‘Our stories belong to everyone’: Emerson alumni tour with “Into the Woods” revival at the Colonial Theater

By Karenna Umscheid

Stephen Sondheim’s twisted fairy tale and modern classic “Into The Woods” has been revived on Broadway in the U.S. three times, each time with different cultural contexts that keep the book and lyricism constantly effective and memorable. The musical depicts the intersection between classic fairy tales and classic characters,  and delves into what “happily ever after” really means. 

The original Broadway production opened in 1987, at the height of the AIDS crisis. The second revival opened in 2002, shortly after 9/11. The current revival opened after the COVID-19 pandemic, and, according to alum and actor Sam Simahk ‘10, served as one of the shows that “brought Broadway back” to life after lockdown. 

Simahk, along with fellow alum Paul Kreppel ‘69, both feature as swings, which serve as off-stage performers who can do ensemble roles or understudies in the popular 2023 revival tour, which itself originated in the 2022 Broadway revival. The rest of the cast is largely returners from the Broadway revival, which ran from June 28, 2022 to Jan. 8, 2023; the tour began on Feb. 18. 

At its core, “Into the Woods” seems like the story of “fairy tale characters coming together to solve a problem,” said Simahk. He’s the understudy for several different characters: the baker, Cinderella’s prince, Rapunzel’s prince, Jack, and Cinderella’s father/puppeteer. 

As various fairy tale characters working together after tragedy has struck their intersecting storylines, the show exemplifies themes of community, making each production especially moving for audiences. 

“It serves as an allegory for a community coming together to figure out how to solve problems that are too big for an individual to solve on their own, and what it means to work together,” Simahk said. 

Simahk works alongside Kreppel, who is standby for Narrator/Mysterious Man and understudy for Steward in the current touring production. Kreppel said that each rendition of the show means something different to the audience.

Both actors said they have heard praise for the show’s musical clarity and its concert-esque orchestral experience.

“Sometimes the response is like a rock concert, surprisingly, for a 40-year-old show,” Kreppel said. 

Simahk said that the revival’s sense of clear, orchestrated sound allows Sondheim’s words to speak for themselves, as does the incredible cast.

“They all bring such life and personality to these roles just by being themselves,” he said.

Kreppel praised Sondheim’s writing in particular, for its examination of the human condition and existence. 

“If you look at this script, it is filled with sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle philosophy of what it is to exist,” he said. “It’s one of the most powerful of Sondheim’s pieces when you look at it that way, and he certainly was not afraid to examine human existence in his work.” 

Sondheim’s “verbose lyricism” allows the allegory to be consistently powerful to audiences decades later, Simahk said. 

“Our stories don’t just belong to us but they belong to everybody around us, and they belong to everybody that comes after us,” he said. 

As the oldest cast member, Kreppel said the powerful, moving story of the play and the talented and inspirational cast is his motivation to continue to tour—even while doing eight shows a week at his age.

“I would’ve been happy being a doorman at a theater, because it’s the community that inspires me,” he said.

Both Kreppel and Simahk said that their experience as actors has perfectly encapsulated what the Emerson education/experience is — a progressive institution in which students are encouraged to be their authentic selves. 

I am inspired by just how talented the youngest people in the show are, and how wonderful they are, and how close I feel to them,” Kreppel said. “[What’s] inspirational to me is working with this incredible group, one of them is an Emersonian. It was a reminder of what Emerson is.” 

Kreppel, whose theater credits include the second national tour of “Wicked,” and the chorus of “Agamemnmon,” traced the origins of his theatrical career back to the original, student-written productions Emerson’s theater program is known for. 

He said that Emerson, the school from which he received an alumni achievement award in 1993, encourages actors to forge good connections with writers and to create their own opportunities. 

“[In college] you get to really create who you are, and the environment at Emerson was always a creative experience for me,” he said. 

Simahk said he had a distinct experience at Emerson, as he said the college taught him “how to use language and to be a self-sufficient actor” in his classes. Professionally, Simahk has also toured with the 2019 production of “My Fair Lady,” the 2016 production of “The King and I,” and has starred on Broadway in “Carousel.” 

“If you look into the careers of Emerson folks you’ll see a lot of swings, a lot of understudies, that have these high stress, low profile existences where we’re kind of waiting backstage, and something goes wrong and we’re ready because [Emerson] taught us how to be ready,” Simahk said. 

Kreppel and Simahk will return to campus from March 21 to April 2, as “Into the Woods” will run at the Emerson Colonial Theater. The rest of the tour continues until the end of July in Los Angeles.