Movie versions of Broadway musicals in the past decade have been a majorly mixed bag, technically so brilliant but sometimes a bit dizzying to watch because of high definition effects which take away the intimacy of the original show. From "Evita" in 1997 to "Chicago" in 2002, followed by "Hairspray. Mamma Mia. Phantom. Nine. The Producers. Dreamgirls. Les Miserables" etc, these shows are now recorded for posterity, some instant classics, others missed opportunities which in reflection will be considered disappointments. The newest of these is "Into the Woods" Stephen Sondheim's brilliant late 1980's musical which has seen many revivals and revisals, the latest one just having started an Off Broadway run.
I am pleased to say that "Into the Woods" has been filmed with a very faithful scope of what audiences saw Bernadette Peters do in 1988, as well as subsequent revivals with Vanessa Williams and Donna Murphy. Having seen three productions (the original national tour with Cleo Laine as well as the later two women in the role of "the witch next door. I anxiously awaited the movie where none other than Meryl Streep took on the diva role, a supporting part that stands out in the context of the story because she is the antagonist and the motivation for everything which takes place.
Having a huge cult following, Into the Woods" means different things to its many fans, and unfortunately, even way before the movie came out, people were already barking that the differences between the stage production and the movie version were many. Those people were way off base as the movie is as close to the original show as it can possibly be, and the changes that are there were necessary for the narrative to really work, most of the cuts of elements that in retrospective were too stagy to work on film. Only a few songs have been cut, but there are instrumental versions of them included where the songs would have been originally.
The cast is uniformly excellent with very little glamorization of them. James Cordern and Emily Blunt are the heart and soul as the baker and his wife, with Lilla Crawford very funny as Little Red Riding Hood, obnoxious enough to create laughs but not to the point of wanting to slap her. Daniel Huttlestone is adorable as little Jack with Tracey Ullman extremely witty as his mother. Anna Kendrick is very moving as Cinderella with Mackenzie Mauzy showing an inner strength previously not utilized in the character of Rapunzel. The comical highlight comes between the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) in their duet, Agony" although I did miss the reprise where they mention several other fairy tale characters not seen here. Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch are delightfully imperious as the step-mother and step-sisters.
As for Meryl Streep, she utilizes her huge talents to build the character of the witch from ugly trouble-making hag to blue-haired fairy princess who is still rather troublesome. Her performance is like that of a volcano, building in heat and sulfur until she finally explodes. Like Margaret Hamilton's witch, she always appears in the oddest of times, exploding with "The Last Midnight. Meryl's rap is quite memorable too, although her voice isn't as brassy as the Broadway divas who rocked the rap to pieces. She is heard as well singing "Children Will Listen" although unlike the witch in the play, she is only heard, not seen.
Fortunately, the photography isn't as dizzying as it could have been, so this doesn't look like "Harry Potter. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" or any of the dozens of other Grimm's Fairy Tale rip-offs of the past decade. What it does succeed in showing is that when done with care, a movie version of a Broadway musical can be faithful and be altered without loosing what made it so great in the first place. For me, Into the Woods" will always be a brilliant musical about daring to face life without fear, that mistakes are necessary in order to grow, and that the metaphoric "woods" of our lives must be explored in order to get through the hard times. Bravo, Hollywood, for finally doing Broadway right.
- Under the Family Tree