Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus Share Their Difficult, Rewarding Journey Into the Woods
The married actors star in the hit Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine revival on Broadway.
Sebastian Arcelus and Stephanie J. Block's return to Broadway, and to performing onstage together, could be called magical. The married couple had been vacationing in Norway with their daughter when Block received a call from her agent.
"They knew I was going to be out of the country, so when I saw that my phone was ringing with their number, I knew it was something of great importance," Block said, as Arcelus added that it was remarkable she even had service while the three were hiking the Trail of the Trolls.
The call was of great importance: It was an invitation to take over two of the leading roles in the hit Broadway revival of Into The Woods, from Brian d'Arcy James and Sara Bareilles as the Baker and Baker's Wife. At first, it seemed like the two would need magic beans to make this happen. In addition to preparing for their first Broadway returns since the pandemic in dream roles, they had to move 3,000 miles, rent a house sight unseen, and register their daughter into a new school – all within six weeks.
"It meant a whole lot of important, life-changing moving parts in order to say yes to this opportunity," Arcelus said. "But we knew that the opportunity was a gift, and we knew that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Saying yes was kind of a no-brainer. It was everything else that had to happen within literally a month's time."
Arcelus and Block are no strangers to falling in love onstage. They met when co-starring in Wicked as Fiyero and Elphaba and share a wish list of roles they hope to perform together, which also includes Mother and Tateh in Ragtime and Lucille and Leo Frank in Parade, in addition to their current characters.
"Quite frankly, he and I are the Baker and the Baker's Wife in a lot of ways," Block said. And one of those ways is their collaboration. It's clear from the musical's first scene, as the two characters interact with a resigned familiarity, that the Baker and his Wife have been together for a long time. Arcelus and Block, who married in 2007, brought a similar familiarity to their characters – albeit, a more affectionate and exhausted one.
"You'd like to believe that you're going to walk into rehearsal on day one, rested and as prepared as you possibly can be," Arcelus recalled. "But with all of those life factors that had to be ironed out prior to our stepping into the first day of rehearsal, we were a bit ragged in some regard. It may have worked in our favor in that we approached the rehearsal process with very open hearts, very vulnerable."
It was Block who suggested they develop their characters separately before coming together in rehearsal, hoping to honor their different processes as actors. They also decided to have separate dressing rooms, but Arcelus does have a special secret knock for Block's. They can hear each other through the walls, so they warm up together even if the doors are closed. Arcelus stores "the good Ricolas" in his room, while Block's is where he can find "the gentle handwash."
Backstage is a familiar setting for Arcelus, who has starred in Elf and Jersey Boys and frequently visited his wife during her runs in productions like The Cher Show, for which she won a Tony. "I'm so used to going to see Steph's shows and popping by her dressing room, and giving her a hug, and then going out to the house to watch the show, or going on back home. Now, to come out of her room and then just make a little right turn to my own little space – it's pretty special," he said. "It's never really lost on me."
That mindfulness has been a part of the pair's journey with the show since they that mid-vacation phone call. While Into the Woods holds different meanings for different people, its story is especially poignant for their household. Their connection with their characters, and their wish for a child, is deeply personal. They struggled for five years to have a child before Block eventually gave birth to their daughter Vivienne in 2015.
"We tried everything," she recalled. "So that sort of undercurrent where it did end in happily ever after with our perfect Vivienne…Getting her was a real trial. I think that is infused just molecularly in our performance because we carry a lot of the real in this story in our life."
Their travels through the woods take the Baker and his Wife on a journey through their relationship, as the two grow to respect and admire each other. This culminates in the song "It Takes Two," as they reflect on how their time in the woods has changed them as a pair. Surprisingly, Block and Arcelus's relationship proved to be a detriment, rather than an asset, to their performance. They were actually asked to tone down the love they feel for each other.
"I've never looked at that song as a love song until he and I started to perform it together," Block said. "During the course of rehearsals, we were getting a lot of notes from [director] Lear [deBessonet] saying, 'the Baker and the Baker's Wife do not have what you and Sebastian have. You guys are very affectionate. You guys do have a respect. They have to grow and get that along the way along the journey of the storytelling.'"
Despite the necessary restraint, the duet is a favorite of Arcelus. "It's so special to actually sing that to your wife. I think that to myself every time I look over, and it's actually her eyes I'm looking into."
While the couple in the show has a less happy ending than Arcelus and Block's love story, both actors embrace the bittersweet emotions they experience onstage. The inner growth of the Baker's Wife's is witnessed in the song, "Moments in the Woods." A moving meditation on inner growth, the song is powerful in any time, but for Block, it's especially powerful to perform after almost three years of the Covid-19 pandemic and pondering the decisions and sacrifices of so many people.
"That that word 'or' means a lot to a lot of people, because these decisions have not been easy," she said. "These choices have not been easy, and these pains that we've all endured have not been easy, and I think that touches every single audience member on a different level."
The Baker's contemplation on life and loss comes in the song "No More," as he grieves the losses his journey through the woods have wrought. The song's emotions are universal, but the performance is very specific for Arcelus.
"I'm a father now, and my life has changed," he said. "And I lost my father recently, and my life has changed. If you just actually sing those words, it really is one of the most perfect songs I think ever written. There's no real way to explain it, but history and future are sort of baked together, allowing you to just be in the present of that moment."
While art has mirrored life with Block and Arcelus's journey to starring in Into the Woods, their life at home reflects it back. The couple's daughter knows the show's score better than her parents do, Block said, and her favorite character is Milky White, followed by the Witch and Red Riding Hood. "Sebastian and I don't even make the top five."
After all the changes the tight-knit family had gone through in the past two years, the Three Musketeers, as Block called them, are still finding their way through the changes of the past few weeks.
"We are much like the Baker and the Baker's Wife," she said. "We are exhausted and grateful and searching."