Hollywood has a knack of bungling the adaption of hit Broadway musicals when it tries to capture the same magic for the silver screen. Just think of the turgid ‘Les Miserables’ in 2012, or the excruciatingly painful ‘Nine’ in 2009. However when they get it right as with Tim Burton’s take on ‘Sweeney Todd’, or discovering Jennifer Hudson in Bill Condon version of ‘Dreamgirls’, then the results are wonderfully entertaining. Of the two musical movies vying for our attention this Christmas, one at least is as good as it can get, and something that its original writer and composer Stephen Sondheim can be relieved and even happy about.
‘Into The Woods’ is a wonderful mix of classic light and dark fairy tales that Sondheim uses to weave around an original story of his own. It’s the tale of a Baker and his childless wife who have been cursed by a witch after the Baker’s late father had stolen her magic beans. To enable them to break the spell so that they can conceive a baby, the witch sets them a list of things they must acquire for her before the 3rd midnight. It includes a cloak as red as blood, that they ‘relieve’ Red Riding Hood of; a cow that is milky white which they barter with Jack of Jack & the Beanstalk; the slipper as pure as gold that they get from Cinderella as she is running from the Prince; and the hair as yellow as corn which is snipped off Rapunzel after she lowers it out of the window of the tower she is imprisoned in .
As the Baker and his wife go about encountering all these characters we get a slice of each of their stories. Jack egged on by his mother steals from the Giant who lives at the top of the Beanstalk, and when he is pursued, kills him only to have the rage of the Giant’s wife inflicted on the whole village. Cinderella gets to go to the Kings Festival thanks to her Fairy Godmother, but when she is eventually tracked down by the Prince, she discovers he is not quite as wonderful as we thought. He quips in defense ‘I’m meant to be charming, not sincere!’ Rapunzel is pursued by the Prince’s younger brother but when her mother (the witch) discovers the lovers she blinds him. Luckily Rapunzel’s tears give him back his sight.
The real magic though is in Sondheim’s outstanding music in what is probably one of his best ever scores. Director Rob Marshall opens the movie with a long take of the sing ‘I Wish’ which cleverly introduces all the major characters and sets the storyline up from the start. It establishes a pattern for really making the extraordinary songs a much more integral part of the story than usual. What Marshall has added to some pieces is a campy touch of humor that may offend real Sondheim elitists, but in most instances, as in the case of the two Princes so brilliantly mugging their way through the song ‘Agony’, it will surely provoke a spontaneous round of applause from the audience as it did last night when I saw it.
The stage musical has been revived many times on Broadway and on London’s West End and the role of the Witch has been played by a whole slew of the cream of musical theater. In the movie however, The Witch is played by Meryl Streep who really adds much more dimension to the part in what is one of her best performances for years. She is both funny and scary and proves that she can really deliver a song with more nuance and power than most.
In fact Marshall could not have selected a more perfect ensemble cast than he did. Brits James Corden and Emily Blunt had remarkable chemistry together playing the central characters of The Baker and his wife; Anna Kendrick was sublime as Cinderella, as was the ever-fabulous Christine Barenski as her Wicked Stepmother; a welcome return to the screen for Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother; Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen played the handsome Princes; and in two scene-stealing roles wonderfully talented Lilla Crawford was Little Red Hood and young Daniel Huddlestone was Jack. Plus lest I forget a brief cameo from Johnny Depp as The Wolf.
Using the line from one of the best songs (‘Children Will Listen’) the adverts for the movie warn ‘Be careful what you wish for’. If you are a Sondheim fan or just like musicals, then you’ll learn too that after you see this movie that wishes do come true though, and in many ways.