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Frank J. Avella Talks To
Kim Crosby and Robert Westenberg

An Honest-to-God
Happily Ever After!

Kim Crosby and Robert Westenberg

Written by Frank J. Avella

Opposite Photo Credit:
Bob Linder

 


 

Kim Crosby and Robert Westenberg, two of the stars of the original Broadway Production of “Into the Woods” look back at an once-in-a-lifetime experience


Original Cast Reunion Event set for June 21, 2015 at BAM

“…And they lived happily ever after.” Those oft-heard words end most fairy tales, but how often does anyone really live happily ever after?

How often does Prince Charming really find Cinderella and woo her away?

In the case of Robert Westenberg and Kim Crosby, it really did happen. And almost three decades after meeting, it’s still happening! I am elated to report that they’re still content and creative and, well, living in Missouri!

I had the great good fortune of speaking with the immensely talented couple recently as they reminisced about their background, respective careers, recent projects and one particular show that changed the course of their lives forever.




Robert Westenberg and Kim Crosby in Original Broadway Production"
"Into the Woods"

On November 5, 1987, a new Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical opened on Broadway. The collaborators won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their groundbreaking work, “Sunday in the Park with George” and, shortly afterward, began fashioning a musical that would interweave beloved fairy tales (plus one new one) and dare ask the probing question, “what happens AFTER happily ever after?” The results would yield one of the most beloved and enduring shows of all-time.

In the last few months alone, a (surprisingly good) Disney film adaptation was released in theatres worldwide (doing boffo business) and has since been released on digital, DVD and Blu-ray, the original PBS version has been (badly) transferred to Blu-ray and an off-Broadway reimagining, by the Fiasco Theater, bowed to deserved rave reviews.

And, unbeknownst to many, except the real die-hard fans, last November most of the principle Broadway cast members gathered for a reunion concert and discussion at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

“We all felt like rock stars that day, Kim Crosby says of the event that reunited Sondheim and Lapine with Bernadette Peters (The Witch), Joanna Gleason (The Baker’s Wife), Chip Zien (The Baker), Ben Wright (Jack), Danielle Ferland (Little Red Riding Hood), Westenberg (The Wolf/Prince Charming) and Crosby (Cinderella).

“We were greeted with this unbelievable response,” Westenberg shares. “It was a force of nature coming out of that audience. We did two shows in one day, 3000 people each, and it was insane. “

Westenberg recalls Sondheim’s startling reaction to a question about how he felt about reuniting with the gang: “There was this big pause and he (Steve) said, ‘I want it to last forever.’ And he lowered his head and he was quite moved and it was a powerful moment. I’ve never seen Steve be that open about his emotions…He was clapping his hands, roaring with laughter. He was like a kid.”

So, why did this happen on the West Coast and not here in NYC? For those outraged, incensed and upset, chill and take deep breaths. Kim, Robert, Bernadette and the gang will be doing a Part Deux concert reunion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 21, 2015 for 2 performances!!! I can only imagine this will be the theatrical event of the year for many true musical theatre lovers who are fanatics about the show as well as the original cast.

“Into the Woods” began life in workshop at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California, in December of 1986. Kim Crosby was there right from the beginning.

“I was doing a production of “A Little Night Music.” I was in as Anne opposite John McMartin. And about a month or so after, she (casting director, Joanna Merlin) had me brought in. We auditioned first for (musical director) Paul Gemignani and, eventually, for James and Steve. So four callbacks later, it came to be and I was a part of it from then on.”

Incidentally, the role of The Witch was originally played by Betty Buckley, but she soon left (the reasons still unclear but interpretation differences seem to win the day over cattier online gossip) and the part was given to Ellen Foley, until the move to Broadway when Patti LuPone was the name heard most often to take over, until Bernadette Peters said yes.

Revisions were a part of the process from San Diego to Broadway right up until opening night.

“One of the exciting and exhausting things about doing the show was that the rewrites came in daily,” Crosby explains. “There was never a show that was the same. Until we opened in New York there were changes going on every day. It was exciting and nerve-racking. It was a wonderful process to be a part of and a very collaborative one, too.” She gushes as she recalls the day Sondheim presented, “No One is Alone,” to the San Diego cast. “He sang it for us for the first time. I recorded it on my little cassette player.”

Crosby was one of the lucky actors to be asked to move to the Great White Way with the show. “There was no guarantee for any of us that we’d be going on to Broadway.”

Westenberg came on board after the workshop, having worked with Sondheim and Lapine on “Sunday in the Park with George”-- taking over the lead role for seven months (I actually had the pleasure of seeing him perform as George). “When we started preview on Broadway (for “Sunday”), three (eventual) songs in the second act hadn’t even been written yet. People were walking out.” The creatives weren’t concerned and the end results were astonishing.

By the time Westenberg signed up for “Woods” he was used to “that flying by the pants” tweaking, where new songs and scenes were introduced and staged in a day or less.

Originally scheduled for a two-week preview period, the show was extended to almost six weeks--43 preview performances. (I know since I attended 6 of them way back when).

The gifted Crosby recalls the preview process as being “very exhausting,” and that there was, “never a dull moment.” “I’m glad I was very young when I was doing it. We could move through the rigors of the physical exertion easier. It was mentally taxing and exciting at the same time.”

“They wanted to get it right,” Westenberg says of the “wild structural” and song changes during the preview period. “They got a set on them—both of them (Sondheim and Lapine)--in terms of having the moxie to work on that experimental level in front of preview audiences in a Broadway house with that much money on the line. Incredible. The pressure was intense. But you saw how it ended up.”

Both Crosby and Westenberg watched songs come and go but it was the Wolf’s original costume that probably gave everyone the most grief. “It was extremely anatomically correct,” Westenberg volunteers, “so graphic, even a little pornographic.” The audience laughter was so overwhelming that it took away from the scene. “So every night it was modified to some degree so by the seventh or eighth incarnation, they got it right.”

After a slew of changes (which for this, then, young writer-wannabe, was fascinating to experience) the show finally opened to generally positive reviews and one notoriously scatterbrained notice by then New York Times critic Frank Rich. Despite Rich’s oddball printblather, the show ran for over two years (765 performances) and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Musical of the season. The show also received ten Tony nominations, winning three (for Gleason, Sondheim and Lapine) but lost Best Musical to “Phantom of the Opera.” It was also video-recorded for posterity via PBS (a 5-performance reunion of the original cast in May of 1989).

Crosby: “You knew you were a part of something special at the time but the older I’ve gotten, I appreciate how rare and wonderful that is and the fact that it’s lived on for so many people through the PBS recording and remained relevant for so many people. What a gift that was, for me, for Robert.”

When the Tony nominations were announced, Westenberg was justly on the list for Featured Actor in a Musical, but Crosby was inexplicably missing from the (WTF) list of Featured Actresses in a Musical.

“Everybody in the company wanted to be nominated,” Crosby unassumingly states, “But it was just a really crowded field with lot of worthy performances. There’s only so much room. The competition was fierce.”

Crosby is way too humble. Looking at the list, there were no nominees as worthy as she was (including the winner, Judy Kaye in “Phantom.”) She was in good company, though, since Peters was also snubbed.

Westenberg gives a more accurate reflection, “Kim was iconic in that role and how did she not get nominated is beyond me. The performance is perfect in every way. It could not have been performed more beautifully.”

Of course, one of the most endearing traits that Kim Crosby displays in our conversation together is great modesty. She’s seemingly unaware of how amazingly talented she is and of what a truly iconic role she re-envisioned eons before it was politically correct to portray a fairy tale character as feminist in any manner. Her Cinderella was vulnerable but refused to be secondary. She was also painfully honest in her unease with her newfound royal life, “My father’s house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something in between.” But it was the way Crosby delivered the lines and her alarmingly relatable facial expressions that gave gravitas and nuance to the role.

Kim Crosby was raised in Springfield, Missouri (where she currently resides) and always knew she wanted to be an actor. “I was probably in denial about it. Growing up in the Midwest, we didn’t really have a whole lot of access to professional theatre. But I loved it when I was onstage.” She got her big break winning a small role in the Broadway musical revue, “Jerry’s Girls,” starring Chita Rivera (who is, once again on Broadway, killing it every night in “The Visit”).

“To go from something like “Jerry’s Girls,” which was this little bit of fluff, to doing “Into the Woods” was quite a leap,” Crosby explains. “And to be plucked from my obscurity was the gift of a lifetime. It brought me all the attention any actor who goes to New York really wants. And to have met Robert, in the process…and to have all the best things in my life come from that—you just want to say Thanks!”

So, how did they meet?

“I can tell you a cute story about the first time I saw her,” Westenberg excitedly accounts. “I walked to the studio, at 890 Broadway, with Tom Aldredge (co-star as The Narrator). We knew each other a little bit because I did some shows that Theoni Aldredge (his Oscar-winning costume designer wife) had designed. So I walked in with Tom and it’s the first day of rehearsals, and you’re a little bit nervous and you’re meeting a lot of people you don’t know, some of them are stars…so I looked at everybody and there was this very beautiful woman sitting over in the corner. And I nudged Tom and I said, ‘Tom, who the hell is that?’ And he said, ‘Bobby, that’s your wife.’--meaning that’s the woman who plays Cinderella that you marry in the play. So the first words I heard about Kim, in my life, were ‘that’s your wife’ and it came true.”

“He’s adorable so how could I not fall in love with him,” Crosby adds. Things were a bit complicated at first for the eventual couple. “Neither one of us was free to explore that when the show first opened, Crosby states. “I was living with a guy. He had his own…life…so the way wasn’t really clear for us until later…Our first date was the Drama Desk Awards.” (Where Westenberg won!)

Crosby, however, had seen Westenberg before. Onstage. She recalls the first time she saw him in “Sunday in the Park with George.” “All I kept thinking, watching him in the second act, when he had on blue jeans and was playing contemporary was how cute he looked in blue jeans.”

Blue-jean boy Robert Westenberg grew up in Fresno, California, and made his Broadway debut in the 1983 revival of the Kander & Ebb musical, “Zorba,” starring Anthony Quinn (who was reprising his Oscar-nominated film role) and Lila Kedrova (who won the Oscar back in 1964).

“It was a huge experience for me,” Westenberg says about working with someone he considered a hero. “It was a big learning experience. Tony had a massive ego and was extraordinarily insecure. He was a great guy if he liked you, if he didn’t he could make your life hell. He had a real prickly relationship with Lila and Lila was one of the sweethearts of all time. So it was really complex. We did a nine-month pre-Broadway tour. We opened at the Forest Theatre in Philadelphia--Quinn’s first time onstage in over 20 years... So he was frightened. We did the show. To screams and standing ovations. The show was 2 hours and 35 minutes. “

Westenberg proceeds to explain that Quinn would get comfortable with the role and begin ad-libbing, adding more than 30 minutes to the running time, over and over. And each time, director Michael Cacoyannis would have to fly in from Greece to “retune and tighten” the show and Quinn. This continued right to Broadway. “He couldn’t figure out that he was stronger and better when he just played the scene and didn’t do all the indulgent stuff.”

The actor continues, “I had trouble dealing with trying to keep Quinn happy and maintaining my integrity with the other cast members because I liked them so much—they were good friends—and he hated some of them and to be in his presence you had to pretend to hate the people he hated and I didn’t hate them so there was a lot hypocrisy on my part but it was my first Broadway job and I didn’t want to blow it, but after a while I had to give my notice. And I left the show.”

Within three weeks, Westenberg was cast in “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Serendipitous?

He muses, “Because Quinn was such a pickle, I left my first Broadway show early and had that not happened I would have never been in “Sunday in the Park with George” and if I had never been in “Sunday” I don’t know if I would have been in “Into the Woods.” And if I wasn’t in “Into the Woods” I wouldn’t have met Kim and gotten married…So I have Anthony Quinn to thank for a long series of events that would not have happened without him.”

Interesting note: Kedrova would go on to win a Tony for “Zorba,” while Quinn got shut out of even being nominated, something that must have pissed him off to no end.

After “Into the Woods,” both the actors married and went on to star in other Broadways shows; Westenberg most notably in “The Secret Garden” and Crosby in a revival of “Guys and Dolls.” “Robert never stopped working,” Crosby offers, “I did a lot of commercial work.” But once Crosby had children things changed when it came to the industry perception of what she was capable of. “It’s not easy for a woman in the industry,” she confesses.

Crosby tells a story of auditioning for Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” for a famous casting agent and nailing it only to have him turn to her and ask, “So how are the kids?" "It’s like bringing up something that doesn’t belong in the audition room. It’s like asking someone how old you are.”

The couple chose to leave New York when they realized how expensive it was to raise a family in the area. “Sending your kids to a decent school is like paying for Harvard,” Crosby states. “My children and my family means more to me than anything in this life.”

They did return for a spell but then decided to permanently relocate to Crosby’s hometown. “By then he was itching to get out of the business. He wanted to teach. It was a leap of faith to move to Springfield—which was his idea. I really never thought of moving back to my hometown. But it was a good move.” Westenberg: “Springfield is Kim’s hometown. Her family is there. It’s a small community. She has a rich history there. And there’s a sense of community.”

Crosby is quick to point out (and dispel some rumors) that she never “gave it all up for Robert.” “It was never a matter of that. Honestly, if I had a strong itch to live in Chicago or some big city where I could do theatre, Robert would be agreeable to that. We’re in this together. If there was a strong enough desire in me…he would not stand in the way to that happening.”

Springfield seems to work for them. They’ve raised three children, Emily, age 22 (just graduated from college summa cum laude), Katie, 21 and Joe who is 15. None are actors and there is little sign in their home that suggests their parent’s illustrious past. Westenberg: “If you visited our house there’s nothing in that house that would let you know that Kim and I did what we did in our earlier lives. No picture, no posters, nothing.”

Drury University “created" a position for Westenberg and he is currently an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Theatre, where he has creative control. He’s a certified Meisner instructor and directs several plays a year.

Crosby continues to perform in musical theatre recently taking on the part of The Baker’s Wife in the Springfield Little Theatre production of “Into the Woods.” “I kept hearing Joanna’s voice in my head.” She also toured with Cathy Rigby in “Peter Pan” and her most recent triumph was playing Mary Poppins. Westenberg effuses, “She is delightful to watch and getting stronger every time she goes onstage.”

Both actors have kept youthful, both in appearance and spirit.

Would they ever return to NYC?

“I do miss being in New York. I don’t miss living there,” Crosby clarifies.

Westenberg is quick to answer, “Probably not,” but then corrects himself, “Never say never. If a project came up and it was exciting…who knows, but I don’t envision that scenario ever happening, especially with the state of affairs of the theatre. Much of it is so safe now. So predicated on names being in the production.”

What Crosby and Westenberg may not realize is that their absence from the Broadway stage left a void that very few artists have been able to fill. Westenberg’s true charm and clever wit made him the kind of leading man that audiences fell in love with instantly, but he had the depth needed to sustain and reward that devotion.

And Crosby’s extraordinary blend of strength, vulnerability and versatility coupled with her beauty (outward and inner) as well as her unique and amazing vocal range made her a quiet yet potent force onstage. She could move you with a gesture or a glance. Crosby was (and probably still is) someone who has the tremendous talents of a Donna Murphy or Patti LuPone and the grace and elegance of a Kelli O’Hara.

Perhaps one day they will return. I, and so many others, wish!

As for as the show that began it all:

Crosby: “What a ride, a wonderful high. Certainly the highlight of my career. I’m very grateful…it was a great privilege.”

Westenberg: “Friends call it The White Album of musicals for a certain generation… It’s very gratifying to know that it had such a strong, positive influence on a lot of people. It’s potent stuff. And was a significant part of our lives.”

I express my relief that they’re doing so well and are still together.

Crosby answers, “I’m so happy we are so happily married. It would have been awkward if that were not the case. He’s a wonderful dad and a fantastic husband and we just enjoyed a very happy ending.” She pauses, then announces; “Now I’m going to go back to doing laundry…”


 

 

 


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