If I hadn’t filled my brain with Stephen Sondheim lyrics — and then bang! crash! the lightning flashed! and – well that’s another story never mind anyway — I might have won a Nobel Prize in physics by now. Probably not, because, ugh, I hated physics, but maybe. You never know. I did fill my brain with Sondheim lyrics, though, because that is what I do, and so I spent the time watching Into The Woods slowly dripping tears into my popcorn alternated with muttering lyrics under my breath.
shep. and I went to see it on New Year’s Day, and she asked me, honestly, afterwards, what I had thought, and my first response was, “Well, at least James Lapine fucked up his own script irreperably.” (It took me two weeks to write this because, well, you’ll see.)
What follows is deeply spoilerly, deeply picky, and deeply nerdy; if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know anything about it, back out now. I dig pretty damn deep into geekiness about the choices made, and I spare no sacred cows. None of it is to say I didn’t enjoy the movie, which I did, immensely. I thought all the performances were exceptional, particularly Emily Blunt and the kiddo who plays Jack. I adored the way they staged “Agony” and I thought that the Pine chewed an epically delightful amount of scenery. But I think there were a whole bunch of things they didn’t handle well, and because I am deeply emotionally invested in Into The Woods the stage musical, I have outlined them here for you. Because I know you care.
- the number one problem, the problem from which all other problems stem, is the choice to have the Baker narrate; both because he is a different kind of unreliable narrator than the Narrator / Mysterious Man, and because of the loss of the Mysterious Man as a character. It’s all tied into the way they’ve manipulated the relationship between the Baker and his father, because whereas in the play the Baker thinks his father is dead, in the movie he thinks his father deserted him — it’s a completely different kind of emotional resonance, and frankly, I think that the former, with the brief reunion where the Baker knows his father loved him and wanted to be there for him, is far better than the latter. And then of course the choice to cut “No More”, which only makes sense if you’ve made the previous change, well, it leaves the movie feeling like it ends with the Baker’s wife’s death and “No One Is Alone”, where instead it should end with “Children Will Listen”. Into The Woods has at its heart a lot of stuff about parents and children in addition to romantic relationships — I mean obviously duh — and I think that dismissing “Children Will Listen” to the closing fade out, along with the manupulation of the Baker’s relationship with his father, trivializes that part of the script, which is the most powerful part for me. Not to mention that not showing the Witch singing “Children Will Listen” leads to …
- the Witch. Meryl Streep was perfectly good; she has the voice to pull off the part, and in the second act she was far less distracting than she was in the first act, when she wasn’t the Witch, she was Meryl Streep with four wrinkles on her forehead. But what the adaptation misses from the original script is this, and it’s most apparent in the directed delivery of “Last Midnight” and then the off-handed-ness of “Children Will Listen”, is that the Witch is ultimately the voice of reason in the show. She sings in “Last Midnight” i’m not good, i’m not nice, i’m just right, and that is true. She’s a villain, sure, but she is a villain who also gives out warnings and who loves her adopted daughter truly and purely. The Witch isn’t bad, she’s just right. And “Children Will Listen” reinforces that at the end of the show, but the movie doesn’t give it much focus, or the Witch a final reappearance. It’s a huge loss to the second half pacing, and the true conclusion of the script, and the loss of it leads me to …
- the other songs they cut: I understand losing the first act finale (“Ever After”) and the second act opener (“So Happy”), because there’s no act break in the movie. They pulled some of the melody lines into the score, and that’s fine, but even so there’s something to those songs with the whole ensemble. “Ever After” because it’s a fucking fairy tale, you guys, and “So Happy” because you all know you know you want to know what happens next. After the Ever After. It’s the fucking point of the musical. What happens next. And the biggest loss — the biggest loss of a single song that doesn’t have that much power overall but does in the smallest fiercest way, not like “No More” but — it’s “Agony (Reprise)”, where the two princes meet up and sing about the new princesses they’ve found (a thinly veiled Sleeping Beauty and Snow White). Not only is it a loss at a change for weird, vaguely creepy humor in the dark, dark second act — the exchange of It’s my thing about blood / well it’s sick / it’s no sicker than your things with dwarves / dwarfs / dwarfs / Dwarfs are very upsetting will never fail to make me laugh like a hyena — and the fact that the Princes in the movie would have performed it lustily and with great scenery chewing, but it is, at heart, about still wanting.
- the whole second act is about still wanting — it’s not enough. Ever After isn’t enough. That’s the whole point, the whole resonance of the second half of the script: it’s not enough, but if it isn’t enough, are you still willing to risk what you were willing to risk before? It’s why the Baker’s Wife’s death resonates. It’s why “No More” resonates. And it’s why the last line of “Agony (Reprise)” matters: ah, well: back to my wife. It’s what you’re stuck with. It’s what you can see but know you can’t have. And it’s a primal set-up for what happens between Cinderella’s Prince and the Baker’s Wife and “Moments In The Woods” — it’s the set up to the set up to the Baker’s Wife’s death, and while it might seem like a silly little fluff song for minor characters, when it’s missing, all I noticed was the emotional beats that it’s loss upset.
- You know that Cinderella’s Prince is a player from the movie, and that’s enough to explain the lead up to “Moments In The Woods”, but it misses the point. The point that nothing is ever enough for any of these characters, which is both good — everyone deserves a dream, or, well, a wish — and leads to sadness and loss. And if you miss the point of that, you miss the point of the second act, you miss the point of the Baker’s Wife’s death, you miss the point of the Baker’s relationship with his father, his relationship with his son, the Witch’s relationship with Rapunzel.
- And that makes me really sad, because Into The Woods should be a dark, sad, lonely, hopeful show. “Moments In The Woods” is the hope in the second act, even before “No One Is Alone”. It’s the moment, to be totally cheesy.
I think that the film gets a lot of things right; I think it’s gorgeous to look at, and Streep does a more than good job with an incredibly demanding vocal part, and if she doesn’t knock it out of the park on either the Witch’s Rap (greens, greens, and nothing but greens / parsley, peppers, cabbages and celery, etc) or “Last Midnight”, she does a credible job with the former and the staging and direction are what mar the latter. Emily Blunt and James Cordon are phenomenal both alone and in their interactions together (the staging of “It Takes Two” is a little silly, but they deliver it with such conviction that I didn’t care). Aging down Jack and Red Riding Hood reverses some of emotional beats lost in the cuts and makes a lot of their scenes and interactions with adults even more poignant, instead of having them be played by smart-mouthed teenagers; it made me miss a weighted “Children Will Listen” even more after “No One Is Alone”.
(Fun fact: well into my late 20s, I knew the Witch’s Rap by heart and could drop it whenever prompted. Now my head is full of Taylor Swift lyrics.)
(I have nothing to say about Johnny Depp except that in the original show, the actor who plays Cinderella’s Prince also plays The Wolf, which is both more creepster and less.)
I enjoyed the movie. I liked seeing the parts I know so well voiced and brought to life by new people. But I don’t think it was good, and I think Marshall may have missed the point of the script he was adapting from the very beginning.
If you’d like to see a version of the original show, the original Broadway cast filmed a one-off performance in 1994 and you can rent it on Amazon Streaming for $2.99. It’s worth it. Bernadette Peters is a wonder.
Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take-
Wishes come true,