I was ready to give up on the movie musical.
It all started with Evita, Hollywood’s 1996 film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Argentina’s legendary first lady. Madonna certainly resembled the fashionable fascist, but the pop star’s pipes were not up to the challenge. When the part demanded vocal fireworks, as in “What’s New, Buenos Aires?” and “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” she fizzled out. As if that weren’t enough, she greedily expropriated one of the musical’s best songs, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” meant for Peron’s jilted lover, which undercut the story.
Matters grew worse in 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera, Webber’s next at bat. Emmy Rossum, the Jewish Metropolitan Opera star, was a fine Christine, but the producers cast a non-singer, Gerard Butler, in the title, and most vital, role. Butler was too young to exert a fatherly influence on the Paris Opera ingénue and could only growl when he should have been seducing her – and audiences – with the tremulous and tender ballad “Music of the Night.” Michael Crawford is alive and still singing, I thought at the time. Why not cast him in the role, and treat a whole new generation of fans to his talent? He played the Phantom for more than 1,000 performances for good reason. I am not naive. I understand the need for studios to protect their investment by casting proven movie stars in movie roles, but why not dub their voices when they can’t sing? It worked for Natalie Wood in West Side Story.
Clearly, no one in Hollywood was listening to me when, in 2012, Les Misérables hit theaters. Relentless inspector Javert is one of the best baritone roles in the musical theater repertoire. “Stars” and “Javert’s Soliloquy” are the highlights of the show. Don’t believe me? Head to YouTube and watch Philip Quast or Bryn Terfel belt those classic songs. Who did movie audiences get? Either one of these sensational singer-actors? No, it was Gladiator, Russell Crowe. Someone should have clapped him in irons and sentenced him to 19 years of hard labor in a chain gang for that performance, worthy of an amateur karaoke contest.
Surely, when Sweeney Todd debuted on the big screen in 2007, I thought, Stephen Sondheim would stand up against the studios for the sake of his art. They’ll cast real singers in these rolls, perhaps Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, or Imelda Staunton, who not only played her in a recent London revival, but is familiar to moviegoers as a masochistic headmistress in Harry Potter. Alas. We got the unintelligible wife of the director, Helena Bonham Carter, who mumbled her way through that deliciously evil part. After seeing the great Angela Lansbury, LuPone and Staunton play that role, I wonder how Sondheim felt watching the film. Maybe he cried all the way to the bank, as Liberace was fond of answering his critics.
Against this backdrop, I had low expectations for Disney’s take on Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning 1987 musical Into the Woods, which opened nationwide on Dec. 25. Let me say at the outset that the stage production is certainly better. Do yourself a favor and purchase the DVD of the original production starring Bernadette Peters as the witch in this grimmest of post-modern fairy tales. Barring that, at least watch Joanna Gleason (Baker’s wife) and Chip Zien (Baker) reprise their roles for Sondheim’s televised birthday celebration in 2010; it’s available on YouTube.
But these two roles, and many others in the film, are played ably by actors who can do what actors in movie musicals ought to be able to do – sing. Some are so good that the reduction of their on-screen time leaves the audience feeling cheated. People were laughing and applauding so uproariously at Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s preening princes in their duet “Agony,” about maidens daring to rebuff their advances, that they would have welcomed hearing “Agony, Reprise,” a song cut from the film. Likewise, the emotional core of the musical, “No More,” in which the Baker debates whether to abandon his child after his wife’s death at the hand (boot?) of a giant, jettisoned here.
Still, there’s much to love in this film, so many wise casting decisions. Meryl Streep is believable and moving as an overprotective mother desperate to shield her daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) from knowledge of the world (princes exist there, but “wolves and humans, too. Stay with me”), one of the musical’s central themes.
Pine and Magnussen steal the show as royal cads raised to be “charming, not sincere.” James Corden (Baker) and Emily Blunt (Baker’s wife) are sympathetic as an ordinary couple doing their best to get by in an unfair world, a world in which people “leave you halfway through the wood,” and where an individual’s mistakes can have serious consequences for the community (“You move just a finger, say the slightest word, something’s bound to linger, be heard. No one acts alone. Careful. No one is alone.”)
This is the only sort of fairy tale I believe Sondheim would bring to the stage, or screen for that matter – one that, like true fairy tales, is full of caution and hard-earned wisdom. Fans of the Broadway show will recall its considerable pathos and staggering body count, as the storybook characters face the unintended consequences of their wishes.
Disney errs in sanitizing these aspects of the material. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) are portrayed here as prepubescent children when they should be on the verge of adulthood and discovering their sexuality. That’s what Little Red means when, after her encounter with the Wolf in the woods (played here lacking predatory malice by a cartoonish, mustache twirling Johnny Depp), she sings “[a]nd he showed me things, many beautiful things that I hadn’t thought to explore. … And he made me feel excited – well, excited and scared.”
As the critic Allen W. Menton points out in his scholarly essay on Sondheim, “Maternity, Madness and Art in the Theater of Stephen Sondheim,” the same is true for Jack. The beginning of mature relationships is possible for Jack only when he disobeys his mother (Tracey Ullman), climbs the (undoubtedly phallic) beanstalk, and encounters the giantess who “draws [him] close to her giant breast.” When, in the movie version, Jack sings about his newfound liberation in “Giants in the Sky,” the song makes literal sense but lacks added resonance.
Despite the dilution, at times, of the serious themes in this musical, it’s still entertaining and smart, a fairy tale for thinking people. Seeing Into the Woods, my faith in the movie musical is not yet fully restored. But I see a sliver of hope. Will Hollywood try again, perhaps with Cy Coleman’s jazzy, noir masterpiece City of Angels, or Lucy Simon’s haunting The Secret Garden?