Yes, Into the Woods can still sing.
On its inspired journey from stage to screen, this musical from Stephen Sondheim retains all of its magic from the stage as it transforms into a rich visual experience. Rather than recreate the theatricality of the original, director Rob Marshall reimagines the material. The result is a musical dream from start to finish.
The ever-clever Sondheim had fun in 1987 when he and writer/director James Lapine creatively retold some favorite fairy tales to explore the realities of parenthood, childhood and the fables people share. By creatively connecting such stories as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk to a new tale about a baker, a wife and a witch, the pair delighted audiences with what they could imagine as they enlightened people about what they should question.
In guiding the transfer to the screen, Marshall reaches beyond his theatrical approach to Chicago in 2002 — and avoids the mistakes he made by casting non singers to lead Nine in 2009 — to create an experience that dazzles with visuals, delights with humor and touches with meaning. While his earlier films celebrate their stage origins, Marshall gives us a movie that works as well visually as it does musically.
What’s remarkable about the film is how Marshall preserves the musical integrity of Sondheim’s work. Rarely do the composer’s shows fare so well traveling to Hollywood. Anyone familiar with the intricacies of Sondheim’s lyrics and the range of his music will smile as Marshall connects the musical moments in a seamless journey into the composer’s imagination. And while Marshall and Lapine — who adapted his stage script for the film — make necessary cuts to fit a two-hour running time, they never rush through the material. Instead the pace feels right for the rhythm with many quiet moments for characters to develop.
And what marvelous characters and performances. Emily Blunt touches as a woman who wants to have a child while Anna Kendrick charms as a Cinderella who hopes for a lovely time at the ball. Christine Baranski (as the stepmother) and Johnny Depp (as the Wolf) make the most of their moments on screen while James Corden enlightens as the Baker and Chris Pine delights as a prince. And they can all sing.
Especially Meryl Streep. Yes, Into the Woods is another triumph in a career filled with high points. From her entrance — to warn the Baker and his wife about a curse — she fills this supernatural wonder with striking humanity, appealing to our hearts as she dazzles our eyes. Without throwing the story off balance, Streep commands with her ability to reveal the core of the character of the witch. What may surprise is the depth and maturity of her singing. Stepping into the big shoes of Bernadette Peters — who originated the role — Streep illuminates each moment as she interprets Sondheim’s complex lyrics and music.
For Sondheim, the man who reinvented the Broadway musical, Into the Woods preserves the essence of a work that reveals so much of his heart. With lovely melodies — and lyrics that shine with humor and understanding — he makes us wish we actually could live in those woods. If only we could sing.
Film Nutritional Value
Into the Woods
Content: High. The magical world of Stephen Sondheim beautifully transfers from stage to screen under the creative direction of Rob Marshall.
Entertainment: High. Without letting the show’s theatrical origins dominate, Marshall is true to Sondheim at the same time he creates a film all his own.
Message: High. For any of us who parent, the film speaks to what we hope for our children, starting with their safety.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity for a family to enjoy a film together is always relevant.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children will have a lot of fun talking about the fairy tales that inspire Sondheim to take this special journey.
Into the Woods is rated PG for “thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.” The film runs 124 minutes.
5 Popcorn Buckets
Behind the Screen
Each week — exclusive to online readers of Arts and Leisure — Mark Schumann, The Reel Dad, looks “behind the screen” at the world of film. This week he looks at how the movies adapt the Broadway shows of Stephen Sondheim, inspired by this week’s feature, Into the Woods.
For Stephen Sondheim fans, Into the Woods offers a special opportunity to savor the master’s work without fearing that Hollywood will get it wrong. The film is so good it makes us wish that Rob Marshall could go back and film some others.
Of course, Sondheim’s first musical, West Side Story, was so beautifully filmed in 1961 by Robert Wise that it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Even though Sondheim contributes some of his most touching lyrics, this musical belongs more to the driving melodies of Leonard Bernstein and the remarkable dances of Jerome Robbins. More than 50 years later, the film still amazes with the energy in its movement and the depth of its emotional content.
One year later, Sondheim experienced what can happen to a show when the Hollywood experts cast the wrong star. On stage, his lyrics — to the music of Jule Styne — detail the turbulent backstage life of Gypsy Rose Lee in a show that many consider the Broadway’s best. While the role of Mama Rose has been played on Broadway by such names as Ethel Merman (the first), Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone, the screen assignment went to Rosalind Russell. And while she is touching in some later scenes, Russell never establishes the character’s drive to make stars of her children. That makes it difficult to sympathize when her fortunes change.
While Sondheim experienced his first success on Broadway as a composer and lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, it suffered its way to the screen in 1966 when director Richard Lester decided too cut a lot of music to focus on the story’s comic elements. What he overlooked, though, is that a musical is all about music, and a musical without the necessary music doesn’t always make sense. Despite a funny performance from the reliable Zero Mostel, and strong support from Phil Silvers, those who wandered into Forum in a movie theater may have wondered what all the fuss was about.
Musically, A Little Night Music features one of Sondheim’s most ambitious scores with the songs written in 3/4 time to create a collection of lovely waltz melodies. The composer brings those melodies to life with some of his most insightful lyrics as he examines the follies of human relationships. While this show can be an intensely theatrical experience, it begs for a visual treatment, especially when the narrative shifts to the country in the second act. But there’s nothing visual in this stage-bound adaptation directed by Harold Prince who also directed the original on Broadway. While Hermione Gingold and Lou Cariou effectively recreate their stage roles, and Diana Rigg makes a saucy appearance, the casting of Elizabeth Taylor in the role created by Glynis Johns is a bit of stunt casting that backfires. Taylor looks bored with the dialogue, uncomfortable in the costumes, and intimidated by the score. Her rendition of the magical “Send in the Clowns” is painful.
Leave it to Tim Burton — perhaps a surprising choice to direct a Sondheim musical — to create a most effective screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd, the tune-filled exploration of a man who seeks revenge in unusual ways. With Johnny Depp revealing surprising musical sense, and Helena Bonham Carter using her little voice in a big way, Burton creates a world that would make Sondheim proud. While the score had to be cut to fit the running time, the magic of the work shines through. We get from the movie what Sondheim originally intended.
Like Burton, Rob Marshall demonstrates a real respect for Sondheim, and an appreciation for what makes his work so special. As you enjoy Into the Woods consider yourself lucky to spend a couple of hours with a wondrous talent doing what he does best: using music and lyrics to delight us and make us think.