Despite the speculation, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical INTO THE WOODS made the transition from stage to screen without a hitch. What should be better known is that composer-lyricist Sondheim is a film fanatic. He worked in the 1950’s, prior to his successes with WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY, as a film critic for a magazine. He has occasionally worked directly in the film industry, contributing songs, scores and even one screenplay to films.
But of probably of more interest is the direct influence that films have had on his stage musicals. Long before musical adaptations of films became a fad on Broadway, Sondheim was adapting films in such musicals as A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and PASSION. His SWEENEY TODD, which was made into a film starring Johnny Depp, was his tribute to the suspense films of Hitchcock.
So Sondheim seems justifiably happy with Disney’s screen version of INTO THE WOODS. James Lapine, who wrote the libretto and directed stage versions of this show, has experience in the film industry as a screenwriter and sometime director. His screenplay adaptation succeeded in realizing this story in the visually-expanded world of cinema. And while director Rob Marshall’s track record with film musicals has been mixed, he brings INTO THE WOODS closer to the originality and vitality of his film CHICAGO.
INTO THE WOODS combines several folk and fairy tales, including Jack the Giant Killer, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. Long ago I watched on TV the original Broadway production, which starred Bernadette Peters as the Witch. What I didn’t realize until seeing the film was the resonance of this Sondheim-Lapine concept.
It goes beyond mere storytelling to fable, parable and allegory. It deals with the dangers that both children and adults face, the natural protectiveness of parents and of the obstacles between us and maturity. Certainly Cinderella, in finally seeing the value of work over a fairytale life with a prince, reaches a maturity and wisdom she never found in other versions of her story. And no doubt several Disney execs have cringed over this turn in the tale.
The cast, consisting mainly of movie stars, is uniformly strong. Meryl Streep, as Witch, dominates the action when she is on screen. Emily Blunt plays the Baker’s Wife. One of the finest actresses now working, she shows she also has a fine singing voice. Johnny Depp does not step too far from the quirky characters he plays in Tim Burton films, but he is effective as the Wolf pursuing Little Red Riding Hood. And young Lilla Crawford, as his prey, gives a strong performance worthy of the Broadway stage she hails from.
My one gripe with the film is that the song Sondheim wrote for it was cut. The reason given was that this song slowed down the action. This may be true, but the song should have at least been presented in the closing credits.