Not every successful Broadway musical should be made into a movie, a fact someone needs to tell Rob Marshall. His big break as a filmmaker came with his blockbuster adaptation of Chicago, admittedly tough material that he translated smoothly onto the silver screen. While imperfect, he later brought an appropriately theatrical quality and stunning beauty to Memoirs of a Geisha.
Marshall’s affection for the theater world makes him a rare and valuable filmmaker. His adoration for even mid-grade Broadway musicals explains why he decided to make Nine and Into The Woods into movies. The former had a rocky time on stage, despite the terrific material and actors like Raul Julia and Antonio Banderas in the lead. As a movie, Nine suffered from a badly miscast Daniel Day-Lewis and a hit and miss assortment of scenes without a center. The latter, despite its popularity, is not one of writer/composer Stephen Sondheim’s great musicals. Sondheim’s unique word couplings and beautiful melodies served Sweeney Todd, both on stage and as a film, but Into The Woods is a bust.
At least Nine had Day-Lewis as the film’s master of ceremonies. Into The Woods gives us great actors playing wafer-thin fairy tale characters, who shuffle on and off a murky forest set. No one ever steps up and takes control. We get Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Meryl Streep as The Witch, Johnny Depp (very briefly) as The Wolf, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s wife and Chris Pine as a dashing Prince. They all have lovely voices and give it their best but can’t ignite a story that’s both busy and aimless or sing tunes with clunky, simplistic lyrics.
I’ve never seen Into The Woods on stage but remember cringing when I first listened to the soundtrack. Sondheim is a treasure and so is Bernadette Peters (who played The Witch on Broadway) but Into The Woods stinks. Song after song, we get soaring orchestrations but lyrics that seem designed to make actors come across as mush-mouthed and vocally inadequate. My heart goes out to anyone who struggles to pull off this material in community theater. Friends of mine who saw it on stage praised the clever effects and hard-working actors but not the music. Unless you’re a die-hard fan, no one would leave Into The Woods humming the songs. Watching Pine give a full throttle take on tunes like Agony, I wished he had better material to showcase his talent. Sondheim has done far better.
Marshall’s film is a lumbering ordeal that doesn’t reward the bounce and vocal beauty achieved by the cast. Kendrick (a Tony award winner before her big break in Up in the Air) and Blunt have especially gorgeous singing voices and Streep gives her Witch a great deal of feeling and pathos. Grimm Fairy Tales have rich characters who undergo dynamic journeys. The cast of Into The Woods must find themselves and work their way out of moral dilemmas they encounter… in the woods. This makes for a flimsy plot that trudges onward without creating momentum or investing audience interest.
The timing seems to best illustrate why this 1987 stage attraction was belatedly made into a film. With the staying power of Frozen and Wicked in pop culture, Once Upon a Time and Grimm on television and Maleficent cleaning up last summer, fairy tales are big business.
I’m not what you’d call a die-hard ABBA fan but I’d happily watch Streep in Mamma Mia! again than sit through Into The Woods. Somebody please stop Marshall before he takes on Starlight Express. To quote Pine as the Prince, this movie is agonyyyyyyyyy!