Liking What I'm Seeing
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman (Composer-Lyricist)
So I’ll be honest, I was skeptical about the upcoming Into The Woods movie. Stage-to-screen adaptations are often difficult to pull off and musicals are particularly tricky. Musicals, by the very nature of the art form ask us to suspend disbelief and allow a character to sing what would be dialogue in real life. Film, on the other hand, asks the opposite. It asks us to look into every little detail of a shot as if we were present in the world in which the story is taking place.
Some recent stage-to-screen musical adaptations were not so successful (Rent, Nine, and in my opinion Les Miz (“One Day More” is problematic on screen)), while others were outstanding (Chicago (which came out almost 11 years ago, BTW), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (12 years ago), and haters gonna hate, but I loved Tim Burton’s take on Sweeney Todd), and it takes a special skill for a director to put sung material on screen and make it believable.
Oh, Hedwig. That's how you adapt a show. Though to be fair this is an easier task because of how music functions in this musical.
With Into The Woods, I, like many of my MT friends are so attached to the 1991 PBS Amaerican Playhouse DVD (or if you’re as old as I, my dear, the VHS – shit, who am I kidding, as a kid I owned that thing on VHS AND Laserdisc) that it’s precious to us. It’s how many of us were first introduced to the works of Stephen Sondheim, and his particular style of musical theatre. The craft, the intricate lyrics, the unusual melodies, and always, always the attention to clear storytelling. There’s not much I can add to the vast canon of analysis of the works of Stephen Sondheim. Suffice to say you feel like you’re in the hands of a genius artist at the top of their game when watching a Sondheim show.
But Into The Woods achieved something else as well: it didn’t treat the audience as if they were being told a children’s story. I can’t remember what publication I found it in but I remember reading a quote of Sondheim’s saying that it was important to him and the bookwriter/director James Lapine that they didn’t Disney-fy the characters and stories, even in Act I, where all the stories are adapted from their source material. Cinderella’s stepsisters get their feet mutilated and their eyes poked out. Rapunzel’s prince is thrown from her tower and blinded. Granny fills the dead wolf’s stomach with stones. And speaking of the wolf, lest we all forget: wolf penis.