The happily-ever-after part of Into the Woods doesn’t last long. And that’s just one reason why so many grown-ups have identified with and embraced a Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical featuring fairy-tale characters.
For no matter how much we might wish it were different, life is not a simple stroll through the woods to a happy ending. Particularly in our post-9/11 world.
Director Rob Marshall, whose 2002 Oscar-winning Chicago sparked the resurgence of the movie musical, had been talking to Sondheim about working together for nearly a decade when President Obama in 2011 said to the families of the victims: “You are not alone. ... No one is alone.” That’s a lyric — and a central theme — from Into the Woods.
Now Marshall, whose early career included choreographing a 1990 regional production of Into the Woods in Massachusetts, has helped transform a Tony Award-winning piece of theater into an Oscar-contending movie musical, one that opens on Christmas day.
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“I thought that message is so important for today,” Marshall said in a recent phone interview. “So I called James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim.”
The musical’s creators were heavily involved in the movie, something that is hardly a given. Lapine, who shared the Pulitzer Prize with Sondheim for their musical Sunday in the Park With George, got to write the screenplay.
“I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to write it,” Lapine says. “Very rarely do people get to adapt their own material from stage to screen.”
Sondheim adapted his score and was a presence during the making of the film.
“He’s legendary. It’s surreal to sing Sondheim in front of Sondheim,” says MacKenzie Mauzy, who plays Rapunzel in the movie. “He’s kind. He was around a lot, and he was supportive of our interpretations of the characters.”
Those characters are a blend of familiar and invented figures.
Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood makes her way into the woods, only to be devoured by Johnny Depp’s zoot-suited Wolf. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella puts up with the daily indignities visited upon her by her self-absorbed Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters Florinda (Tammy Blanchard) and Lucinda (Lucy Punch), gets a magical makeover at a tree marking the burial spot of her late mother, then finds herself conflicted and fleeing the besotted Prince (Chris Pine) three nights running.
Unreliable Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is forced by his exasperated Mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his beloved, dried-up cow Milky-White. But the boy trades her for magic beans, one yielding a massive beanstalk that leads to a hidden land of giants in the sky. Locked in a tower, beautiful Rapunzel (Mauzy) has attracted the attention of the prince’s younger brother (Billy Magnussen), who climbs up her 30-foot blonde braid to woo his beloved.
The couple at the center of Into the Woods, however, is Lapine’s creation.
The Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) have tried and failed to have a child. They discover that because the Baker’s Father (Simon Russell Beale) years ago stole magic beans from the garden of the woman (Meryl Streep) who lives next door, she was placed under a curse and transformed into a frightening hag. As payback, the Witch has cast a spell that will leave the couple forever childless — unless they collect four items that will restore her beauty, each belonging to one of the classic characters.
So, as the Baker and his Wife search for a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a slipper as pure as gold, the stories intersect in the woods. A place thick with imposing old trees and tangled pathways, a place of darkness pierced by dappled light, the movie’s forest — rendered mysterious and haunting by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe — is both a location and a symbol.
“The woods is everything. Our dreams, our hopes, our wishes. Overcoming our fears. It’s where we learn how to grow up,” Marshall says.
The Giant, says Lapine, is symbolic, too.
“Sadly, there’s always a Giant. And the Giant’s going to change,” he says, speaking of the dangers and fears that menace us. “That’s why [Into the Woods] has continued to be popular.”
Over the two years that the movie was being made, rumors about what Marshall and company might be doing to a beloved, sometimes dark musical roiled on social media. Aficionados thought that since Disney was the studio making Into the Woods, the company’s family-friendly aesthetic might make for a sunnier approach. There was buzz that the ending was happier, that songs and characters were being cut or altered.
Sondheim, Lapine and Marshall did make some changes, eliminating a couple of characters, cutting the song No More, presenting several songs (Little Red Riding Hood’s I Know Things Now, Jack’s Giants in the Sky, Cinderella’s On the Steps of the Palace) in a style more suited to a movie. But Into the Woods earns its PG rating by being, at times, dark and sexy and menacing. In other words, it’s not a fairy-tale movie for little children.
In the 16-minute opening sequence, as they sing the title song, the characters are introduced, their desires revealed, and they all venture into the woods. That setup, Marshall says, is key to making a movie musical work.
“It’s most important that it feels organic. When characters start to sing ... you establish the language and rules of how this is going to work. The piece begins with music, then moves seamlessly in and out of dialogue and song,” he says. “It was built into this. I was lucky.”
Magnussen, who plays Rapunzel’s prince, appeared on Broadway in Christopher Durang’s comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (he was the hot, empty-headed Spike). He has never taken on the challenge of doing a Sondheim show eight times a week but loved singing in the movie.
“Sondheim’s palette has so many colors, such depth and texture. He’s a master at his craft,” Magnussen says. “He and Lapine tell so many relatable stories about parents and children, dealing with responsibility. It’s life: leaving childhood and going with it.”
Mauzy thinks that sharing Into the Woods and its fairy tales with a new generation in a new way is important.
“The message is to find your hope in a broken world, where there’s light and darkness,” she says.
The casting of Into the Woods began with the versatile, Oscar-winning Streep, whose previous onscreen singing was in the lightweight Mamma Mia! Her participation helped get others in the A-list cast to sign on. And, say Marshall and Lapine, she delivered as both an actor and singer.
“Sondheim is a real actor’s writer. Meryl brings humanity to the Witch, creating someone so fully dimensional, layered and vulnerable. She makes you care about the Witch,” Marshall says.
Lapine, who met Streep decades ago when she was performing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, says he isn’t sure the movie would have been made without her. And when he heard her sing, he told her, “I didn’t know you could sing like this.”
To which she replied, “No one ever asked me to sing like this.”