Peter Marks (c) 2014, The Washington Post
Is “Into the Woods” a golden Christmas goose? We are about to discover whether toy-crazy, youth-worshipping American filmgoers will in large numbers embrace a movie musical that effectively says to them, Whoa, hold on a minute: all those child-safe fairy tale endings Hollywood’s been selling you? Hooey!
What “Into the Woods” offers (from the folks at Disney, no less) is a more adult, wryly sobering worldview, one in which happily ever after is no simple matter of drinking potions or undoing spells. In this faithful film adaptation of the 1987 Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack of Beanstalk fame battle personal demons and suffer pain, harbor paralyzing doubts and experience loss — the backbones of naturalistic drama more often than children’s fantasy.
With a high-profile cast — Meryl Streep as a virulently vindictive Witch; Anna Kendrick as a deeply conflicted Cinderella; Johnny Depp as a Wolf out of “To Catch a Predator” — plus all those lush, wit-infused Sondheim songs, “Into the Woods” is getting platinum-plated, height-of-award-season exposure. (It opens across the country on Christmas Day.) Add to this a director, Rob Marshall, who guided another irony-laden musical, “Chicago,” to an Academy Award for best picture, and the red carpet has been laid for deluxe treatment of Broadway-to-big-screen fare.
The unknown is whether this unconventional interweaving of familiar tales — think of it as the Brothers Grimm going back to work after years in therapy — has potentially broad family appeal. This is also the target audience for a sunnier fairy-tale movie musical that opened Friday, a modern remake of “Annie,” with Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis. Given the slogan Disney is going with, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and the promotional photos of Streep looking ominously haglike, Disney seems to be betting with “Into the Woods” on moviegoers steeped into Harry Potter’s brooding sorcery rather than the bright romantic magic of Disney’s own “Beauty and the Beast.”
Screenwriter James Lapine, the musical’s book writer and original stage director, says there have been other attempts to make the movie, including an abortive effort in the ’90s, when Billy Crystal was supposed to play the Baker, a character in the one subplot that was dreamed up for the musical. This film — with James Corden as the Baker and Emily Blunt as his wife — happened because Marshall was determined to do it. “It was all Rob,” Lapine says, adding that without a director with his record, “No one would have made this.”
Marshall had a huge critical hit with “Chicago” in 2002, but his next effort to put show tunes on film, 2009’s “Nine,” with Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren, was a pretentious muddle, with the lackluster reviews to match. In Hollywood, musicals with Sondheim scores have met with a similar mixed success, the best so far being director Tim Burton’s 2007 helming of “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” starring Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. “Into the Woods” is an important test for both of them, as well as for the future of the kind of sophisticated musical for which Lapine, Sondheim and Marshall have all labored mightily.
Its creators say “Into the Woods” is a musical about parents and children, and the banding together of a community for the greater good. But it’s also about the ambiguities that cartoon fairy tales can’t handle, about death and the tendency of loved ones, as the Sondheim song goes, to “leave you, halfway through the wood.” It’s about the ways fate thwarts our wishes, and how unproductive it can be to assume that big questions have fixed, immutable answers.
The musical sends its characters into an English forest (it was filmed in Hertfordshire) on a variety of tasks, the most emotional and complicated one, by the Baker and his wife, who seek the lifting of the Witch’s curse on their childless house. Threaded through all the tales is an unsettling duality, of characters comforted by the boundaries of their existences and at the same time, eager to break free of them, to explore further the possibilities for self-awareness and fulfillment. A few, like Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine), who notes he was raised to be “charming, not sincere,” lack the capacity to become fully fleshed out human beings; maybe that’s why Cinderella’s so bored with him.
“Isn’t it nice to know a lot?/ And a little bit, not,” sings Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood, having danced too close to the flame with Depp’s malevolent Wolf. Later, after a devastating attack on the kingdom that shatters everyone’s hopes, Cinderella and the Baker sing to the younger characters in “No One Is Alone” a lesson about coming to terms with a world in chaos: “Witches can be right, Giants can be good,” they sing. “You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.”
The musical grew out of a breeze-shooting session between Sondheim and Lapine, who previously worked together on “Sunday in the Park With George,” a musical about the postImpressionist painter Georges Seurat that won them the Pulitzer Prize for drama. According to Lapine, Sondheim wanted to write about a quest, in the manner of “The Odyssey” or “The Wizard of Oz,” and Lapine wanted something heavily plot-driven in which he could indulge his interest in fairy tales.
What they came up with was a musical that in Act 1 traversed a relatively traditional path, from hopes expressed to wishes granted, and ending with the cast singing the upbeat “Ever After.” In Act 2, things became more tangled, with the discovery that achieving one’s heart’s desire merely created new hassles. As the cast sang in the second act opener, “So Happy”: “Wishes may bring problems/ Such that you regret them/ Better that, though, than to never get them.”
The structure of the stage musical, while beloved by many Sondheim enthusiasts, has often come across as unwieldy, even to Lapine. “It started all over again!” he says, of the second act. During an interview at a Manhattan hotel at a press event for the movie, he says the thought sometimes occurs to him when seeing the stage version: “Oh, just tell the (expletive) story!”
Lapine proposed himself to Marshall as screenwriter; other writers were attached in previous attempts. The results reveal the streamlining of the piece, with the jettisoning of “So Happy,” and the reducing of “Ever After” to an instrumental; the haunting ballad “No More” had to go, too, because of the cutting of a character from the original, called the Mysterious Man.
But with only a few other exceptions, the Broadway score is intact. Sondheim wrote new songs, including one for Streep’s Witch, called “She’ll Be Back,” that ultimately weren’t used. The concessions to the Disney brand sensibility were relatively marginal, says Lapine; the expiration of Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman), for instance, occurs out of camera range. A more significant change was made to the fate of Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy): “They were worried about the body count,” is how Lapine characterizes Disney’s view of all the death and dying in “Into the Woods.”
Sustaining the idea of fairy tales packed with consequence out of an audience’s everyday experience was, of course, essential to what Marshall was after. “We were creating a fantasy world, but not a two-dimensional fantasy world, because there were real people in it,” the director said during the New York press event. Now, the filmmakers and the studio wait to see whether real people will put it on their holiday calendars.