Jason Forbach/Instagram, Bruce Glikas/Getty
Into the Woods' opening night on Broadway proved that the show must always go on.
Ever since the production's acclaimed limited engagement at New York City Center this spring, the latest revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's award-winning musical was one of the most highly anticipated Broadway productions of the new theatrical season.
However, on opening night last week, lead actor Brian d'Arcy James — who stars as the Baker opposite Sara Bareilles' Baker's Wife — was out, and understudy Jason Forbach got notice that he would be leading the show for a star-studded packed house. It would only be his third time performing the role; his first two performances were the day prior.
"Somebody commented [to me] recently: 'Can you imagine being thrown on for one of the most iconic roles in music theater in one of the most anticipated revivals on an opening night in New York City?' I think if I had thought of it in those terms, I would've been a complete disaster," Forbach, 44, tells PEOPLE.
Instead, the actor — who also understudies a handful of other roles in the show — kept a level head and leaned on his cast members for support. "I have to give a lot of credit to Sara for being such a gracious colleague and a brilliant, comfortable, genius actor. For really caring for me and helping me through in a very loving way," he says. "I always felt very protected and safe."
He also thought back to his high school drama teacher Max Brown, who introduced him to Into the Woods when Forbach was a teenager in Kansas City. "I reached out to him and just told him how much I appreciated him," he says. "I think he is the reason that opening-night performance happened."
Forbach describes the days leading up to the big night on Sunday as "frenetic." He was in last-minute rehearsals to perfect a role he had never done before in front of a live audience. Around 9 a.m. on Saturday, he received "the most nerve-wracking phone call I've ever received in my life," he says. He would go on as the Baker for both shows on Saturday and again for the red-carpet event on Sunday.
"Talk about pressure," he jokes, noting that Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason — who originated the roles of the Baker and the Baker's Wife, respectively, when Into the Woods debuted on Broadway in 1987 — were in the audience on opening night.
It was an out-of-body experience, he explains, adding: "I was just trying to do the best that I could. I don't think I really had a sense of the impact of the night until the show was over."
Things didn't really hit him until he saw his husband, fellow actor Joseph Spieldenner, after receiving a roaring standing ovation from the crowd. "He was just in absolute tears. And then I see my friends after, and they're all in tears, and then I start crying, and I'm like, 'Oh, I think some magic happened tonight.' "
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Much like the show itself, going on at a moment's notice was a fairytale for Forbach. "It ended up being the most magical experience of my life — probably ever," he says.
After the show, Forbach enjoyed a low-key celebration with a burger and fries at a nearby restaurant with cast members (opening-night gala celebrations have been scaled back since COVID temporarily shut down the theater industry). Still, he says, "We just had a beautiful summer night."
And then it was back to work. "I was the Baker for about a full week," he says, adding that he then had a day to "decompress" before going on as the dual role of the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince. "It's the marathon that never ends, which," he adds, "is very exciting."
Into the Woods currently plays at the St. James Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit IntotheWoodsBway.com.