Into the Woods

Be careful what you wish for because "wishes come true, not free." Sage advice from musical theatre's greatest living legend, Stephen Sondheim. In Into the Woods, Sondheim (music and lyrics) and frequent collaborator James Lapine (book/screenplay) take several well known fairy tales and blend them together to create a morality tale.

We begin with a prologue that introduces us to all the characters and their wishes. The Baker (James Corden) and the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child (they don't know it at rise, but it's a curse cast on the Baker's father that has made them barren). Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wishes to go to the festival (i.e., the Prince's ball), but her stepmother (Christine Baranski) says no. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wants to keep his cow, Milky White, but his mother (Tracey Ullman) insists he sell it. Little Red (Lilla Crawford) is en route to grandmother's house. And then there's the Witch (Meryl Streep), who offers to help the Baker and his wife if they can gather the items needed to reverse the curse. Everyone sets off into the woods where all sorts of mischief, mayhem and crossed paths (and more fairy tale characters) await them.

Traditional fairy tale goings on are not totally absent. Little Red does meet the Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Cinderella does go to the ball and run out on her Prince (Chris Pine.) Elsewhere in the woods, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is letting down her golden hair for her Prince (Billy Magnussen). But the fun of all the fairy tale fluff is merely a set up for what comes in "act two"; once the wishes are granted, Sondheim and Lapine explore what happens after "ever after."

The fun thing about Into the Woods is that, like many Shakespearean plays, it can be interpreted and imagined in many ways. For example, in the Shakespeare in the Park production from a couple of years ago (Amy Adams starred as the Baker's Wife; she and it were terrific), there was a distinct point of view to the production, and way the Mysterious Man was used added layers to the already rich musical. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) didn't quite take up the challenge of leaving his mark on the tale (and the Mysterious Man is absent), but he does use techniques unique to filmmaking to bring the story to life. (We get to watch Jack climb the beanstalk, for example, and full worlds are created for mere moments in the woods.)

As with the stage version, what really makes Into the Woods such fun is the score and the performances. For my taste, there's nothing like a Sondheim score. His musical phrasing is unmistakeable and his lyrics are among the most clever and challenging in the canon. (This is a writer who fit "harder than a matador coercin' a bull" into a song.) That's all there: wonderfully snappy and smart songs, full of real life ambivalence and emotion. (Well, it's not all there. Some of the show's songs have been left out of the film. The story's all there, but in some instances, Marshall and company use non-musical moments to make their point.)

The cast is game. Returning to her musical theatre roots, Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick (50/50, Up in the Air) is sweet but tough as Cinderella, a woman learning to think for herself. (When Kendrick was a girl, she earned a Tony nomination for her performance in a Broadway revival of High Society, the musical based on The Philadelphia Story.) Emily Blunt (Looper) is tenacious and funny, and she has a lovely singing voice. Tony winner James Corden (One Man, Two Guvnors) excels in the Baker's comedic moments, and Lilla Crawford (Annie) and Daniel Huttlestone (Les Miserables) do nicely as Little Red and Jack, respectively.

Johnny Depp tackles Sondheim once again (he was in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd), and he does pretty much what you'd expect him to do with the role. The impossibly handsome Chris Pine shows off his pipes as Cinderella's charming (but not sincere) prince, while the equally appealing Tony nominee Billy Magnussen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Sex with Strangers) impresses as Rapunzel's. (The two princes have a glorious time in the hilarious "Agony.")

And multiple Academy Award winner Meryl Streep as the Witch is simply sensational. (It was predestined: as Sondheim recently pointed out, Streep is an anagram of Peters and, as musical theatre acolytes know, Bernadette Peters originated the role of the Witch on Broadway.) It's particular fun to watch Streep once the Witch gets her wish, relishing her returned glamour. (Also of note: Christine Baranski (who was in Marshall's Oscar-winning Chicago) is a riot as Cinderella's stepmother.)

Some people think Into the Woods works better on stage. Others think, no matter the medium, it gets clunky toward the end. I'm not either one of those people. I love Sondheim's score, and I'm intrigued by his darker, less fanciful tendencies. It's everything I could wish for.


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  2. Into the Woods is a towering achievement. Few of Sondheim’s musicals have been successfully transplanted to cinema. Into the Woods may very well be the best of them.

    Highly recommended.

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