“Into the Woods” Review – the Music of Sondheim, the body count of “Les Mis”

As an avowed lover of musical theatre, I wanted to love the film adaptation of Into the Woods. I convinced my dad to go with me for the promise of giants destroying a set, a sly wolf full of sexual innuendo, and the macabre humor associated with the brilliant Stephen Sondheim and lyricist James Lapine. Plus, with Rob Marshall at the helm (I adore the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Chicago), I entered the theater with confidence that I’d made the right decision.

I left feeling profoundly “meh.”

And he can sing? Perfect.

First, the bright spots: Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen were brilliant, and “Agony” was staged beautifully. Everyone in the theater laughed as Pine dramatically tore his shirt in (well) agony.

Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt did well. Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” was a true show-stopper. However, the real star was Meryl Streep James Corden. Corden’s Baker had warmth, humor, and depth, which was a feat given the changes made to the Baker’s plot (as I’ll address later).

And then it crumbles. People normally fall into two camps when it comes to disliking this movie: 1) people who just don’t like Sondheim/don’t understand the music or 2) people who fell in love with the original show and are upset with the changes.

To the first group, do your research on his music. No, he’s not known for having a lot of “hummable,” Alan Menken-esque tunes you’ll be shower-singing for years to come. He writes for actors, and though his most popular songs can be challenging (like trying to figure out when to breathe in “Lament”), he wants to emphasize emotion over technical precision.

Also, he’s not safe for children. Even his lone-wolf comedy, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” is fraught with innuendo and outuendo. Sondheim’s “Assassins” gives voice to the attempted and successful assassinations of US Presidents throughout history, all told from the perspective of the killers. Woods is filled with adult themes, but most of it gets lost thanks to unexpected sanitation. Johnny Depp’s Wolf gets this gutting the most, a travesty for what is supposed to be a despicably perverted character. Maybe it’s paired with the fact that he’s supposed to sing opposite an adult Red Riding Hood, not Lilla Crawford’s spunky childlike demeanor. To make matters worse, Red Riding Hood was supposed to be played by Sophia Grace (the one of Ellen fame); thankfully, she left production a week in, and Crawford was cast. This leaves Depp’s Wolf to simply comes across as creepy, no stretch for the man who made his career off of just that.

To the second group, I feel your pain. **Spoilers ahead, so if you’ve seen the movie/musical, forge onward** Rob Marshall, SHAME ON YOU. You took out the most important piece of the puzzle: The Narrator. Sure, we still have a narrator (also James Corden), but we don’t have THE Narrator. Marshall successfully took the teeth right out of Sondheim’s most moving musical moment for the sake of what? Maintaining a PG rating? I was furious when the Narrator wasn’t revealed to be the Baker’s father who, fraught with guilt and tired of watching the characters suffer for his sins, convinces the Baker to take hold of his responsibilities (“No More”). “Into the Woods” is all about understanding that giants, princes and witches keep coming even after we find a happy ending. The Narrator lives with that knowledge longer than anyone in the show, and by ignoring his connection to the Baker, Marshall removes an important twist to the plot, and thus its morals.

Also, the point proved with both princes is that they never changed. In “Agony (Reprise),” the two reconvene to pursue other women who audiences find out are Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Why change Rapunzel’s fate? While it’s minor, it still removes another opportunity for Pine and Magnussen to showcase their humor and deepen the heart of the movie.

Final verdict: If you’ve never seen “Into the Woods” and you enjoy musical theater, go see this movie. You will probably enjoy it. However, avoid it if you have small children because a) everything will go right over their heads and b) it’s downright sinister at times.

My biggest fear is that Marshall is creating a new set of viewers who will undoubtedly say “I like the movie so much more than the show” after seeing the movie first. It’s like those crazy people who don’t read a book before its movie adaptation. To those people (because I’m sure by now you exist somewhere), realize you’re loving the shadow of a show that held its own against “The Phantom of the Opera” at the 1988 Tony Awards. Shadows don’t satisfy. Man up, take the plunge, and go watch any staged version you want.

Did you love Into the Woods? Did you hate it? Sound off in the comments below! Bonus points for whoever identifies the “Wicked” reference made!

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