Getting Through the Journey – Thoughts on the Into the Woods film – December 31, 2014

“Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods…”

Into The Woods film

So begins the film adaptation of Into The Woods, written by Stephen Sondheim [music and lyrics] and James Lapine [book], directed by Rob Marshall with a star-studded cast. Into the Woods is among my favorite Sondheim musicals, having seen the 2002 revival production and the 2012 production in Central Park.

[Minor disclaimer: Per usual, a good percentage of this blog will be quasi-rambling musings of my personal opinion of the film adaptation and inevitable comparisons of the stage production.]

When it was first announced that there would be a film adaptation of the show, I was anxious about the transition from stage to screen, as 98% of the more recent film adaptations of musicals were tolerable at best or horribly cast at worst. It’s no big surprise that I prefer to spend my time (and money) watching live theater over movies. There’s (almost) always something wanting when there’s a film adaptation of a musical: either it’s horribly miscast (in my opinion) with (usually young, eye candy) big name movie stars with limited singing abilities or certain aspects of the story and/or songs are shortened, rearranged or omitted to “improve” the overall narrative. That Disney was the studio to produce and distribute the film was worrying: how would Disney, the epitome of happiness and optimism, handle the darker, cynical aspects of this particular Sondheim musical? The point of the latter portion of Into the Woods is to show that “happily ever after” doesn’t necessarily happen: things might not turn out as well as expected.

Nevertheless, when the casting was announced, I was slightly mollified as there were theatre-experienced actors along with big name movie stars, though even with the likes of Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp among the cast, I was still (slightly) worried about their singing competency, especially tackling a Sondheim score. Thankfully, for the most part, I was not disappointed, or at least I wasn’t cringing in my (plush, reclining, leather) seat (a lovely perk found at my local movie theater). My only (minor) quibble about the film cast’s singing was that much of the score was sung within one (middle C) octave, the tempo at times seemed slower and the key was lowered, most likely to accommodate the film actors’ singing abilities. Other (quasi-minor) quibbles are the slight story changes, song omissions, and cut verses: while I understand that a film adaptation is (by definition) an adaptation and therefore can’t and shouldn’t be exactly the same as the original source material, some of the poignancy of the aforementioned darker, cynical aspects of the story is lost or watered down (whether or not that’s the doing of the Disney execs to lighten a quasi-dark story).

A quasi-short rundown of general observations are as follows:

[SPOILER ALERT if you have not seen the film adaptation or do not know the musical’s plot.]      

Having the Baker (James Corden) serve as the Narrator kinda makes sense, as he ends up telling the tale to his son, but then again, as he’s one of the characters within the overall story, he would not be able to narrate aspects of the story of which he is not present or have any knowledge. Moreover, the near removal of the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s Father), and having the song “No More” (one of my favorite songs) appear as incidental score (though the instrumental interlude is gorgeous albeit shortened) is a shame, as the character and song adds to the poignancy of the Baker’s story and serves as a better motivation to break the cycle his father started. That being said, James Corden is amazing in portraying the different facets of the Baker’s personality and his rapport with his wife (Emily Blunt) is fantastic.

Meryl Streep is a fantastic Witch, but she’s no Bernadette Peters. Then again, no one is.

While the Witch’s (over)protectiveness of Rapunzel is highlighted in the film with the beautifully sung “Stay With Me”, the (subtle, probably Disney-decreed) change to let Rapunzel ride off into the sunset and into safety with her Prince, and not have her fall victim to the Giantess’ rampage diminishes the Witch’s motivations to find Jack in order to hand him over to the Giantess, and her vehemence when she turns on Cinderella, The Baker, Little Red and Jack in “Last Midnight”. To allow only Rapunzel to (presumably) live “happily ever after” while all the other characters suffer and struggle makes no sense whatsoever.

As the two Princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s performance of “Agony” is ridiculously over the top and perfectly encapsulates their superficial personalities in their lament in pursuing the unobtainable (respectively Cinderella and Rapunzel). However, the absence of the second “Agony” duet undermines their shallowness and (seemingly) ingrained pursuit of the unobtainable. Though Cinderella’s Prince still strays (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”), Rapunzel’s Prince remains the perfect Prince Charming, which seems contrary to the point of the latter part of the film.

While there have been reviews stating that Little Red (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were cast too young, for once (!) I disagree – they look the right age, and act their age accordingly, especially in the scene where Little Red dares Jack to go back up the beanstalk to steal the harp. Their youth is a kind of counterbalance to Cinderella and The Baker, the two adults remaining to battle the Giantess, and act as a kind of mirror to reflect the situation in which they find themselves.

Hearing this Sondheim score with a full orchestra is amazing, and I enjoyed the brief insertions of two melodies from “A Little Night Music” (it took me a few seconds to recognize them). The end credits instrumentals of “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” were glorious.

Overall, I rather enjoyed this film adaptation, despite the aforementioned (quasi-Disneyified) changes. The film has gotten critical acclaim and has done rather well at the box office. I recommend seeing it, and afterwards going to find the DVD of the stage production of the original Broadway cast that was (legally) filmed and (legally) distributed to compare and contrast the differences.

Nice is Different Than Good: Sondheim in the Park with Into the Woods – July 29, 2012

Once upon a time…

One of the magical aspects of live theatre is its inherent ability to transport the audience to another place and time, through words and music, costumes and sets (and a dash of special effects thrown in for good measure). While watching a theatrical performance indoors, be it in a school auditorium or a Broadway or off-Broadway theatre is thrilling, there is a different kind of something when watching a theatrical performance outdoors, and especially when the outdoor location is in Central Park in New York City. Shakespeare in the Park is an annual summer event presented by the Public Theater where fully staged productions are performed at the Delacorte Theater, located on the Upper West Side.

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the series, and I had the opportunity to see Into the Woods, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s musical mash-up of familiar fairy tale characters – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), etc. interwoven with an original tale about a childless Baker and his Wife. Wishes are made and fulfilled, but typical of Sondheim musicals, “happily ever after” is not always the case, preconceptions are dispelled and life lessons are imparted. [Interesting side note: Into the Woods marks the third Sondheim musical I have seen in 2012 thus far – the other two being the amazing Broadway revival of Follies and the City Center’s Encores production of Merrily We Roll Along  – and the first time I had seen three different productions from the same composer.]

Another great thing about Shakespeare in the Park is that tickets are free, though tickets can be purchased though donating to the Public Theater; two ways of obtaining the sought out (free) tickets – either waiting on the stand-by line or the virtual ticketing lottery – I was able to attend via the latter option, by invitation from a friend of mine. Thankfully the evening was a bit overcast, and mildly warm; it had rained (lightly and briefly) earlier that afternoon, so it was not as humid as it was earlier in the day. Walking through the park en route to the theater was refreshing, and there was still a good amount of people waiting on the stand-by line, and a (typically) longer line for the ladies restroom.

“The woods are just trees / the trees are just wood…”

The set design was inspired, having the look of an elaborate tree house, with stairs, ladders and walkways for at least three levels; there were stage-built trees onstage, adding to the illusion of being in the woods. The illusion was further enhanced by the very real trees that were situated beyond the theater, as well as the occasional birds that flew and chirped by; inevitably, the illusion was shattered periodically with the all too familiar rumble from a passing airplane. These things do happen, I suppose. There were some other unique aspects of this production, one of which was that the Narrator was a child of ten or eleven years of age, who sought solace in the woods after an argument with his father (to which had been alluded at the very start); this inclusion further explored the show’s theme of the ever-changing and complex relationship between a parent and a child.

As to be expected the cast was astounding, especially Donna Murphy as the Witch, conveying humor, malice and pathos with equal ferocity serving as the instigator, catalyst, and moral compass for the various characters who venture into the woods to fulfill their own desires and wishes. Another interesting footnote is Chip Zien, who had been the Baker in the original production, being cast as the Mysterious Man, who turns out to be (spoiler alert!) the Baker’s father; Denis O’Hare, who portrayed the Baker with great depth of emotion, also doubled as the father to the narrator, thus perpetuating the theme of fathers and sons.  Also honorable mention goes to the puppetry that went into portraying the Giant (who usually appears as just a looming shadow), voiced by Glenn Close – seeing the Giant appear amongst the trees was nothing short of fantastic, and the use of large umbrellas to symbolize the giant beanstalk.

Into the Woods runs through August 25, 2012* and it is well worth the effort to obtain tickets, despite the chance of the weather is unbearably hot and humid as it typically does in August; also the added nuance of actually being in the woods (OK, technically speaking, in the park) makes for a magical evening fitting for watching a fairy tale adventure.

Updated 08/07/12:  It has been announced that the production will extend another week, ending its run on September 1, 2012.

Update 08/14/12:  Despite the rather mixed-to-negative reviews from the critics, it seems that there is still talk about moving this production to Broadway – while I thoroughly enjoyed this production (regardless of what the critics think), I don’t think the show would benefit from the transfer. The innate charm of this production is its performance space, with Central Park as a counterpart and even an extension of the overall set design and the outdoor atmosphere. As dusk turns to (nearly) midnight as the tale unfolds around the audience, it emphasizes and enhances the turn of events that befall the characters. Take those elements away and it’ll just be like any other revival – the last Broadway revival ten years ago was good, but enclosing this production into an indoor space, regardless of how large the stage space is, would be as stifling and restrictive as the Witch confining Rapunzel in her tower. If this production were to transfer to Broadway, and it seems that the earliest time frame would be the season after next (as there are a slew of new musicals and plays arriving on Broadway for the upcoming season, and that several cast members have conflicting projects in the upcoming months), I would still like to see the show again, but for me, it wouldn’t be the same as it was in the woods (well, park). I suppose we’ll have to wait to see how things unfold.