My favorite line in INTO THE WOODS has always been the Witch’s “I was just trying to be a good mother.” It’s widely received (on the stage anyway) as a laugh line to transition a moment. But in Rob Marshall’s version of this story, it’s a poignant, remarkable bookmark that made me almost tear up sitting in the Red Rock Regal Cinema. You see, everyone LOVES Sondheim. (And if you’re a theatre person and don’t…we’ll stone you to death.) But, the thing is…WHY do people love Sondheim? As a patron, is it his release from formulaic musical convention? As an artist, is it the challenge of skillfully crafted material? As a young actor, is it the blood, bad buys and nuances that are so much fun to love of hate? I think the answer is YES on all accounts. But, I would ask you to look past all of this for one moment…and look at the relationship between WORDS and MUSIC.
I’ve argued with anyone who has ears that Stephen Sondheim is a poet. The words he uses in his songs are cleverly and perfectly set to the moment. High schools across the country have presented INTO THE WOODS…heck, there is even a Tumblr site dedicated to low-budget Milky Whites, that I find most amusing. (https://www.tumblr.com/search/lowbudgetmilkywhites) From a producer’s perspective, INTO THE WOODS has a wonderfully twisted ensemble with parts for skilled vocalists, up-and-growing “green” performers, and optional ensemble parts. It has little dance (which is always a concern for drama groups) and costuming, set and prop elements can be as simple and complex as you’d like. The only tricky element is the source material, which in turn bookmarks this musical as a perfect example for those theatre groups hoping to engage students in lessons about simply telling a good story. (And for those who have a hand for creating transportive theatre, the show is a wealth of opportunity.)
I’ve seen about a dozen live INTO THE WOODS productions. (Including one I directed in a high school gymnasium.) I’ve seen wild variations. One included a minimalist production told in an aristocratic living room during a thunder storm, as each high-society snob acted out the parts in turn “making up the story” as they went along. Interesting. I’ve seen video projections, puppetry, one told inside a closed book store and even one production where the Witch transformed from beautiful to ugly (instead of the other way around) and they played it off that the Witch preferred it that way. Hm. I’m sure there was an intended creative choice there and an accompanying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” message they were trying to send (much in the same light as Violet’s invisible scar, in Violet – The Musical, maybe??) Lots of fun to be had with characters we all know already…which is why I think directors feel magically compelled to “reinvent the wheel” (as snobby critics say) in their artistic vision of this particular musical. (Which is why it is so often regarded as a “good musical to produce.”)
The Original Broadway cast was superb…I show the filmed production to my classes…and it served as a springboard for Bernadette Peters to be cast in platinum as the production’s “forever Witch.” (Much in the same way that we’ll compare everyone who plays Elphaba to Idina.) The Broadway Revival, which started out in L.A. and featured a GIGANTIC giant foot that stomped on patrons waiting outside when it transferred to New York was wonderfully bland. I blame Vanessa Williams as unconnectable Witch, but that’s just me. (Loved her in Ugly Betty!) The British version wasn’t really well-received and included the new song “Our Little World.” (I can take it or leave it. I usually disregard it. The show is long anyway. Do we really need to lament more on the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship and combing her hair?) The Central Park, free admission production offered about 4 years ago was untraditional and offered a creepy Witch, a jungle-gym of a set and a Little Red in a bicycle helmet! I can hardly wait to see the Roundabout Theatre variation that is slated to head to Broadway very soon. (I’m ga ga over the piano concept in their minimalist design. Wackadoodle!)
INTO THE WOODS is everywhere, which was why I went into the theatre today curious. I was pleasantly surprised at Marshall’s “CHICAGO” and I liked…not loved…liked, Burton’s “SWEENEY TODD.” What was going to become of another one of my favorites, and arguably a more often produced musical (moreso than CHICAGO and SWEENEY TOOD) at a high school level. I’m always worried how the non-theatre-going demographic is exposed to theatre in general. Live theatre is the most essential storytelling device we have in the world today. Music is the only thing we as a culture universally share as a binding agent. (We all love music.) Put the two together…and we have the opportunity to move mountains. As a director, I have the privilege (and burden) of shaping a production in the manner in which I hope to offer it up to an audience (full of the most critical theatre-loving critics and first-time theatre goers). When you take a musical that already means so much to you, personally…and redevelop it as a movie…the opportunity to loose integrity is great. (I would argue that the elimination of the chorus of pie-eating patrons in the Sweeney movie made the London masses, a collective character and important voice in the story, made the movie more about a monster of man…instead of the fact that we all might have a little bit of a monster inside of us. “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” How do we know to think about that, if we don’t have a collective voice telling us? But, I digress.)
The Rob Marshall INTO THE WOODS is quite possibly the best theatre to film adaption I’ve ever seen. It’s a wonderful story, presented thoughtfully without any loss of integrity. Those who love the musical will love the movie. Those who have never seen the musical will not miss out on any “inside jokes” or thematic elements potentially lost int he translation. There aren’t any. It tricks you. It’s not a movie-musical….it’s a musical-movie. On three different occasions I burst into a round of applause after a musical number, forgetting that this was a movie, not a musical. It nips and tucks in all the right places, and while I’ve been hearing a drone of “I wish the song NO MORE was included” among my theatre friends, I would argue it was not needed. The handling of the Mysterious Man was well-done, and the elimination of the physical Narrator (replaced wisely by the voice of the Baker, foreshadowing the tear-jerking final moment…which was BEAUTIFUL) made the song a bit redundant. They covered what they needed to cover…and good news!…you can still sing that song in the musical! Other missing musical elements are minimal, but as you’ll note, they were all connected to theatrical devices within the story that were eliminated in the movie. Nip tuck, nip tuck. (It’s a movie…without an intermission.)
What struck me as the most profound choices in the film were the choices. Allow me to highlight a few. *SPOILER ALERT*
- The fact that there wasn’t a single title or credit at the beginning of the movie…brilliant. Immediately it plunked us down into this world. Before we could blink an eye…we were 20 minutes into the film and all of the exposition was laid out for us and we were actively engaged.
- The contemplative “On the Steps of the Palace” was whimsical and perfectly staged as a moment in time. How often have we scrambled our brains to make a decision in a heartbeat…millions of times throughout a day? How wonderfully theatrical of our director to present this song in such a way, and deconstruct the moment that we all know as a simple act of leaving a shoe behind. Fun stuff.
- The Princes’ song “Agony” (a borderline stereotype portrayal of the rugged and babyfaced Princes we all know from their respective stories) found two very likable characters temper-tantruming through splashy waters as they gaze upon their kingdom. It was thoughtful, well-filmed and hilarious. You INSTANTLY championed these two devise characters.
- There is a danger in putting Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Who doesn’t love Johnny Depp? Those not familiar with the show may be heart-broken to only see him for ten minutes of screen time and catching stills from the set prior to watching the movie made me nervous. In performance, traditionally the Wolf is either portrayed as a personification of the age-old lesson of “don’t talk to strangers” or as a evil man of some kind, because all men are dogs…or, rather, wolves. The publicity photos saw Depp as a sort of Zoot Suit wearing gigalo. (Aside from the addition of some fun fur…Depp kinda looks like he was taken right off the street in his usual wears and onto the movie set!) I was pleased to see that HOW Depp portrayed the Wolf. It was very wolf-like…darting between trees to catch a glimpse, his trademark sneer when offering a sprig of flowers to the girl….it was VERY fun. I didn’t care how he was dressed…all I cared about was the fact that Depp was “the wolf” and how it was related was acceptable to me. Sometimes I wonder if I analyze stuff too much. HA!
- The kids were GREAT. Daniel Huddlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red were perfect fits. (I would have loved a bit more snarkiness from Red…but, I’m being picky.) Emily Blunt is a superstar as the Baker’s Wife. James Cordon is adorable and sympathetic as the Baker. Everybody loves Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick IN Pitch Perfect. They were quick to critique her in this film…but I would argue that she gave Cinderella the exact amount of torment. I was initially worried that she’d be too contemporary, but she was wonderful in the role. Tracy Ullman, Chris Pine….shoot, the entire cast was simply well-suited for their roles. Is there an award for CASTING a movie?
- Now let’s talk about Meryl Streep. Preface: I’m a huge Bernadette Peters fan. I’ve always thought Streep was a great actress, but I never understood the tidal wave of hype about her. (In the same breathe…what’s up with the torrent love affair with with Barbara Streisand? I like her…but I don’t get the obsession. Another blog post for another day.) With that said…I cannot imagine another actress who could have played the role better. She sang beautifully and extracted from us the perfect about of sentiment and emotion. We loved her…we hated her…we feared her…and (most importantly) we found ourselves feeling sorry for her. In the song “Children Will Listen” (which is a song that could stand-alone as the show’s landmark) we were transported from the world of many characters’ strife to the inner struggle of a would-be mother and her desperate struggle to connect with her child and shield her from the dangers of the world. It’s beautiful. I LOVED “Last Midnight” for the same reason. I love how I can COUNT ON my students getting pissed off when the Witch disappears at the end of the Broadway version. “Did she die?” they ask. Maybe…maybe not. She’s definitely gone. They HATE unresolved. (Remind me to never read them the folk tale “The Lady and the Tiger.”) The Witch is at the center of this story…and Streep connects in every right way. (And I love the blue hair.)
I’m thrilled that another generation of could-be theatre goers will be exposed to this movie variation. It tells a great story and more importantly it relates (through WORDS and MUSIC) that truly no one is alone in their pursuit to communicate, be needed, protect and survive tragedy together. It’s a bedtime story and when the Baker is telling the tale to his son in the final moments…and the camera peels away…you desperately want to remain, a part of the audience. But no…our director takes us out of that world…and then for the first time presents the title: “INTO THE WOODS” reminding us it’s just a story. Wow. Brilliance.
INTO THE WOODS is the story of all of our lives, (whether we’re Bakers, Princes, Witches or Giants) and can effectively remind us that at the end of the day, we’re all going into a world that presents dangers, and only together can we survive and more importantly thrive.
I sit, poised and ready to purchase the Blue Ray upon its release. I have the projector in my classroom warmed up.