Sunday, January 18, 2015

Stage To Screen: INTO THE WOODS

"Sometimes the things you most wish for are not / to be touched..."

That lyric has stayed with me ever since I heard that Rob Marshall, the director of CHICAGO and NINE, was to film Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS which is one of my favourite shows.  Bearing in mind I couldn't abide his version of NINE with it's relentless cutting and disjointed story-telling, I quietly dreaded what he would make of Sondheim and James Lapine's cleverly constructed take on classic fairy-tales.  But despite some odd jangling changes, I enjoyed it.

INTO THE WOODS was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway and it is one of the shows that I love the most.  James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim took the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack, Rapunzel and mixed them up with their own characters of a childless Baker and his wife and a Witch who has lost her powers to show that there really is no such thing as Happily Ever After.

There is a recurring theory that this was written in 1986 in response to the AIDS epidemic with it's call for a united stand against all-encompassing threat that does not discriminate on who it takes and it's subdued rallying cry of "No One Is Alone" is a powerfully emotional moment.  That the film managed to hit that point made me happy.

What I found curious about the film was the oddly-unmagical feel to it.  There really didn't seem much sparkle to the first section of the film where we follow the retelling of the familiar stories, the tone seemed too downbeat and ho-hum.  Even the star casting of Johnny Depp as The Wolf came and went with hardly any impression.

The plot rewrites - although approved by Sondheim supposedly - do make the film seem a lesser work if you have know the stage version.  In the original, the character of Rapunzel is killed when she runs in front of the avenging giant's wife - here she simply rides off with her Prince to flee the danger.  That means that the reprise of the two Princes' song "Agony" has to be dropped which is a shame as it shows them already lusting after two new helpless heroines: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

The film also has the Royal family riding off unscathed while the show has them also perishing, and Rob Marshall gives Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife a very subdued and confusing fate.  It's almost as if they could not bring themselves to illustrate characters dying, robbing the show of the desolation one feels when one sees the show.  It just seems another instance where a film adaptation judges it's audience to be more sensitive to things than in a theatre.

What made the film work for me were the three central performances.  Although Anna Kendrick was fairly anonymous as Cinderella, Emily Blunt and James Corden were surprisingly effective as the Baker and his wife, Blunt in particular revealed a fine singing voice.  Again though the film soft-pedaled her liaison with Cinderella's Prince to a rather chaste kiss.  The Baker's savagely mournful solo "No More" is also dropped from the film - was Corden not up to it vocally? - but otherwise he does give a charmingly heartfelt performance.

Dominating the film - and rightly so - is Meryl Streep as The Witch.  Although her entrance into the film is a bit cack-handed, she gives a charismatic performance which has just won for her a 19th Academy Award nomination.  Her soaring vocals on "Stay With Me" and "The Last Midnight" are quite wonderful.

The cinematography and costumes are both fine - although by the end of the film you are pining for some primary colours - and the score is wonderful to hear, it's worth sitting through the lengthy end credits to experience the full orchestral versions of "Stay With Me/Last Midnight". 

Despite the niggling annoyance of the omissions which rob the film of the show's profundity, it does succeed finally on it's own level, and us fans of the show have the great good fortune that the original stage cast reunited in 1989 to film the production and this is available on DVD.

I suspect I will add the film to it when it's released on DVD too.

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