SOUND OFF: INTO THE WOODS Blossoms & Blooms Onscreen

By: Dec. 17, 2014
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Today we are analyzing all aspects of the brilliant brand new big screen edition of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's INTO THE WOODS.

That Happier Day Arrives

"You can't just act, / You have to think," sing the collection of fairy tale characters populating Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's multi-Tony Award-winning 1987 fairy tale-themed musical INTO THE WOODS at its conclusion. And, in bringing the beloved and oft-produced family-friendly musical to the big screen, director Rob Marshall and the esteemed team he has collected for the Disney movie musical edition have done just that - a lot of thinking. Although various attempts to make INTO THE WOODS cinematic have been attempted over the intervening years since its Broadway debut nearly 30 years ago, it is with much satisfaction and relief to now report that the INTO THE WOODS movie we have been given is, in a word, extraordinary. Diehard fans may quibble that a verse has been cut here and a reprise has been cut there, but the vast majority of Stephen Sondheim's whimsical, charming, lyrical and emotive score has been retained - and, in some cases, expanded upon - while being overseen by the master himself, ably abetted by his frequent collaborators, genius orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and reliable conductor Paul Gemignani. The trio have ensured that not only does the score as heard and seen onscreen function in as just a powerful and impacting manner as it does in the stage show, but that it effortlessly flows with the cinematic realization of the material as envisioned by original bookwriter and director, now screenwriter, James Lapine. Much as it soars to the utmost heavenly heights of movie musical euphoria on its sparkling soundtrack, released in a nearly 90-minute deluxe 2-disc recording earlier this week, so does the score in the film buoy and complement the visual, thematic and dramatic action and atmosphere of the specific fairy tale world painstakingly created and effortlessly presented by the filmmakers. And, what a remarkable and magical world these woods really are.

Arguably Sondheim's most recognizable musical of the last 30 years, INTO THE WOODS has endured at least two failed ventures to make the material sing onscreen before now. Under director Penny Marshall, a wow-worthy assemblage of talent was corralled to comprise a reading of the material in the 1990s, boasting such high-wattage star power as Martin Short (The Baker), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (The Baker's Wife), Christine Lahti (The Witch), Neil Patrick Harris (Jack), Rob Lowe (Cinderella's Prince) and Michael Jeter (The Giant). Then, an even more impressive cast was selected to star in the next reading, in 1995: Robin Williams (The Baker), Goldie Hawn (The Baker's Wife), Cher (The Witch), Elijah Wood (Jack), Steve Martin (The Wolf) and Danny DeVito (The Giant), among others. Jim Henson Studios was involved, as well, with the animal characters meant to be visualized in puppet form, taking a cue from a largely reworked script by CITY SLICKERS writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel that also required some new songs from Sondheim (a new "I Wish" opening sequence; a cute duet for the Baker and his Wife, "Rainbows"). As Sondheim amusingly said to me once of the cast for the second reading (available here), "It was really, really good. I remember thinking, 'If a bomb drops on this house, half of Hollywood would be wiped out!'" Nonetheless, the bomb instead fell on the project itself and the rights were then secured for a time by uber producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron in 1997, who preliminarily cast Billy Crystal (The Baker), Meg Ryan (The Baker's Wife) and Susan Sarandon (The Witch). Unfortunately, that iteration of the project never reached lift-off, either. After that, a 2002 Broadway revival of the musical appeared, complete with some intriguing new tweaks by the authors - two Wolves, the addition of the Three Little Pigs, integrating the West End-penned "Our Little World" Witch/Rapunzel duet and making "On The Steps Of The Palace" end in a trio (with Jack and Little Red Riding Hood joining Cinderella). More revivals followed, with the most recent beginning previews in New York momentarily.

Intriguingly and quite ironic to note now, in our 2010 conversation (available here), Sondheim stressed the importance of avoiding the overly familiar adaptations of fairy tales popularized by Disney with his take on the Brothers Grimm, relaying, "I think what it was, is that I wanted a sort of contemporary feeling to the show, anyway - you know, so it wasn't Disney-esque." When I posited "Cartoonish?" he agreed, remarking, "Yeah, that was the thing I wanted to avoid, was all the Disney fairy tales." Now, at the very studio that he initially set out to differentiate his fairy tale musical treatise from in its function, style, tone and design, he has found its true home - and, as it turns out, cinematic nirvana. Was it inevitable? Musical theatre's finest songwriter paying generous and ingenious homage to fairy tales would certainly seem the ideal property for the world's most famous and most celebrated family entertainment brand to take on someday, were the man behind the musical to allow it - and, not only has he allowed it to happen, he has had a significant hand in shaping the celluloid vision of INTO THE WOODS specifically for the screen. The result is not a simulacrum of the stage musical, nor a precious or overly staunch adaptation - what it is is something fresh, vital, dynamic and potent. Stronger in its effect than a witch's spell, the swiftly moving two-hour experience of the film packs just as much punch, elicits just as many tears, bestows just as much world-weary knowledge and surely soars in equal measure to the considerably longer stage musical. Like Little Red Riding Hood, it seamlessly skips along and hits you in your heart, often when you least expect it.

The glories of INTO THE WOODS as experienced in Disney's new film are multiple, but the highest praise of all - after the vociferous hosannas more than merely justifiably deserved by Sondheim, Lapine and Marshall in actually pulling this off - goes to Meryl Streep. Much like Sondheim is considered by many entertainment enthusiasts to be one of the greatest American artists alive, so, too, is Meryl Streep in a class of her own. Of course, Streep is no stranger to the world of Sondheim, having played a part in the original 1974 production of his unusual Aristophanes-inspired musical experiment THE FROGS, written along with Burt Shevelove, which was first presented in the Yale swimming pool (and also counting among its cast Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang). Yet, this is the first time Streep has sung Sondheim onscreen - though, film fans will remember that Shirley MacLaine sang a showstopping, lyrically reworked piece of FOLLIES iconography byway of "I'm Still Here" in the Mike Nichols film POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, with Streep memorably sharing the screen. Now, to have the master of the musical and the queen of the screen together at last in a property so well-suited to their respective gifts and the potentially combustible results that could occur actually exceeding expectations is an accomplishment worth celebrating and savoring in and of itself. To say that Meryl Streep is the absolute perfect embodiment of The Witch is not hyperbole or hype - having seen the film, I can say it is a fact. From her spectacular entrance following an unexpected special effect through to her astonishing and eye-grabbing disappearance and the elegantly incorporated musical monologue rendered onscreen as an apt and all too befitting voiceover, Streep shines. The vocals are the best she has ever sounded - the notorious "Witch's Rap" is slightly expanded and slowed down to allow an even more plosive impact married to the sumptuous flashback visuals, while "Stay With Me" is heartbreaking and harrowing, "Last Midnight" is epically spine-tingling and "Children Will Listen" is resoundingly flawless in its execution. A master class in acting and singing - evoking fear, hilarity, disgust, amusement, poignancy, ugliness and beauty; sometimes all simultaneously.

Even including such a titanic talent and outsized personality such as Meryl Streep, Rob Marshall has smartly chosen to imbue the INTO THE WOODS film with a solidly ensemble feel. At no point does any character overstay their welcome, nor does anybody ever get short shrift. Intriguingly, the most outwardly apparent omission from the score is the Baker's big second act solo number "No More" - which has now been relegated to orchestral underscore - but the dramatic impact still remains by presenting us with the Baker's actual father (played by Simon Russell Beale) and their actual conversation as opposed to the more elusive and poetic treatment of the stage version's Mysterious Man, who also doubles as the narrator of the musical (and, as it is revealed in the final scene of the stage show, for very good reason). Now, Corden narrates. Plus, the end of the musical was and is ballad-heavy and three ballads in a row would be near impossible to justify in an enterprise such as the INTO THE WOODS film as it is. No big loss. After all, what remains is so cohesive and absorbing in its fleet-footed telling, to throw off the balance of the film at such a crucial time would have likely been harmful, if not outright disastrous - as it stands, it soars just as it should, when it should. That is also a compliment to James Corden's sensitive, humble portrayal of the Baker throughout -
and, in each and every exchange with Emily Blunt as his Wife, their relationship feels complex, colorful and authentic. They really do appear to be a married couple embarking on this strange journey to secure a pregnancy, while eschewing the more Woody Allen-esque tone of the characters in previous takes, worthwhile and winning as that style can be for the characters. Whereas Corden presents a voice befitting his characterization of the Baker, Emily Blunt sparkles with her multiple musical moments - especially the tongue-twisting and tricky, compellingly filmed "Moments In The Woods". Plus, her rapport with Cinderella is a joy - and her "Any Moment" chemistry with the Prince (Chris Pine) quite delectable and sexy.

On that note, a suave and well-coiffed Chris Pine exudes bravado and brio as the Prince (of Cinderella fame), ably matched by a masculine, cherubic and gallant Billy Magnussen as the Other Prince (in this case, Rapunzel's). Without a doubt, "Agony" is the audience favorite in most stagings of the musical and that number was unquestionably the most appreciated by the audience at the advanced screening that I attended earlier this month - not only was it the only number to receive a rousing ovation, but the sartorial shredding garnered the biggest laugh of the film, as well. A real coup for both actors - and, in Magnussen's scenes with Streep and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), he displays an effortlessly charismatic screen presence that cannot be overshadowed by even the likes of the world's biggest movie star. No small feat.

Johnny Depp only appears in the film for a short time, but makes a mark as an appropriately weird and lecherous Wolf, jazzing up the jaunty "Hello, Little Girl" with a vaudeville air, extremely well-suited to the plucky but not overly sassy Little Red Riding Hood as played by Lilla Crawford - "I Know Things Now" presents its general idea soundly, while visualizing the gruesome story of Little Red, her Grandmother and The Wolf in an inventive manner. Similarly, Tracey Ullman milks her comedic moments for all their worth with appreciable results as Jack's mother, while Daniel Huttlestone can count INTO THE WOODS as another spot-on movie musical turn to go along with his sensational Gavroche in LES MISERABLES a few years ago - "Giants In The Sky" is an acrobatic achievement as seen here as well as a performative one. Mackenzie Mauzy hits all the right notes in song, story and style with her Rapunzel, too, while Anna Kendrick is a convincing and relatable Cinderella - indeed, "On The Steps Of The Palace" is a splendorous feast for the eyes, ears and heart, and her treatment of "No One Is Alone" is unforgettable. Making the very, very most out of secondary roles, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch knock their nefarious parts out of the park as the Wicked Stepmother, Florinda and Lucinda - and the foot-cutting is as gross and hilarious as it ever has been as a result. When Cinderella talks to the birds, you believe it - just as when Jack climbs to the top of the beanstalk. The Giant and Cinderella's Mother are comparably realistic and apropos effects. True, the visualization technique utilized for Little Red and her Grandmother inside the Wolf may be more problematic, but the gist is generously laid down and the metaphors cemented. Notably, the first 12 minutes or so of INTO THE WOODS is some of the most masterful movie musical mise en scene ever depicted - as any and every INTO THE WOODS fan has wished it would be all along. The dream came true.

So, for the wholly and totally indoctrinated, what exactly is INTO THE WOODS about? Well, it's a lot more complex than merely some famous fairy tale figures following their destinies into the titular forest to seek their fortunes (financial, romantic, parental or otherwise). Perhaps it would be most instructive to let Sondheim himself describe the most prominent theme in the musical - that of parents and children and how they relate - as he stated to me in our 2011 InDepth InterView (available here): "That's the whole idea - that's the whole show; fairy tales are about the relationship between parents and children. If you look at all the fairy tales, they are all about that - Cinderella; Jack and the Beanstalk; they are all about it - because that's the way fairy tales were told. You know, they weren't written down - they were told from generation to generation and, usually, matriarchal. So, often, it's from the woman's point of view - because in many of the fairy tales, if not most of them, the fathers are missing and the mothers are left. So, that all has to do with the tradition of fairy tales. The Grimm Brothers just collected a lot of them - as all the other fairy tale collectors did - but, they were all from an oral tradition. So, that's what accounts for the fact that most of them deal with parents and children." And, as we see in the final scenes, from the various broken families that have been created through disaster, distrust and both man-made and Giant-made destruction over the course of the story, a new family unit is formed - the foursome of Cinderella (motherless and fatherless), Little Red Riding Hood (grandmother bereft), The Baker (fatherless, motherless and now wife-less) and Jack (fatherless, and now motherless). Solidifying the point, Sondheim's rapturous "No One Is Alone" gives voice to not only the idea and the theme of the concept, but the aching emotion within it. Compounded even further by the stunning final song, "Children Will Listen", a major message and memorable moral has been thusly imparted - and, of course, a new "Once upon a time...," can and will begin. And, it does - leaving nary a dry eye in the house (or the woods). As the final reprise of the title song astutely observes, "The way is dark, / The light is dim, / But now there's you, / Me, her and him." A new family for a new story set to start.

A new generation, a new era, a new take - a new INTO THE WOODS that glitters onscreen and glows in the hearts of those who let it in. A movie musical made for 2014, telling tales told countless times before in a thoughtful, meaningful and sophisticated manner, INTO THE WOODS on film lands right where we always wanted it to - square between our brains, eyes, ears and hearts. A wish fulfilled, overflowing with love.

Photo Credits: Disney