I recently watched Disney’s adaption of Stephen Sondheim’s rather glorious Into the Woods, and–much to my surprise!–it was actually quite good, and only butchered a little, not a lot! And the Disneyfication wasn’t anywhere near as awful as it could have been, even though way too many of the great sexytimes got taken away, which was sad! And not quite as many people died, which I guess wasn’t sad! Also the deaths were different! Unlike in theatres they weren’t onstage (like, the Baker’s Wife didn’t even die onscreen, for pete’s sake), and they weren’t quite as brutal, usually (looking at you, Jack’s Mother).
I am not usually a musical person. Whatever it is that allows me to happily throw aside all disbelief and hurl myself headlong into opera, and even operetta, doesn’t really seem to be in place for (most) musicals. Instead of saying what a glorious aria! I tend to say why the hell is this moron singing? Oh my god people will see them and hear them, I am so embarrassed!–which is clearly not the necessary thought process for someone watching a musical. So, you know, musicals are kind of dicey, even though operettas aren’t, which is kind of absurd since operettas and musicals are pretty similar. But, hey, we’ve all got our thang.
However! my anti-musical thing doesn’t generally carry over to live theatre, because I f*cking love live theatre, guys. I will accept almost anything, just so long as it is live, on stage, in front of me. Ariel in triplicate? I am so there. Knife-fights between hunky dudes right in front of me? Oh my god give me MOAR. Overwrought Jacobean revenge tragedies?1 Count me in! (Although, I confess: I laughed so hard at the overwrought ending, as people dropped like bedamned flies and somebody got blinded, that I cried. Which is not my usual reaction to tragedy, at all.) But, in essence, if I see it live, I’ll buy almost anything. Alllllmost. Because there’s nothing like a good stage actor to suspend all disbelief.
This appears to be the original Broadway cast, and it’s pretty amazing, and you should take a gander before some intelligent person pulls it for copyright violations.
Sondheim’s original Into the Woods, then, got lucky: it was one of the last productions I saw, in April of 2015, at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which was and is and shall remain one of my favorite places, and one of–maybe the only–consistent bright spot in my grad school years. The production was great; I remember the mics as being spotty–too sharp, too shrill, not quite perfect–but everything else was, in a word, marvelous. (Some day the young actors and singers of UIUC will go forth and be known, and I will have known their work first, and it will be fab.)
So, I came to Disney’s take on Into the Woods deeply wary, but also, perhaps, more receptive, since I’d already gone for it live, hook line and sinker. Sondheim’s version is, of course, pretty damn dark. Which is great! Sometimes a really, really dark musical is a good thing, even if most of us think of musicals as, perhaps, lighter fare. It’s also a really great take on an incredibly dark medium: that of the traditional (non-Disneyfied) fairy tale. Our fairy tales are dark and dangerous worlds, filled with blood and violence and sex; sometimes they offer social critiques, sometimes they just encourage women to, as it were, Stay on that Path, Young Lady!2 But they really aren’t the light and frothy confections that animated movies full of singing birds and dancing mice have tried to sell us. They’re as dark as we are, and sometimes darker.
More of Sondheim’s take on his upbeat little musical about a bunch of people dying.
So, yeah, Into the Woods is super upbeat! Never mind that 1) Rapunzel has PTSD and probably postpartum depression and DIES along with the twins; 2) the Steward bludgeons Jack’s Mother to death; 3) the Evil Stepsisters, Florinda and Lucinda, are blinded by Cinderella’s birds (this is totally part of the fairy tale, by the way); 4) the stepsisters get bits of their feet chopped off, because “And when you’re his wife / you’ll have such a life, / You’ll never need to walk!” (also totally part of the folk tradition, btw); 5) the Baker’s Wife sorta kinda cheats!; 6) 😥 the Baker’s Wife DIES!!; 7) the Giants all die (which leads to some incredible reckoning); 8) the Royal Family starves to death; 9) the Princes (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere!”), continuing on as losers, hook up with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, because #feelings! or something. So, yeppers, it’s a light and frothy treat, indeed!
To be fair, Sondheim’s eminently quotable quote is actually in response to a question about potential Disneyfication of Into the Woods, which means that there are a whole lot of layers to that upbeat little musical. And there is a bit of Disneyfication: no twins (how could you, Disney?!?), no bludgeoning, fewer loose ends at the end; more off-screen deaths; a maybe-possibly happy ending; no Snow White or Sleeping Beauty (although the door is definitely left open, considering what a giant sleaze Prince Charming is).
And that will be my opening to how the Disney version actually got a lot right: Chris Pine as Prince Charming is amazing. Billy Magnussen as Other Prince (no, really) is amazing. The sibling rivalry of egocentric asshole brothers is incredible, and pretty much perfectly executed in “Agony,” wherein they crash around in a waterfall, as one does, trying to one-up each other. The NYTimes even ran a pretty terrific interview–titled, fabulously, “One Day Your Prince Will Come (Whining)”–with Pine and Magnussen, about both the scene and their methods for approaching Charming and Other Prince. The self-absorption and posing of the brothers Egomaniac is pretty much amazing.
Basically, everything–or almost everything–in Into the Woods should be erotic…and, surprisingly, a hell of a lot is erotic, despite the bowdlerizations. The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blount) remains a deeply complex character–a woman who is, despite her name (Baker’s Wife?), in Kathryn Funkhouser‘s words, definitely a protagonist. Hell, she even has her “moment” with the Prince, in the woods, in Act II. Meryl Streep isn’t Bernadette Peters, which is kind of a duh moment; however, I found her performance strong and believable and kind of modern, which was pretty cool. (Also some rad special effects there, special effects dudes.) Rapunzel doesn’t have twins (!!!), and she hies herself off with Other Prince at the end–but I suppose that someone might as well get a Maybe Possibly Not Horrible Ending, so why not? (Let’s face it: Other Prince is not exactly a gem either, although it’s hard to say if he’s as bad as Charming or just trying to one-up him–which is, honestly, a pretty brilliant interpretation of him.)
I loved that Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Red (Lilla Crawford) were both believable kids–and that they were played by kids. (They were played by young-looking college kids at Krannert–which might be better, given the darkness of the source material, but hey, it’s a film.) I thought the set was pretty great. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is moving and loopy and sweet…and, when she jilts Prince Charming (but not sincere), she is MAGIC. Take THAT, sucker! Rapunzel’s changed fate gives MacKenzie Mauzy a chance to definitively flounce away from her tower, which is kinda awesome, actually–the hell with Other Prince, she’s gonna be fine. (And she’ll never ever have long hair again, I bet.) James Corden’s Baker is as bumbling and emotional as he should be: even with the limits of a film (it’s less immediate, usually), he is vulnerable and often sweet, and Baker and Baker’s Wife are, despite their bickering, a team–as they must be.
In truth, I only really disliked Johnny Depp’s Wolf–but that, I think, ties back more to Tonto and to current events than anything. (I wouldn’t have minded seeing Pine or Magnussen double his role; it could, I think, have been grand, and goodness knows there’s precedent. But whatever, I guess I’m a live theatre girl at heart.)
In the end, however, this is less a review of Into the Woods than a celebration–both of the bowdlerized version and of the original. (Jane Hu’s review–and discussion–of the Disney version goes into how she feels it stays true, or doesn’t.) I’m still a little surprised by how much I love the Sondheim musical: its darkness, I suppose, calls to me; I’ve never enjoyed imaginary utopias, because there’s always darkness, somewhere. (Just look at The Handmaid’s Tale, where utopia goes decisively to hell.) I like the complexities, moral and other, of old fairy and folk tales, which seem to me to delve so much deeper into our human condition than their Disneyfied counterparts. And, most of all, I love live theatre, seeing hearts laid bare in front of me, IRL. And so, as much as I think this film of Into the Woods is grand–and I do, I really, truly do–I’d jump at the chance to see it performed live again, because live theatre, though wrought by we mere mortals, is purest magic.
Whether or not you’re okay with Disneyfied Sondheim, this is a pretty great bit of acting/singing/ranting/whatever here, yo.
For those interested in casting calls and vocal ranges (aka for my fellow weirdos), here’s information from The Bayswater Players, Chalkboard Theatre, and Theatre Puget Sound. I actually think Rob Marshall did a pretty good job.
For those who, like me, like to read interviews and articles, here are a few:
- You should read Kathryn Funkhouser’s piece from The Toast, available here from the Wayback Machine, because it is really, really amazing, and talks about why you should love Into the Woods, far more eloquently than I (me: you should love it because it’s dark! and funny! haha go to the theatre! )
- Michael Phillips of the Chicago Trib on the new song that got written for the film…and then cut (and why that’s probably a good thing).
- The NYTimes reivew of the film.
- That amazing interview with Pine and Magnussen, “Some Day Your Prince Will Come (Whining).”
1 Believe it or not, I totally recommend going to see ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore–if you have a chance and a strong constitution! Which I typically do not have–all it takes is a good superhero movie to have me bawling–but Krannert’s production totally worked for me, in all its bizarre and frequently overwrought glory. (Also it started with a fight between hot bros on stage, which I was 100% down for.) It occasionally gets produced elsewhere, though possibly with less nudity 😥 and the NYT reviews a production here.
2 And the darkness is, believe me, incredibly interesting. Some good scholars are bringing it back; see this Guardian review for a new translation with blood, guts, and sex included, and, for a really brief overview (I recommend going deeper, naturally), see Wikipedia.