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The Witch & the Woods: Maria Mercedes on a musical masterpiece

Ahead of her debut as The Witch in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony-winning Into the Woods, stage and screen icon Maria Mercedes reflects on the role and the specialness of the musical.

Tell us about your character?

The Witch is a very complex character in Into the Woods. She’s an interesting archetype. Initially she comes off as the bad one, but as the show progresses and the story unfolds, she’s actually there to teach them all the story of life through her own experience. 

Into the Woods as a musical is very complex. It’s the most complex show I’ve ever undertaken; in as far as musically, lyrically, but also the first half is not what it ends up being. It’s fantastic because it encompasses so many different storylines through all the different characters and it’s very funny, but then through the progress of the show, we realise that not is all what it seems, and the lesson is sacrificing everything that is valuable to get the token that you want in life is not the way to live and I think Sondheim has truly driven that message ingeniously.

It’s a miracle of a show. If you only see one show in your life, it has to be Into the Woods!

What are your favourite songs in Into the Woods?

All the songs that I sing are my favourite songs in Into the Woods! No, look, I love all the music. I’ve always been a Sondheim fan. The only other show I’ve ever done prior to Into the Woods of Sondheim’s was Gypsy, where I played Miss Mazeppa – very different to the Witch – a horn-blowing stripper with a tough exterior and a heart of gold.

I do love ‘Last Midnight’, obviously. It encompasses each and every character’s journey. Under no uncertain terms she lets fly and lets them (the other characters) know that she’s also paid a huge price for what she thought was important in life. It’s huge – it’s big.

Throughout the show, there are so many beautiful melodies and lyrics. My goodness, they’re the hardest lyrics we’ve ever had to learn. It’s so challenging but as an audience member sitting there, I don’t think you would even notice that. It’s just so beautifully constructed.

What is Into the Woods about?

Into the Woods is about a collection of people within the world, within this village, which is really a metaphor for the world really. Though they come across as the favourite fairy tale characters that we’ve grown up with, I think it’s a wonderful instrument to draw people into how we are all in this world together – regardless of our nationality or socio-economic background. Our wants and needs may differ, but our hearts beat as one on this planet.

That’s what Into the Woods is about – it’s a metaphor for being kind and loving and true to the things that matter. What does matter is humanity and that’s what this show is about.

How excited are you about joining this cast in this production for West Australian Opera?

I’m so excited, I truly am. Every role I do is a gift, but I think this is an immense gift. I am so excited to be working with Cameron Menzies, primarily, because this is his vision – this is his baby.  And I’ve always wanted to work with Cam… a true genius.

To be working in a show of this magnitude, of a show so important, particularly because we’ve gone through such an incredible evolution in the last three years as a planet regardless of whether you’re rich, poor, indifferent – we have all experienced the same experience. It’s almost like Sondheim was prophetic because Into the Woods is so meaningful at this time in our lives. I’m so excited, so excited!

Why should audiences see Into the Woods?

Audiences should see Into the Woods because, as I mentioned before, whether you are a musical theatre fan or a fan of fairy tales or drama or comedy, I think it encompasses everything. But unlike a lot of musicals, which are fairly light and forgettable can I say, I think audiences will remember this show for a long time to come.

It will resonate, it will hit a nerve, it will be enjoyable. There’ll be lots of laughs as well because you can’t tell a story of this magnitude, of this depth, without having some lightness as well. It covers everything. It’s beautiful.

West Australian Opera presents Into the Woods from 23 March – 1 April at His Majesty’s Theatre. Book here.