires to try to feel like you're a worthy citizen and a good person individually, but also collectively."

Sara Bareilles, Brian d'Arcy James in Into the Woods

Fatherhood is one of many things that made this Into the Woods so resonant — and not just for James. The production's six total nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical, are "a testament to what kind of effect the show has in general, but also what effect our show was able to achieve," James said, especially since Into the Woods closed in January after a six-plus-month run but stayed on Tony nominators' minds.

"The feeling of not doing something, and then all of a sudden being thrust into a situation where it's being celebrated, is really overwhelming and just a beautiful thing."

James named a few possibilities for why the critically acclaimed revival moved so many people, one being how its themes of collectivism resonated more deeply following the pandemic and Sondheim's death in 2021. "People [understood] the importance of his legacy and what he's contributed," James said.

That's exactly what the Baker realizes when he speaks to his father's spirit. The newfound meaning James drew from this Into the Woods revival as a father — an understanding of his role in imparting lessons to a new generation — is what resonated universally with audiences, newly appreciating that wisdom as passed down from Sondheim.

"There's such a sense of excitement and purpose," James said. "And then having a delivery of a show that met those expectations was highly combustible, which we experienced every single night. I've never experienced anything like it."

Top image credit: Brian d'Arcy James. (Photo courtesy of production)
In-article image credit: Sara Bareilles and Brian d'Arcy James in Into the Woods. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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