Hit Broadway show “Into the Woods” was made into a movie directed by Rob Marshall, released in 2014. Photo from ohmydisney.com.
As a huge musical theatre fan, I’m a bit ashamed to admit to you all that my introduction to arguably the best composer and lyricist in theatre history, Stephen Sondheim, was through the 2014 film, “Into the Woods.” In my defense, I was only 14.
The film reached theaters on Christmas Day and my family followed our tradition of taking advantage of the time off from school and work to see a movie. My mom, stepdad, twin brother and I bundled up and headed to see the new movie musical. My love for theatre partly comes from my mom who has years of experience and passion on me, so she had been looking forward to seeing how Rob Marshall adapted the classic Sondheim and James Lapine show she loved so much. I, on the other hand, was just looking forward to seeing Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt starring altogether in a movie musical.
All I knew going in was that it told the stories of classic fairytale characters, such as Cinderella and Rapunzel, but remained more true to the Brothers Grimm originals and featured a twist. With a run time of just over two hours, I was surprised when the story seemed to end just halfway through. I had been really enjoying the music and performances and just like a fairytale, we saw a nice happy ending; or so I thought.
There’s the now famed story of the early days in previews when “Into the Woods” first hit Broadway in 1987 that Sondheim himself would go outside the theatre to stop audiences from leaving after the end of the first act because they thought it was over. To curb the problem, the Narrator was given the line “to be continued” so audiences knew that there was just an intermission and they were not watching the end of the musical.
Along with my favorite Sondheim show, “Sunday in the Park With George,” there’s been some debate and controversy over whether the second act ruins the show and whether or not it even needs to be performed in a production at all. I’ve always been firmly in the camp that the shows mean nothing without the second act, even back in 2014.
When we left the movie theater, I was buzzing with excitement about how much I’d fallen for this movie and the musical itself. My mother was a bit on the fence, aware of all the changes that had been made from the original staged production, and my brother was complaining on and on about the second act ruining the entire thing; he’s since changed his mind thankfully.
I won’t spoil the second act, but let’s just say it doesn’t fit in with a traditional happy ending.
A year and a half later, I saw the show staged for the first time at my high school. I was extremely excited to finally see the differences my mom had mentioned and whether or not I’d like them or just return to watching the filmed version again once I got home. There were some big changes, mainly with the role of the Narrator, which is missing from the film with some of their lines being given to James Corden’s Baker. There was also the addition of the Mysterious Man, which completely surprised me and changed a lot of the meaning I’d gotten from the movie. While I was a bit confused, I loved the stage production as much, or even more, than the movie.
I completely understand the decision to cut both the Narrator and the Mysterious Man from the film, as they lend themselves a lot more to the theatre rather than the big screen. I’m sure that it would’ve been a bit difficult to include and it probably would have just added to the run time, especially because the play (without intermission) is two and a half hours with the added songs and dialogue that were cut from the film.
Still, I kept my love for the 2014 movie and refused to take any criticism on it except for the cutting of one specific song, “No More,” sung between the Baker and the Mysterious Man who (spoiler alert!) is the father who left him when he was a young boy after his mother died. It completely changed my understanding of the Baker and his fears of being a father. It also contains some of my favorite lyrics, “No more giants waging war. Can’t we just pursue our lives with our children and our wives?” Marshall did keep an instrumental version of the song in the film, but it means nothing to viewers (like me) who hadn’t heard it before.
Last summer was the peak of my Sondheim phase. What’s special about him is that he had the foresight to professionally film his major productions (“Passion,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park With George”) and I watched all three. Finally, I got to see the hype about the original production and cast. It took me a little bit to get used to the pro-shot and the campiness that is somewhat missing in the film, but I watched it over and over again. It’s admittedly much funnier than the film, though both have their laughs. What stood out most were the performances specifically that of Bernadette Peters as the Witch (though Streep did a brilliant job in the film), Chip Zien as the Baker and Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife (she certainly earned that Tony Award).
I did also watch a bootleg (yes, I watch them, so what?) of the 2012 Central Park production featuring Zien, Amy Adams, Donna Murphy, Jessie Mueller and more. It was very interesting to see how they adapted the show for the outside setting and it was definitely a production that took many creative liberties, adding to the humor. I’m still mad about the lyric change in “Last Midnight” (leftover from the 2002 Broadway revival). The original lyrics are “You’re so nice/You’re not good/You’re not bad/You’re just nice.” For some reason, the lyrics in the 2002 and 2012 productions were instead, “You’re so pure/But stay here and in time/You’ll mature.” What was the reason Mr. Sondheim? Was this really necessary? I think not! Although I do have to give the 2012 productions kudos for having Glenn Close as the pre-recorded voice of the Giant.
Without a doubt, I can say that the original 1987 production of “Into the Woods” is my favorite of the four I’ve seen, though I think Marshall and the cast did justice to it when they adapted it for the screen. Thankfully the film is coming to Disney+ Dec. 18 and I can’t wait to do a back-to-back viewing of one of my favorite Broadway musicals and what I believe to be one of the best movie musical adaptations of all time.