It’s been a month, now, since the Into the Woods movie opened and, had I piped up sooner, my shouts might have gotten lost in the noise – so many others stating so many strong opinions. And yet nobody seems to have pointed out the one thing that, seemingly, I’m the only one willing to say:
Into the Woods – on stage – isn’t a particularly good musical.
Therefore, a film adaptation isn’t likely to be a particularly good movie.
People who are disappointed with Rob Marshall’s cinema adaptation tend to focus on the textual changes, which were relatively few. Compare On the Town, considered one of the finest musical movies: it threw out all but two of Leonard Bernstein’s songs. Here, a mere handful of airs were left on the cutting room floor. So stop whining! Their inclusion wouldn’t have made a major difference.
I can’t say I was disappointed by the flick. A very strong cast filled the multitude of roles. Some thought was given to the look of the thing, and that paid off considerably when two princes warbled in front of waterfalls. By trimming away some ballads from the second act, the pace of the piece increased towards the end. When I see Into the Woods on stage, it always seems terribly long, leaves me exhausted. This adaptation didn’t have that effect on me.
So, let’s look at why Into the Woods isn’t such a good musical to begin with. And also why filming it is a fool’s errand, bound to highlight its weaknesses.
“Agony” and other emotions
When you look at the great musicals – Carousel, West Side Story, She Loves Me, The Most Happy Fella, e.g. – one thing that stands out is emotion. The best shows amplify and explore characters’ feelings, their passions. Writers make a choice about what to emphasize in their storytelling. Rodgers and Hammerstein spend a large amount of time on Julie and Billy’s first date in Carousel, the famous “bench scene” concluding with If I Loved You. And God, that’s some gorgeous writing.
Hammerstein’s pupil, Stephen Sondheim, rejected that example and chooses, in show after show, to emphasize something other than ardor. He’s interested in showing ambiguity (“Getting a divorce together that make perfect relationships.”), malevolence and regret. One of the things that stops his most performed show, Into the Woods, from being a great musical is its refusal to stop and explore what anyone is feeling. The first act zips along without pausing to come up for air, much. It’s all plot, almost all the time, and perversely avoids depicting its most piquant emotions. A couple that wants a child but cannot have one – that’s a very moving problem, there – is given the opportunity to conceive. Wow. A true reason to pop the champagne. But Into the Woods, with too much story to tell, doesn’t have time to lift the cork. Now, eventually this couple gets a vaudevillian paean to teamwork, one of the best moments of the play. And teamwork’s a nice thing, but fertility’s ever so much joyful.
In Murray Schisgal’s play, Luv, two woe-begotten schlubs try to outdo each other with who’s had the more miserable life. “For Christmas presents, we got socks!” “You got Christmas presents?” In another of Into the Woods’ more winning moments, royal brothers boast they feel greater Agony than the other. And that’s pleasant and amusing, but, again: where is the love? We never experience what either of these men feel about their ladies. At another point, the show admits it has nothing to say about romance “He’s a very nice prince.” “And…and…?” This leaves us with no reason to have a rooting interest in anyone’s marriage working out. It’s rare to find a musical with so little interest in love – for good reason.
Into the words
A couple of posts ago, I pointed out how unrelenting verbosity creates a strain on the audience’s ears. You get exhausted by all that painstaking ear-cocking. With Into the Woods packing ‘em in at multiplexes, a lot of audiences are experiencing the lyrics for the first time. And their brains are hurting. We theatre folk, the people who know the show well, who’ve listened to the cast album or video countless times, tend to forget how hard it was to take in all those dense words on the first encounter. Into the Woods, I maintain, is a show people grow to love. When you re-encounter it. Dozens of times.
Cinema is a visual medium. At motion pictures, we look at pictures, and they tell a story. At Into the Woods, no matter how pretty the images, we’re forced to concentrate, hard, on all those lyrics hurtling at us. Here’s one of the slower ones, sung about a cow:
There are bugs on her dugs.
There are flies in her eyes.
There’s a lump on her rump
Big enough to be a hump-
We’ve no time to sit and dither,
While her withers wither with her
In the movie, you see a real cow and you’re hard-pressed to comprehend “dugs” and the whole triple meaning of “wither.” The image – an old white cow – said it all; nobody in the audience laughed at the triple entendre because we’re not used to figuring out homophones at the flickers and Look! A cow!
In the stage version, though, the same text plays a whole lot better. For one thing, in the theatre, we’re used to wordplay. It’s in Sondheim, but also Shakespeare, Stoppard and Rostand. Our perception of puns is more acute when actors are live on stage. And, of course, the cow is not a cow at all. It’s a funny stage approximation of a cattle standing like a statue, dragged around on wheeled hooves. Film is too literal for the show’s bovine mock-up. (I hope I’m not beating a dead cow, here.)
Children will… be children
Another stagy thing not easily replicated on celluloid: We accept the idea that juvenile characters won’t always be played by actual children. Central to Into the Woods is the awakening of Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Little Red Riding Hood. Creators James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim could have a little fun about fairy tale characters having a sexual awakening because they knew, when the show was produced, they’d be casting performers in their late teens. The boy and girl originating these roles on Broadway were 18 and 16, and nobody got embarrassed by the idea that performers that age would be aware of, and could hint at, the sexual overtones: the wolf’s use of “carnality” as he salivates over eating the “supple” girl, her being excited and scared and Jack’s close encounter with a giant breast.
Contemporary filmmaking doesn’t have a tradition of adult actors playing pubescent characters. And so, three key songs are robbed of their sexual heat and it’s not clear to me what, of any importance, Little Red knows now that she knows things now. Or what Jack knows that’s different than what he’s known before. And why is the film spending time singing about it?
My theory is the authors were so preoccupied with moral quandaries and other would-be profound bits, they failed to serve up much that’s moving. And do we go to flicks for their philosophic epiphanies, or their emotions?