Guest Post: Into the Woods

[Note: This post is courtesy of Stacy Wolf, who we affectionately call The Feminist Spectator II (or, FS2).  She’s the resident feminist musical theatre expert.]


Woods, Streep

The Sondheim obsessed—I’m a mild case— anticipated the arrival of Rob Marshall’s film of Into the Woods with excitement, curiosity, and more than a little trepidation.  For weeks preceding the movie’s December 24th release, though, Sondheim fan listservs were abuzz with consistently positive reviews of the film.  According to those in the know, Marshall didn’t wreck it.

For those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about stage musicals, the challenge is to try to experience the film musical anew and to put aside expectations from previous productions.  All frequent theatre-goers are blessed and damned with ghostings (thank you, Marvin Carlson, for this endlessly useful idea—that every production is haunted with memories of earlier productions), both good and bad, but Sondheim fans (Sondheimites?) are the worst.  So I’ll just include a few thoughts about the stage version v. the film version  of Into the Woods and then let it go.  Or try to.

Lilla Crawford, as Little red, starting her journey into the woods
Lilla Crawford, as Little Red, starting her journey into the woods

The film’s creative team came with plenty of marks in their favor.  Marshall had already proven his ability to translate a stage musical into film in the fantastic Chicago (2002); James Lapine, the stage version’s book writer and co-conceiver, wrote the screenplay; Meryl Streep took on the key role of the Witch; and a bevy of other excellent actor-singers round out the cast:  Anna Kendrick as Cinderella; Johnny Depp as the Wolf; Tracy Ullman as Jack’s Mother; and Christine Baranski as the Stepmother, among others.  Lilla Crawford, who played Annie in the recent Broadway revival directed by Lapine, plays Little Red Riding Hood.

Lucy Punch, Christine Baranski, and Tammy Blanchard as Cinderella's step-mother and her evil step-sisters
Lucy Punch, Christine Baranski, and Tammy Blanchard as Cinderella’s step-mother and her evil step-sisters

The confident and musically talented cast singing great songs and tossing off their lines in a gorgeous setting with cool visual effects added up to a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging few hours for the Feminist Spectator (I and II).  Honestly, just hearing Sondheim’s music sung well and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations with a full orchestra—even through movie theatre speakers—makes for a good night.  We got a kick out of watching Streep and Christine Baranksi (as Cinderella’s step-mother) chew the scenery and watching all of the actors who don’t typically sing embody the pleasure of performing in a musical.  Into the Woods, like most musicals, gives women more to do than a lot of movies, so we didn’t have to fret about the Bechdel test and could instead enjoy the singing and the story and seeing these actors work together.

Into the Woods plays with real and imagined fairy tales, linking them together and giving them a contemporary twist by reinterpreting them from a 1980s perspective that’s classic but sharply funny.  The musical follows the stories, which all begin with an “I wish” song, of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, plus characters invented by Sondheim and Lapine:  the Baker and his wife, who set the musical in motion through their desire to have a child.  Sondheim and Lapine also add a Witch who’s put an infertility spell on the Baker’s family to avenge the Baker’s father crime, which she explains in a brilliant and hilarious rap song (Sondheim’s rhythmic invention, heard on Broadway years before rap entered the popular music scene).

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and the Baker's Wife
Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife

The Baker’s father stole greens from her garden, including her magic beans, when Jack’s mother was pregnant with his sister (now, Rapunzel, whom the Witch took and locked in a tower).  In order to reverse the spell and allow them to have a baby, the Witch commands the Baker and his wife to gather a collection of items “in three midnight’s time”:  “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold.”  The Baker must undo the sins of the father to become one himself.  By racing and conniving to collect the objects, which other characters possess (or soon will), the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) succeed in filling the Witch’s demands, and everyone (or so it seems) gets what they want.  The theme of desire and how to fulfill it comes to a clever conclusion by the end of Act One, as each character appears to be satisfied, as they sing in “Ever After.”

Daniel Huttlestone as Jack and Tracey Ullman as his mother
“Tug” as Milky White, the cow, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, and Tracey Ullman as his mother

In a typical fairy tale, the story would end there.  But Into the Woods has more on its mind.  The musical’s second half shows each character’s fulfilled wish unravel.  Despite their individual desires, their happiness depends on the community’s peace, which a female giant, furious that Jack has killed her husband, threatens to destroy.  Many characters are killed as they try to escape her rampage, as the group blames one another and argues about who should be sacrificed to the giant.  She only wants to murder Jack, since he also stole the giants’ money and their golden harp.

The musical’s second half, then, concerns the relationships between the individual, the family, and the community.  Into the Wood‘s clear irony is that although the characters left standing at the end sing “No One is Alone,” their progress through the wood has proven that in fact, everyone is alone.  In the end, we’re left with a reconstituted nuclear family:  The Baker (whose wife has died), Cinderella (who has left the Prince and tells the Baker only half-jokingly that she likes to clean after all), Little Red, Jack, and the Baker’s new baby.  Regardless of how fairy tales are dismantled, gender stereotypes contradicted, and family structures upended in Into the Woods, its conclusion is as pat as any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Into the Woods opened on Broadway in 1987, and was Lapine and Sondheim’s second collaboration, after Sunday in the Park with George in 1984).  Both musicals were developed off-Broadway, and both feature radically different first and second acts.  Like many second musical theatre collaborations, Lapine and Sondheim built on their success.  For example, they brought back Bernadette Peters to play the signature role as the Witch in Woods after using her as the female lead in Sunday.  And unlike many Broadway musicals, which end Act One at a narrative high point and bring the audience back after intermission curious about what will happen and whether the inevitable lovers will get together, these two Sondheim/Lapine shows each reach a beautifully crafted, emotionally satisfying conclusion, narratively and musically, at the end of Act One.  For both Sunday in the Park and Into the Woods, Sondheim and Lapine wanted to complicate easy conclusions and demonstrate that pat endings are never so simple.  The second act of Sunday in the Park with George jumps forward in time to query the artist’s role 100 years later, and Into the Woods wrecks all of the first act’s supposedly happy endings.

Bernadette Peters (foreground) and the original cast of INTO THE WOODS
Bernadette Peters (foreground) and the original cast of INTO THE WOODS

But when these shows are performed live in a theatre, the audience has time during intermission to settle into the conclusions of the first act, so that the show can take advantage of their complacency to jar their presumptions with the second.  The audience gets up, walks around, and has a moment to absorb what’s just happened.  The happy ending of Into the Woods’ first act is so insistent that some theatre-goers think that it’s the end of show.  (And the frequently produced “junior” version for children does in fact end after Act One.)  One of the great pleasures of this musical, then, just can’t happen in a movie.  In the film version of Into the Woods, “Ever After,” the conclusion to Act One, moves directly into Act Two without a break.  For a spectator unfamiliar with the show, I can’t imagine what they think just happened, as the film turns immediately and abruptly into the undoing of the characters’ happiness.

Another aspect of the stage production I enjoy and missed in the film is the simultaneity of all the stories, which live theatre can capture and film cannot.  Most live productions split the stage into three sections, with the whole cast present at the opening or entering in turn on their character’s first few lines to set up house.  Even though a film can play with special effects of all sorts to the musical’s advantage, it can’t quite capture that sense of real simultaneity without splitting the screen in a way that just cheats.  So here, the interwoven stories have to be presented in tandem, rather than at once.

Kendrick as Cinderella and Blunt as the Baker's Wife meet in the woods
Kendrick as Cinderella and Blunt as the Baker’s Wife meet in the woods

Nonetheless, Marshall does a great job with sweeping crane shots, super close-ups, and quick transitions among the different characters’ opening vignettes as they express their wishes.  The opening number, “I Wish,” sung by various characters, plays smartly on musical theatre’s convention of introducing characters with an “I Am/I Want” song.  Here, Sondheim and Lapine extract the essence of that typical opening number, usually sung by the male and female leads, and foreground every character’s desire with musical phrases that will compel his or her action throughout the musical. Within the first few minutes of the movie, we see how desire connects characters across the different stories.  But when the theatre audience sees the houses of Cinderella, the Baker, and Jack in one glance on the stage, we immediately understand the ensemble structure of the show.

In the film, after the opening segment in which the characters go into the woods “to see, to sell, to get, to bring, to make, to lift, to go to the Festival,” Marshall places his camera high above the scene to show the characters as little figures moving through the trees and towards each other, capturing visually how their stories will fit together. But then he mostly relies on close-ups and two- or three-shots in more intimate scenes to tell the story.  As the film progresses, his long shots show the woods as dense and shut off, without people represented.  As a result, we lose the interwoven tapestry of the characters and their stories.

Crawford as Little Red, trying to flee
Crawford as Little Red, trying to flee

The film’s realistic casting also sidelines a key plot point.  On stage, the children’s roles, Jack and Little Red, are typically played by adults.  Film, though, presumes realistic, age-specific casting, so it’s not surprising that Marshall uses children in these roles.  (Milky White was also played by a real cow, sidestepping one of the great pleasures of seeing how the creative team in each stage production meets the challenge of creating her.)  The Little Red-meets-the-Wolf plot in the stage musical demonstrates how he awakens her sexual desire.  He’s a dangerous animal, threatening and seductive.  After the Baker rescues Little Red by slashing open the Wolf’s stomach, freeing her and her Granny, whom he’s devoured, Little Red sings, “And he showed me things / Many beautiful things / That I hadn’t thought to explore,” and concludes, “And though scary is exciting / Nice is different than good.”

Depp as the Wolf, sort of seducing Little Red
Depp as the Wolf, sort of seducing Little Red

The film literalizes the lyrics, as Little Red falls into the vortex of the Wolf’s stomach, down a long spiraling esophagus-pipe and lands at the bottom with her Granny.  Marshall enacts Sondheim’s clever, double-entendre lyrics, but I missed this song’s usual presentation of sexual titillation, eager curiosity, and sly wonder.  The casting of a child (albeit a young actor with terrific charisma, appropriate edginess, and a fantastic, clear voice) in a role typically played by a woman sadly forced a G-rating onto a number that’s really about sexual awakening.

Chris Pine, dashing as Cinderella's Prince
Chris Pine, dashing as Cinderella’s Prince

On the other hand, the film also improves on some aspects of the stage musical.  Marshall sets “Agony,” a hilarious, undeniably queer duet sung by Cinderella and Rapunzel’s Princes (here wonderfully played by a surprisingly good Chris Pine and a terrific Billy Magnussen), on a waterfall, where the two too-self-consciously handsome guys splash around the rocks and the water as they moan their longing for the women they’ve not yet acquired.  In theatre productions, the men typically try to upstage each other with their competing heartache, but the film’s natural setting raises this silliness to a new level.  As Pine and Magnussen ripped open their shirts and tried to top one another’s misery, everyone in the movie theatre audience howled.

Likewise, early scenes between the Witch and Rapunzel in her tower demonstrate real affection between the two that isn’t typically shown in the stage version.  Rapunzel clearly loves the woman she knows as her mother.  And, of course, film’s ability to create amazing special effects is a plus, too.  The Witch’s frightful sudden appearances and disappearances in great swirls of smoke and leaves and dust signal her power and omniscience.  These filmic visual treats are heightened by the script’s humor and Streep’s great, droll performance.  For example, the Witch is frustrated by the Baker’s ineptitude, since he doesn’t realize that she can’t touch the objects she’s asked him and his wife to collect.

And when he and his wife find and lose Milky White, the cow, and then, the cow dies, they find a replacement cow and conceal its dark hide with white powder.  The Witch easily sees through the trick, but the Baker explains that they didn’t think she’d want a dead cow.  Streep, pitch perfect, rolls her eyes and says, “Of course I want a live cow.  Bring the dead cow to me and I’ll bring her to life.”  The Baker responds incredulously, “You can do that?”  The Witch’s simultaneous power, which Streep expresses in strong gestures and excellent singing, and powerlessness, which Streep reveals in layered facial expressions we’ve seen in her many films, connects the Witch to all of the characters.  She’s the fulcrum for the musical’s examination of agency, power, and interdependence.

The Baker's Wife, doomed
The Baker’s Wife, doomed

From a feminist perspective, Into the Woods is a show that I love to hate and hate to love.  Of course, that’s typical for a Sondheim fan, whose work often requires bracketing your feminist spectatorship.  On the one hand, Into the Wood’s women are central and active.  The Witch instigates the action; the Baker’s Wife (a wry, strong, and fantastically appealing Emily Blunt) quickly proves that he needs her to help gather the objects that will break the spell; Cinderella (Kendrick) is ambivalent about the Prince once she actually meets him, and she cleverly decides to leave her shoe for him “so as not to decide” her fate herself, which is its own kind of agency.


Streep as the Witch, transformed:  beauty but no power
Streep as the Witch, transformed: beauty but no power

Still, gender stereotypes prevail.  Cinderella does, after all, leave her fate up to the Prince.  The Witch’s beauty and power are mutually exclusive, so that once she drinks the magic potion and regains her beauty, she can no longer cast spells.  The giant is a woman avenging her husband’s death and a stranger’s intrusion into their magic realm in the sky.  The film’s masculine stereotypes, on the other hand, are portrayed with humor; for example, in the reprise of “Agony,” both Princes are bored with their wives and eager for their next conquests (of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, as it happens).  And while the musical interrogates relationships between parents and children, it ultimately cares most about the Baker and his fatherhood.

Sondheim and Lapine wrote Into the Woods in the mid-1980s, and like all musicals, it converses with its cultural context.  Katie Welsh, a Princeton senior, wrote her junior-year paper on the musical, reading its representation of its female characters in relation to sociological research she conducted into the historical moment.  Welsh argues that Into the Woods figures Jack’s mother and the Witch as bad single mothers, a topic frequently parsed in newspapers and magazines at the time (remember Murphy Brown?).  Welsh reads Jack as a juvenile delinquent who breaks into the giant’s house and steals things, and Rapunzel as a bad teenager who runs off with her Prince against her mother’s wishes, all in line with contemporary pop culture articles that blamed single mothers for children’s irresponsible and illegal actions.

The Witch and Rapunzel:  the bad single mother?
The Witch and Rapunzel: the bad single mother?

Welsh also researches the considerable anxiety about women’s sexuality, which wasn’t new or unique to the time, but went hand in hand with its mood of an anti-feminist backlash (pace Susan Faludi).  Welsh observes that Baker’s Wife is tough and ambitious in Into the Woods; she refuses to stay at home while the Baker has adventures, and she is allowed to express desire outside of marriage when she has a tryst with Cinderella’s Prince.  But like the young women in horror films who have sex and die, the Baker’s Wife is killed off immediately after her encounter with the Prince.

All in all, the film adaptation of Into the Woods is not-to-be-missed.  Nit-picking Sondheim fans will no doubt love and hate this film.  For those without that depth of expertise or the desire to see a canonical musical rendered beautifully in another medium, the film is gorgeous and enjoyable to watch and listen to.  Can you take your kids?  Well, it’s not a fairy tale, finally, and it’s all a bit Freudian, though less so here than in the stage musical.  The film’s visual aspect is dark and claustrophobic—after all, the way out of the dark, foreboding wood is never clear, and danger waits at every turn.

But there’s the narrative energy of Lapine’s smart, interwoven stories, and the tricky lyrics and painful emotions of Sondheim’s terrific score, thrillingly performed by a uniformly great cast of actor/singers.  There’s nothing escapist about Into the Woods, but it’s fun to delve into this raw and dark musical world, to tap your toes as you munch your popcorn and to hum as you leave the theatre.  It’s also fascinating to consider how the “great American musical” translates to the screen and how it does or doesn’t do the same ideological and aesthetic cultural work when it gets there.

The Feminist Spectator II (FS2, Stacy Wolf)

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Into the Woods

  1. Interesting article, and I agree with several points, but find a few others hard to swallow. But that’s to be expected. However, there is one egregious error that I think really needs to be addressed.

    “Rapper’s Delight”, widely considered the first “mainstream” rap song (entering the Top 40), was released in 1979. Blondie had the first #1 album with a rap section, “Rapture”, in 1980. Not to mention the long history in musical theater of spoken-word songs, including “Trouble”, “Rock Island”, and the introduction to “76 Trombones” in “The Music Man”, several other works by Meredith Wilson, and the patter songs of Gilbert & Sullivan.

    Sondheim’s wonderful, but let’s not credit him with “inventing” rap.

  2. Thanks for these interesting comments. I, along with most musical theatre historians, wouldn’t consider the phenomenally inventive songs of Meredith Willson to be “rap music.” The point isn’t that Sondheim “invented” rap, but that it’s interesting to observe that this genre, which became so important to the mainstream musical vernacular, was also present on the Broadway musical stage in the mid-1980s.–Stacy Wolf, FS2

    1. Your words-
      “…which she explains in a brilliant and hilarious rap song (Sondheim’s rhythmic invention, heard on Broadway years before rap entered the popular music scene).” Reads a LOT like you’re suggesting that Sondheim “invented” the style of rap. As I pointed out, popular music was using rap for years before “Woods” came out- Sondheim merely used the rhythm and style. Again, it takes nothing away from Sondheim- but your phrasing gives him praise I’m certain he, himself, would reject.

      1. More importantly, rap had certainly entered the popular music scene by the late 80s, as Sondheim was specifically mimicking the style (as you can hear with the synthesized drums on the original cast album, which are almost always cut in future productions).

  3. Great essay, Stacy. I must admit that I saw the Broadway production but it did not leave a strong impression on me. I enjoyed the film, but wonder why–leaving Hollywood economics aside–of all Sondheim musicals this one would lend itself best to cinematic storytelling. It’s mostly set in one location. Not so satisfying for the medium of moving images. I suppose you could argue–and you refer to this in the essay–that film can at the same time provide an intimacy of expression that you can’t get from a large Broadway theater.

  4. Andy, thanks for this thoughtful post. Yes. Well, it’s supposed to be set in a number of different settings–the Baker’s house, Cinderella’s house, Jack and his mother’s house, the steps of the palace, various places in the woods–but you’re right that the visual vocabulary is fairly limited for a movie. Your great question makes me wonder if the enormous amateur popularity of this show is one reason that they thought a film version might attract audiences. It was the first musical to be adapted into a “Junior” version and is among the most popular titles in the Broadway Junior catalogue. The full, 2-act version is an excellent choice for high schools and community theatres because of the ensemble cast, and it’s produced all over the country all the time. In fact, the Pennington Players, a local NJ community theatre is rehearsing now for what looks like will be a terrific production. — Stacy

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