Why ‘Into The Woods’ Makes A Magnificent Movie
In the early 1930s, George and Ira Gershwin wrote a pair of political satires, ‘Of Thee I Sing’ and ‘Let ‘Em Eat Cake’, which posited a dark future for American politics. They were musicals, and, like ‘Showboat’ (about another hot-potato subject – miscegenation) were unlikely hits.
Wordsmiths love sophisticated musicals, an American art form once used to explore politics, sex and society. After WWII the form was eroded into a more simplistic form of entertainment that understandably got a bad reputation, for reasons that will be obvious for anyone who ever had to sit through ‘CATS’.
A handful of writers still believed that the form could smuggle through intellectual ideas. Stephen Sondheim is now 84, and wrote ‘Into The Woods’ in 1987. It has come to the screen under the direction of Rob Marshall, who made ‘Chicago’ and a disastrous version of ‘Nine’, which had almost half of its music cut.
Sondheim himself is no stranger to movie disasters. ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’ had virtually its entire score removed by director Richard Lester. ‘A Little Night Music’ kept the score but is one of the ugliest looking Belle Epoque-set films ever made, and Tim Burton’ slashed all of the choral numbers from ‘Sweeney Todd’ because he didn’t like group singing – too ‘musical’ – and (mis)cast his wife, Helena Bonham-Carter, in the lead.
It’s as if everyone is too embarrassed by the form to make musicals properly unless they’re full of dancing (there’s no dancing in Sondheim, and not too many happy endings). Trailers hide the singing and the genre is regarded as cheesy, boring and unmanly by American and UK audiences – yet it was America that did such brilliant job of creating the genre in the first place.
So a movie translation for the complex ‘Into The Woods’ looked potentially disastrous. It’s not Sondheim’s darkest construction by a long chalk – those would be ‘Pacific Overtures’, ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, ‘Follies’ and ‘Assassins’ – but it offers up some harsh lessons about life and death. It’s also rather subversive, suggesting that future survival will rely on a new kind of family unit based not on blood relations but on amity and loyalty, regardless of type.
Into The Dark
High praise to Disney, then, for allowing Rob Marshall to keep the original creative team including James Lapine and Jonathan Tunick, as well as the message and the score, which is truncated for the film (the play is long) but done so intelligently and unobtrusively.
The plot is schematic – four famous fairy tales coincide as the characters enter the woods on their missions, but self-deceptively screw with each others’ endings, so to set things right they must re-enter the woods, this time without paths or plans to guide them – and some die in the process. Or as Sondheim puts it, ‘sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods’.
In many productions crossbreeding Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood to provide modern morality lessons has led to a lack of focus – too many characters, an over-complexity of plotting and a story that reaches a false conclusion at the end of the first half.
Marshall has resolved all of these issues by making James Cordon’s baker and Meryl Streep’s witch the leads. Johnny Depp plays the priapic Wolf (mercifully without erection, unlike the UK stage production), Chris Pine is the Prince who was born to be Charming, not sincere, and sends himself up to perfection by singing ‘Agony’ in a waterfall. Emily Blunt provides some earthy and very funny pragmatism as the Baker’s Wife.
This being a Disney film, the blood and gore have been scaled back a little too far, but to no great detriment. And there are dazzling moments to compensate; the Wolf howling against the moon, the Witch’s final lament against humanity as she is sucked into a maelstrom of leaves. Songs are reduced in length (in some cases radically) to make them pithier – but you can always listen to those from stage productions.
Visually the film often feels like a set of illustrations from Victorian morality fables. With its single dark rural setting and often sombre mood (it has always been a play without a Big Finish) it’s hard to imagine that anyone will be converted, but there will always be those drawn to uncompromising work. And here, Mr Sondheim can sit back at 84 and feel that someone has finally done him proud. An Aaron Sorkin version of the bitter ‘Follies’ may be on the cards as a film – let’s hope Marshall is involved in this as well.