Love or hate The Hypocrite’s innovative interpretation of Steven Sondheim’s seminal musical "Into the Woods", you can’t deny the talent of one of its key players. As The Witch, a role made iconic by Bernadette Peters, Hillary Marren shows off an enviable singing voice and spot-on comedic timing. Our Town spoke with the Chicago actress about her influences, vocal care and why she loves Chipotle.
Our Town Why theatre?
Hillary Marren To tell someone’s story, and share it with people in real time is a feeling unlike anything else on earth. You don’t get the chance to go back and redo a line, you can’t edit out the things you didn’t like, and you can’t always control the variables on stage. There’s beauty in the imperfection. It’s also a moment in time where a group of strangers meet in one room so they can all feel something together, and how cool is that?
OT Who are your influences?
HM There is a wide range of people who influence me. growing up, comedy and music were always at the forefront for me. Though I was too young to be watching, I was enthralled with Jan Hooks on SNL, and Cheri O’Teri was another favorite. I spent a lot of time listening to folk music like Jonatha Brooke and Bonnie Raitt, but I also fell in love with Mariah Carey and Mary J Blige. I had dreams of becoming a pop star all through my adolescence, and because of that, I was heavily influenced by contemporary musicals when it came to theatre. Some of my favorites are "Wicked," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Avenue Q," and I could sing you the entire score (male vocals included!) of "Jekyll and Hyde."
OT What makes the Hypocrite’s production of "Into the Woods" unique?
HM The Hypocrites are known for their high theatricality and their penchant for combining honesty with presentation. Our director, Geoff Button, found a way to use the heightened playfulness of the company to help tell Sondheim’s story in a fresh way, in turn also allowing it to eventually be deconstructed. In doing so, the comedy of the show really comes through in a way that you wouldn’t normally see with a traditional production, and it’s this juxtaposition that makes the harsh reality of Act 2 even more apparent as the show goes on. There’s a dichotomy of simplicity and complexity all around. And I’m also pretty sure that no one has ever attempted to do Sondheim with balloons.
OT What was it like to step into a role made famous by Bernadette Peters?
HM The most challenging thing about playing a role like this, is that people who are familiar with the original production bring their own expectations of what the role should and shouldn’t be. As an actress, I had to trust my own instincts, and that of the creative team, and like any other role, focus on giving an honest interpretation of the character.
OT In the production, the cast play multiple roles. Was there any way in which that felt prohibitive?
HM Yes, it is certainly a challenge to play multiple roles, especially with this particular musical, which is difficult enough on its own. It is especially difficult to switch into such contrasting characters almost simultaneously, and all while being onstage. If the Witch were my only focus, maybe the audience would have perceived my character differently. Maybe I would have gone a different route with her. Who knows!
OT With such a demanding show, how do you take care of your voice?
HM Vocal health is something that is very important to me, and I have many regimens that I make a priority when I am doing a show. The two biggest things for me are always doing a proper warm up and warm down before/after singing, and I always steam before and after every performance. Steaming is my religion. In between all that, I consume lots of water, throat coat tea, and honey. I try to reduce my coffee intake as much as I can, and I avoid alcohol at all costs. For me, nothing kills my voice faster than my favorite cocktail, unfortunately.
OT Are there any moments in the show you can watch again and again?
HM Luckily, with our version of "Into the Woods," I do get to watch the show night after night from the sidelines, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. I always enjoy watching “Agony” with the 2 princes, and I could watch “No One is Alone” over and over again. I feel all of the feelings with that one.
OT Favorite lines or songs?
HM A lot of my favorite lines from the show are lines that seem insignificant, but have become my favorite because of how the actor has chosen to portray it. Like when Will Skrip as the Prince interrupts the Steward by covering his face with his hand and saying “Enough of what you thought!” I giggle every time. “No One is Alone” is my favorite song in the show. I think it may even be currently holding the spot as my favorite musical theatre song ever written. The lyrics speak to everyone on such a specific, emotional level, and then you have the violin sweeping majestically underneath it all, and it just gets you straight to the core. There’s a part of me that wishes I got to sing it, but to be able to sit back and listen to my cast members sing it so beautifully every night is a real treat.
OT Your bio says you love Chipotle? Really????
HM GURL. They’ve laced their rice with something.
OT What’s next for you?
HM I am currently understudying "Schoolhouse Rock Live!" at the Marriott, and then I will be working in Indiana at Theatre at the Center for "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" this fall. In the meantime, I will soon be shooting my first web series, "Humane Resources." I also see a vacation in my future.
"Into The Woods" runs through March 30th at Mercury Theater. Buy tickets here.