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.

On the Brighton Line: Observations & Musings of One Man, Two Guvnors – June 9, 2012 (matinee)

On the day before the Tony Awards 2012, I strode to the TKTS at Duffy Square, (right in the heart of Times Square) with the intention of seeing something, though it was nearly difficult to pick from the discounted shows offered. You see, aside from the Usual Suspects not on the TKTS board (namely, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Porgy & Bess, Harvey and The Lion King), just about every Broadway musical and play was up on the TKTS board with at least a 40% discount.

There were several factors to consider – there were the newer, Tony-nominated shows, of which, (depending on how the awards are handed out), would announce their closing performance date or would no longer be on the TKTS board; then there were shows that had already announced their closing dates, and some shows that had previous not had discounts available on TKTS.  Should I go see Priscilla Queen of the Desert again before it closes? Or should I go see Peter and the Starcatcher? Once? Nice Work If You Can Get It? Evita? War Horse? Jersey Boys? For once, there were too many choices,  and in for this season of shows, I didn’t have a show on which I quasi-fixated (unlike a certain show two years ago, but that’s for another blog…).

So after a bit of internal debate (and a lot of pondering) I joined the Express Play line (which is usually shorter than the general line, as most theater goers opt to see musicals) and chose to see One Man, Two Guvnors, and obtained a rear orchestra (right) seat. Clearly the Music Box Theatre is now my go-to theater for hilarious comedies, as I’ve realized (after the fact) that the last three plays I had seen at this theater – Lend Me a Tenor, La Bête and Shatner’s World – We Just Live In It – left me with bellyaches of laughter and resulted in the deepening of the smile lines around my mouth.

One Man, Two Guvnors is one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in recent years, though technically speaking, it is a play with music, as the production features a quartet called “The Craze” consisting of Jason Rabinowitz (lead vocals), Austin Moorhead (lead guitar), Charlie Rosen (bass) and Jacob Colin Cohen (percussion), who play a set of songs before and throughout the play (and also during intermission). I now firmly believe that every Broadway show, both play and musical should all have an in-house band or act to entertain the audience at least before the show (intermission optional) – much better than just sitting and waiting for the show to start, especially for those who get to the theatre early or at least on time (and considering the price of theatre tickets these days, I’d want to get my money’s worth).

Given the source material is Commedia dell’Arte, it should not be surprising that the play is a farce, and a British one at that, so in addition to the usual slapstick humor, mistaken identities and comedic mayhem, there’s Cockney slang, double entendres, and British accents. The play is set in the seaside town of Brighton in 1963 and tells the tale of Francis Henshall, played by the charming and hilarious James Corden, a good-natured yet easily confused guy with a voracious appetite, who finds himself (quite inadvertently) in the employ of two guvnors (the British term for an employer), both of whom are not quite on the right side of the law. Naturally, hilarity and chaos ensue as the complicated lives of the two guvnors intertwine and Francis has the arduous task to keep one from knowing that he is the employ of the other. Of course it doesn’t help that he adds to the confusion before everything is happily resolved.

The fourth wall is consistently broken throughout the play by Francis, often addressing the audience directly, and even bringing up some audience members (those lucky few in the first row)  for a bit of audience participation – though I must say the afternoon I saw the play, I think there was more improvisation than usual. Since this was my first time seeing the play, I don’t know if certain things were anticipated or if it was truly improvisation. As previously mentioned, Francis is constantly hungry (not such a good thing) and is consistently short of money (definitely not a good thing) – so at one point in a scene he asks the (rhetorical) question “Does anyone have a sandwich?” to which several audience members respond in kind – one person in the mezzanine section offers him a sandwich, while another sitting mid orchestra right tosses him a Rice Krispies Treat (which gets eaten by another cast member once the scene is restarted).

This lengthy banter seemed to have stopped the show, as James Corden (doing his best to not break character too much) explained that the question was part of the play and definitely rhetorical. So the scene restarts right before the aforementioned line, and sure enough, after he delivers the line again, someone else (somewhere in the mid orchestra left) offers him a sandwich, to which he (clearly) ad-libs, “Oh come on, we’ve just been through this!”, then asks the audience member what kind of sandwich (humus) – “Oh, you can keep it”, and then proceeds to continue with the scene, but not before informing the audience that we had effectively ruined  an ensemble member’s two lines (he only had three lines in the entire play).  Oh well.

 [Brief update/disclaimer: my boss had gone to see the play over the weekend, and he stated that this entire bit was indeed part of the show, which, in hindsight, I should have suspected, but at the time  it was brilliantly executed and does confirm the sheer talent of James Corden and his ability to make a scripted scene look like it was improvised.]

 The role of Francis Henshall is certainly James Corden’s tour de force, with his cheeky smile, comic timing and his sheer commitment to do just about anything for a laugh. The rest of the cast was top-notch, with Daniel Rigby and Todd Edden as worthy contenders for the award for the Best Scene Stealer (which would be an awesome Tony Award category…) As Alan Dingle, Daniel Rigby brilliantly encapsulates the psyche of the Actor, dressed in black and spouting grand (often Shakespearean) proclamations before dramatically exiting the stage – it can almost come across as cliché, but never does. Tony Award nominated Todd Edden is outstanding as Alfie, the octogenarian waiter, with his shaky hands and (often) dialed-up pacemaker, who is the hapless recipient of much of the comedic mayhem that is dished out at a semi-regular basis.

James Corden at the stage door.

Considering that it was the day before the Tony Awards, it seemed as if  the stars were in town and at the theater – I spotted Patrick Duffy in the lobby before the show, caught a glimpse of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones during intermission, and saw Tony Roberts as he exited the theater (someone also stated that Bernadette Peters was also in the attendance, but I didn’t see her). The stage door experience was interesting in the fact that there were no steel barricades surrounding the stage door, which was right next to the entrance between the Music Box and the Imperial, where Nice Work If You Can Get It is currently playing. Since Nice Work If You Can Get It ends roughly the same time One Man, Two Guvnors does, there were some theater goers from that show waiting at the Music Box stage door – I dutifully directed them to the correct location, which is around the other side of the theater on W46th Street.  There weren’t too many other theater goers waiting at the stage door, either (but I suspect that may change very soon) – most of the cast came out the stage door and signed playbills and posters (and posed for photos).

I highly recommend One Man, Two Guvnors if you’re looking for a good laugh and great music.

Update (albeit late): Hearty congratulations to James Corden for his well-deserved win as the 2012 Best Actor in a Play (and against notable actors James Earl Jones, John Lithgow, Frank Langella and Phillip Seymour Hoffman!) His Tony speech was remarkable, humble and sweet, and his brief performance of the scene wherein he fights with himself was astounding.

Signed playbill

Update 09/02/2012:  I had fully intended to see the final performance, but was unable to obtain a ticket, or rather, was not willing to pay full price [$142!] , it had been announced that there would be no standing room seats and no discount codes were being honored). Nevertheless, I passed by the stage door after the show’s end and saw a massive throng of people with cameras at the ready)  waiting at the stage door. There was the usual amount of cheering when the cast came out, and dutifully signed playbills, posters and even one kid’s red sneaker (why, I don’t know). It’s always heartwarming to see such outpouring of appreciation for an outstanding cast of amazing actors.