HAPPILY EVER AFTER
I have some rather disturbing news to report. My football musical, Any Given Sunday in the Park, has been delayed. The unfortunate issue with the CDC last week has led to some legal complications. Apparently the rush on a Pico Boulevard Rite-Aid for a non-existent Ebola vaccine led to the trampling of a poor pharmacist named Brian and there are some nuisance law suits pending that will keep the production company busy for a while. Ah well, something else is likely to turn up soon. In the meantime, I have had to have the exterminators in at Chateau Maine as one of the CDC workers seems to have inadvertently introduced scabies into the living room suite and I really cannot have my guests emerging from afternoon tea with excoriated rashes.
With no new theatrical production on the horizon, Normy and I have been contenting ourselves with home projects. We are having the house rewired for new smart lighting, climate control and sound systems so that lights will turn on and off as you move from room to room and unused portions of the house will have fewer power needs. Our first attempt was based on the clapper but when at a little cocktail gathering last night for the Hollywood Kids, I received my usual entrance applause, the system went a teensy bit haywire shooting the indoor temperature up to 90 degrees followed by a temporary blackout. The electricians are in today rectifying these problems and have promised that it will be operating flawlessly by the end of the day.
I have also been out on the grounds, pruning a few dead heads and trying to decide how best to deal with the back terrace which has never quite recovered from the collapse of poor Neely O’Hara’s golden toilet tower some months back. We have ordered all new patio furnishings in an art nouveau style with tapestry cushions based on Klimt and that should go a long way towards hiding the stains if we position them strategically.
All the running around the garden made me eager to get out and see a film based in the great outdoors so Normy and I set off for the local Cineplex where Rob Marshall’s new film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods has recently opened. A day amongst the hydrangeas and bougainvillea had me in the mood for something vaguely horticultural and I am, of course, all about movie musicals, even if they lack tap production numbers. Back in 87, I had a few meetings with Steve and was cast in the workshop for the original Broadway production as Cinderella. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to do the lengthy tap solo he had written with only one shoe on and in 7/8 time. Eventually the number was cut and there was no point in my remaining with the show and I was replaced by the much inferior Kim Crosbie. I did see that famous original production a few times and Bernadette took a few pointers from me on how to best play the witch. They must have misheard my suggestion for a witches tap, however as it made its way into the show as the witches rap; the only rap song that’s also an ode to the produce section at the supermarket.
For those who do not follow the world of Broadway, in its original form, Into the Woods is a musical mash-up of some familiar fairy tales including Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. In the first act, all the various characters weave in and out of an original quest tale involving a childless baker and his wife and through various farcical complications. The characters all end up in the woods, searching to fulfill their various wishes and quests and it all comes right in the end in time for the Act I finale. Act II is much more difficult and dangerous as the consequences of the actions the characters took to get their wishes have unintended effects and their world is rent with death, destruction, and an understanding that it requires community and not individual pluck to solve great problems. The stage musical is full of brilliance, but is flawed in that the second act, in terms of theme and ideas, bites off much more than it can chew and digest in the hour allotted to the second acts of Broadway shows and between this and the tonal shifts from the farce of Act I to the melodrama of Act II, it’s a very tricky piece to get right. Nevertheless, the approachability of the characters have made Into the Woods the most popular of Sondheim’s major works and the legions of Sondheimites have been very anxious about the film version. Film, as a literal and visual medium, has not been kind to Sondheim’s oeuvre over the years as it is the antithesis of his work which depends on a cerebral type of sparkling wit and wordplay and often repeated listenings to the score. Most of his works have not been filmed and those that have (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music) have not been very successful artistically or commercially for various reasons.
The film ended up in the hands of Rob Marshall who re-energized the film musical a dozen years ago with his version of Chicago. Marshall was able to get a modern audience inside a musical by recasting the numbers of vaudeville fantasies in the characters’ minds rather than trying to have realistic characters breaking into song and dance in realistic settings, a convention that has been rejected by American film audiences since the early 1970s. He followed this up with a film version of the musical Nine using a similar filmic language. This film failed, based primarily I think on some uneven casting and an inability for audiences to relate to the inner demons of a mid-20th century Italian film director. Early press on Into the Woods was mixed. Disney, the producing studio was going to soften the material, there would be plot and music changes and then there was a marketing campaign that more or less disguised the fact that it was a musical. (The early trailers had no singing in them.) James Lapine, who wrote the Broadway book did the screenplay and Sondheim was involved in the adapting of the score so hope remained.
Fortunately, the finished film, while uneven, hits more than it misses and the Marshall of Chicago is more present than the Marshall of Nine. It is remarkably faithful to the source material with a few notable exceptions, mainly due to the needs to film versus stage structure. Theatrical device characters such as the on stage narrator have been excised, musical numbers necessary to show passage of time or to provide finale moments are gone, and a few numbers have been jettisoned for pacing. (The stage version drags badly late in Act II due to a preponderance of ballads, which have been greatly reduced and condensed in this version). Most of the score remains intact and the negative events of the second act are mostly there. There are some fingerprints of studio (Disney) interference. Disney is very protective of its princesses and a key plot change involving Rapunzel and the lack of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White (which prevents the royal princes’ story arc from being the same as on stage) are probably due to studio insistence. The change to Rapunzel reduces the motivations of characters in the second act and therefore the overall impact of the film.
The film, with one exception, is well cast and performed, mainly with actors with honest to god vocal and theatrical chops. Holding the whole thing together is Meryl Streep as the witch, the one character who never lies or cheats, and whose needs propel the baker and his wife on their quest to recover the cow as white as milk (belonging to Jack), the cape as red as blood (belonging to Little Red), the hair as yellow as corn (belonging to Rapunzel) and the slipper as pure as gold (belonging to Cinderella) from the woods. Streep finds wry humor in her lines, sings well and gives a physically transformative performance, only partly undone by an excess of blue rinse that makes her look suspiciously like Marge Simpson. She is ably supported by James Corden and Emily Blunt as the baker and his wife, giving nuanced every person performances in the whacky world of fractured fairy tales. The supporting cast give a variety of comedic turns as well-worn character tropes. The surprise is Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince who understands the preening braggadocio underlying the usual cardboard Disney prince and whose duet with his brother (Billy Magnussen) ‘Agony’ as they sing of tortured and unrequited love is the comic highlight of the film. Stalwarts such as Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s step mother and Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother have their moments. There are also sly nods to other films such as the casting of Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime from Harry Potter) as a lady giant and Lucy Punch as one of Cinderella’s step sisters, playing essentially the same role she did in Ella Enchanted a dozen years ago. The only major casting mistake is Johnny Depp as the wolf who chases down Red Riding Hood and her granny. His strange stylization and vocalization seem out of another film all together; fortunately his turn is pretty much a cameo and he isn’t around enough to derail the film. Anna Kendrick, as Cinderella, also has an amazing moment in her number On the Steps of the Palace when she has to make a decision regarding her slipper. She’s come a long way from the teenage girl in Camp who steals the show with another Sondheim number, The Ladies Who Lunch.
The all-important woods are a bit of an oddity, flowing back and forth between obvious studio set and realistic location shooting. One would think that a film based on fairy tales would employ a bright Technicolor palette, something along the lines of The Adventures of Robin Hood but instead everything seems to have been based on the UCLA football team’s uniforms with pale blues and golds predominating. It wouldn’t have been my choice but I’m sure production designer Dennis Gasner had a point of some sort. I’m just not sure what it was. Colleen Atwood’s costumes are serviceable, but not particularly distinguished other than some magnificent leather pants on Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s prince which show off a fetching derriere every time he mounts a horse or climbs a tower.
The film has been a commercial and critical success and, with luck, will cause viewers to seek out more of Sondheim’s work, either on film, recording or in a local production and bring him more than the nice success he has had for years. There are even a couple of in jokes for Sondheim aficionados in the film. The palace orchestra plays the Night Waltz from A Little Night Music as Cinderella flees the ball and the tune the giant’s magic harp plays after Jack steals it is one of the slyest and best musical jokes ever. By all means see it; it’s not perfect but it is Sondheim with a first rate cast.
Bun stealing. Zoot suited wolf. Bodice ripping. CGI wolf stomach. Gratuitous dead cow. Large coins. Bean scattering. Fall from cliff. Gratuitous foot slicing. Swamp campsite. Unexplained tar pit.
To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction and visit her entire back catalog. You can keep up with more of her escapades on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester
Originally from Seattle Washington, land of mist, coffee and flying salmon, Mrs. Norman Maine sprang to life, full grown like Athena, from Andy’s head during a difficult period of life shortly after his relocation to Alabama.