Iconic 1970s pop singer Debby Boone plays The Witch in Candlelight Dinner Playhouse's 'Into the Woods' through June 5.
Debby Boone, the singer who lit up the 1970s with the biggest-selling hit of the decade, has spent much of her adult life playing against type. She toyed with her wholesome image by playing the promiscuous Rizzo in a Broadway revival of Grease. At the height of her pop popularity, she switched over to country music. And now she's in Johnstown to play the misunderstood Witch in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse.
Debby Boone? A witch?
“Yeah, I think this is the furthest from type I have gone so far,” Boone said with a laugh while preparing for tonight’s opening in Johnstown, located 40 miles north of Denver. “Playing Rizzo was a blast for me. And it was scary as all get-out to go out and do that on a Broadway stage. But this is so much more challenging.”
And she’s the first to admit: When she got the call asking her to join the company in Colorado, “My jaw hit the floor like everybody else,” she said.
But this isn’t your typical stunt casting. While Boone is not a formally trained classical singer, she’s got training in her DNA. Her maternal grandfather is country music star Red Foley. And her father, Pat Boone, was second only to Elvis Presley in record sales in the late 1950s. Debby Boone began touring in gospel shows with her parents at age 14 along with her three sisters. The deeply religious Boones were essentially America's Von Trapps.
Debby made her Broadway debut in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982 and has performed around the world in productions of The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Meet Me in St. Louis, Camelot and even Human Comedy by Galt MacDermot, the man behind Hair. At a proud 59, the pop star has more than credibly crossed over into musical theatre.
But, c’mon. This is Sondheim.
“Yes, and this is so much harder than anything I ever imagined,” said Boone, who deep down wanted nothing more than to bite into the juicy role of the infamous witch who is not good, not nice but rather – “I’m just right.” Still, the singer who sold 4 million singles in 1977 alone had a crisis of confidence when she was asked to take on the role The Witch.
“Hey I know that, on many levels, it's a stretch,” she admitted. “I asked myself, ‘Can I do this?’ Because honestly - it's really scary.”
Boone found the strength to say yes from two past experiences: One was when her famous father was turning 60 (as she will this coming September), and he starred in a production of The Will Rogers Follies, without any previous musical theatre experience. “He had to learn how to do all of those complicated rope tricks and other things that were so completely foreign to him,” Boone said. “All my life, I have watched him just fearlessly move into things he doesn't necessarily have the background for, but he just goes for the challenge.”
The other was her own decision to play Rizzo in a 1996 Broadway revival of Grease. This wasn’t Boone’s first time on Broadway stage. After having toured Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for a year in preparation for Broadway, the show was savaged by the New York Times and closed after two weeks. Why would she open herself up to that kind of pain again?
“Because the only reason not to do it would have been fear,” she said. “And I just don't want to live that way.”
She ultimately said yes to Candlelight, she said, “because I really wanted to take this on as a challenge and as a growing experience. “
Boone wasn’t nervous last month when she joined the 20-plus actors who had already been working on Into the Woods for a week before her arrival. She was terrified. Asked whether the locals geeked out just a little bit when Debby Boone first walked into the room, she said, “I think it was the other way around. I was shaking in my boots with intimidation.
“Listen, I have had many opportunities to do musicals, but I always come in feeling like I am the odd man out, because it's true,” she said. “I don't have training. I never went to a college that has a music program. I've hardly studied voice. I'm a pop singer. But these guys here at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse all have had training, and they have these huge vocal ranges. I have to say, they have assembled the most gifted, talented cast here that I could ever hope to be among.”
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She thanks the cast for welcoming her, and especially the “most wonderful” Musical Director, Phil Forman. “This is a very tiring role vocally, and he really worked with me,” said Boone. “He showed me how not to waste my voice when I don't need to - and when I really have to bring it.”
She’ll be bringing it, all right, starting tonight and for the next three weeks, through June 5. After that, Into the Woods continues through July 10, with Beth Beyer playing The Witch – an actor Boone says flatly is better in the role than she is.
Boone, whose husband, Gabriel Ferrer, is an Episcopal priest and the son of legendary crooner Rosemary Clooney, is the mother of four and also a first-time grandmother. She had plenty more to say about Beyer; the song that put Boone the musical map; the single she’d rather you listened to; who the ‘You’ is in You Light Up My Life; and a juicy little story about the songwriter who induced an honest-to-goodness profanity out of that squeaky-clean mouth. Read on.
John Moore: Take us back to 1977. It’s the height of disco. You’re 21 years old. You have never sung solo - and the songwriter Joseph Brooks asks you to record the title track to his film, You Light Up My Life.
Debby Boone: It’s funny because the way things are now, with shows like American Idol and The Voice, 21 is like an old hag. And I felt so young. I was still living at home. Going into that studio in New York to record You Light Up My Life, for me, was the exciting beginning of what I call the long, hard climb. I had no anticipation that the song would ever be heard by anyone other than the people who were there in the studio. I did not see it as a hit record. And so no one was more shocked and surprised by what happened than I was.
John Moore: Did that song ever come to feel like a burden or a curse?
Debby Boone: Oh yeah. Especially early on. When you are young and you have a big start like that, you are kind of naive. I had been part of The Boone Family Show. I had never been out there on a stage by myself. So I felt very unprepared for what was coming my way. It was really kind of scary. And after that song came out, it was the only song anyone wanted to hear. Everywhere I went, that song had to be done. Of course, you get sort of sick of singing the same thing over and over and over - and you want people to know there is more to you. But I got over that really quickly as I became a little more seasoned. I realized there was no reason to be anything but grateful for people wanting to hear you sing. The kind of emotion that song brings up for people, and the stories they have told me over the years of what that song has meant in their lives personally, has made me realize what a gift and a blessing it is. When I begin to sing that song, it's palpable in the room, and that is a tremendous feeling to experience.
John Moore: So Joseph Brooks wrote the song. But to you, who is 'You' in You Light Up My Life?
Debby Boone: When I first decided how that lyric struck me, I never thought anybody was ever going to ask me that question. It really took me off-guard the first time. I couldn't do anything but tell the truth, even though sometimes in print it looks like I had an agenda, which I certainly did not. But, for me, those words really lent themselves to becoming a prayer. I always think of my relationship with God in terms of love and light - of being alone, and God filling that place. Now, the guy who wrote the song was not a very nice man. Somebody asked him in an interview about how Debby Boone said she sang his song to God, and his eloquent response was, 'Bull(bleep!).'
John Moore: Now I wish this were a podcast so people could have heard you say that word. So tell me this then: For those people who have never heard you sing another song, what’s another single I can point them to that you consider a favorite?
Debby Boone: When I sang I'm So Lonesome by Hank Williams, I discovered a place in me I had never known was there. It brought together all of the musical influences of my life. My grandfather, Red Foley, was a big Country and Western gospel singer from the Grand Ole Opry and a contemporary of Hank Williams. It was on an album dedicated to Rosemary Clooney, who had also recorded that song. When we were putting the song together, I felt this country depth, as well as a kind of jazz fusion happen in the moment. It was magical. So that was a favorite for a really long time.
John Moore: Who do you love among today's country stars?
Debby Boone: I am a huge fan of Alison Krauss.
John Moore: You went from pop music to Broadway in 1982. Today, it has become common for performers from shows like American Idol to be cast in shows like Chicago and Rock of Ages. Is that good for Broadway?
Debby Boone: I really feel for the people who have worked so hard to have a well-formed craft - like the very people I am working with at Candlelight right now. When they see somebody come in who has none of that kind of training or experience, they might see it as taking jobs from them – and I completely empathize with that. I really do. But I also think there are no jobs for those people if theatre continues to dwindle. So there is something to be gained when you have someone in your show who people will come to see – and wouldn't necessarily come if one of their favorite performers were not in it. And if they come, then you have introduced new people to musical theatre. And they may come back because you exposed them to something they didn't ever really notice before. And then there are shows like Hamilton that are not star-driven but they are so original that they draw new people in, too. So I say: Whatever works.
John Moore: How's your dad?
Debby Boone: He's great. He is inspirational in that he is 82 years old. He stays busy, and he's always wanting to learn and be involved and vibrant - and he can't stand the thought that he's 82. He still loves to get up on a stage and perform and meet people. There's a chance he may come out to Colorado to see this, but he just signed on to do another movie, so it's not looking like he might be able to get here. But he would love this.
John Moore: So, you … in Johnstown … performing Into the Woods: How did this happen
Debby Boone: I was brought in about five years ago when they started to do personal-appearance concerts at Candlelight. I did a Christmas show. I was so impressed with the theatre and the quality of the sound. The whole environment was just lovely. It was my ex-manager who suggested to them that maybe they should ask known recording artists to come in and do some of the actual theatrical performances.
(The photo at right comes from Debby Boone's Instagram account with the caption: "Got to wear my prosthetics for 'Into The Woods' today. We are making some color corrections, but the transformation begins!)
John Moore: So tell us about The Witch.
Debby Boone: I find her to be very identifiable. She's acting out of woundedness and insecurities, She has this daughter she loves and wants to protect. But she is in dreaded fear of losing her, and so she acts badly. I have four kids, and I know some of the worst mistakes I have ever made have been out of love and fear of them making their own mistakes.
John Moore: Essentially she’s just a woman who has had a curse put on her, and she wants it to be lifted. And as we have seen from Beauty and the Beast to Wicked, there really is a human underneath the curse.
Debby Boone: Yes, and when people hurt people, the circles keep growing and manifesting. Out of her own hurt she creates the same kind of imprisonment on her daughter that was also placed on her. That’s life. That is so much life.
John Moore: When Meryl Streep played the role in the movie, she said Into the Woods is just a metaphor for how can we all just get along.
Debby Boone: I think so, too. And even broader than that, for everybody in this story, it's moving from fear to love.
John Moore: So tell people why they should come see Into the Woods.
Debby Boone: It is a magical night of theatre with the most talented cast that I could ever hope to be among. And I think it will be such a surprise to people who aren't familiar with this show. This is a beautiful piece. We are going to take audiences on a ride, and they are going to feel something.
John Moore: You are performing through June 5, but the show goes on after that. Why should people still come even after you have left the building?
Debby Boone: The woman who will also play this role is named Beth Beyer, and she is just fantastic. I certainly hope that no one who can't make it in the first three weeks might think they are going to see something ‘less than’ - because it really is quite the opposite.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Into the Woods: Ticket information
- Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
- 4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown, CO 80534 MAP IT
(I-25 at Exit 254, just south of Historic Johnson's Corner)
- Performances through July 10 (Debby Boone appears through June 5)
Thursday through Saturdays: Dinner at 6 p.m., Show at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday Matinees: Dinner noon, show at 1:30 p.m.
Sunday Matinees: Dinner 12:30 p.m., show at 2 p.m.
- Call 970-744-3747 or go to at www.ColoradoCandlelight.com