Matthew Steffens Goes 'Into the Woods'
On an early Friday evening in January, Matthew Steffens (College ‘98 ) took a rare few minutes off to reflect on a year to remember. For the accomplished theater director and choreographer, it started with the disappointments you came to expect in show biz. A promising show at the Public Theater didn’t make the move to the Great White Way that many expected it to. Another Broadway-bound show had a last-minute director change.
A call from a frequent collaborator, choreographer Lorin Latarro, changed everything. “Would you be interested in working with me on the upcoming revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods?” It didn’t take long for Steffens to answer. “I think,” he recalls saying, “that I can make myself available.” Three weeks later, they embarked on a journey that would ultimately include cast members including Broadway, TV & Film legend Neil Patrick Harris, Grammy Award winner Sara Bareilles, and a host of Tony Award nominees and winners, including Patina Miller, Gavin Creel, Philippa Soo, Stephanie Block, Brian D’Arcy James, among others.
Things were going to move fast and end quickly. “Lorin and I created for about ten days, did a little pre-production, and then a ten-day rehearsal process for a two-week run,” Steffens said. But a funny thing happened on the way to the next gig. The show went on to become the hit of the Broadway summer and then some. “Here we are, six-to-eight months later, and I haven’t stopped.”
Steffens has worked with Latarro and associate director Victoria Davidjohn to put new cast members in the show nearly every week since opening and is now readying the cast for a national tour that begins on February 18.
It had been a minute since Steffens had ventured into these woods. He did the show in his fourth year at UVA, playing the Steward alongside dear friend and Virginia Theatre Festival Artistic Director Jenny Wales, who played the Stepmother. The two have continued their collaborations with VTF. Steffens directed the popular 2018 production of A Chorus Line and is returning this summer to direct the season-opening production of Cabaret.
It is hard to find a silver lining for the havoc that the pandemic has caused in the theater industry. Yet for Steffens, it allowed him to spend some time in Florida with his family, including young nephews and nieces, who gave him a sense of the childlike wonder that he said greatly informed his work and helped capture the magic of the various fairytales that make up the show.
From the opening night at City Center, he said, they knew this was going to be truly special. “People were just laughing hysterically,” Steffens said, “and bawling their eyes out, so we thought, oh, this is going to be a special two-week run.” As time went on, he found himself deluged with calls from friends and acquaintances inquiring about tickets. “I was constantly having to say, ‘I can’t get you tickets because there are no tickets. And if there were any available, I might be able to get you one for $400.’ ” The response was overwhelming. We were getting entrance applause every night. It was more like a rock concert than a musical.”
There were a few weeks of waiting before the Broadway run was confirmed, and Steffens and Latarro were on the verge of booking their next projects. Like all things with this production, things again went from 0-100 in short order, and the team had a little over a week to get new cast members ready for opening night.
As if the adoring crowds and growing buzz were not enough, Steffens got the most important thumbs up when his six-year-old niece came to see the show soon early in its Broadway run. “It was her first Broadway show, and she absolutely loved it,” Steffens said. She loved it so much, in fact, that when her mom took her to Aladdin the next night, she turned to her at intermission and said, “Can we go and see the second act of Into the Woods?” Steffens’ sister told her daughter that that was not how it works, but that they could probably catch the last 15 minutes.
Steffens has learned that though the show’s history has been highlighted by impeccable timing, as it always seems to return when the world needs it most. “The first production was done at the height of the AIDS pandemic,” he explained. “The second one soon after 9/11. And this production obviously came on the heels of the COVID pandemic.”
The show, which marks the first Broadway revival of a Stephen Sondheim musical since his passing, resonates with a wide range of audience members, Steffens said. “It is such a collective journey, and I think there are characters up on that stage that all of us can relate to. Everyone can see themselves up there. And that is particularly true in this production, given the diversity of our cast.
Steffens has plenty of opportunities to see the impact the show has first-hand. "Having put so many people into the show, I have watched it more times than you can imagine. I am always hiding in the back and sitting next to somebody who has no idea of my connection to the show. To watch everyone, from six-year-olds to 90-year-olds, go on this journey is nothing short of magical.”