‘Into the Woods’ and the Dumbing Down of the Movie Musical


When I was about seven years old I starred in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol. Or, rather, played a supporting character–Schoolboy, to be exact–because I was too overweight to get the coveted role of Tiny Tim. As the company that produced the show, the Dramateurs, made it a yearly event, I did it for a few seasons until I hit the big leagues and got accepted into the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. So long, suckers!

Being in that theater every year was a highlight of my unpopular youth. I loved every minute: the lights, the audiences, the fake snow; it was magic. Looking back, I realize the show was probably dreadful. Each year they dug out the same sets, used the same director, a woman named Charlotte whom everyone feared, who happened to be the wife of the same man who always got the role of Scrooge, a sweet guy named George who had a tiny role in American Graffiti and was the closest thing I’d ever met to a movie star, and then filled in the blanks with the local “talent.”

I remember one year a Jacob Marley that couldn’t remember a single line, and poor Scrooge on the stage telling his own ghost what his horrifying night was about to entail. Regardless, that show was a sellout, because even more exciting than putting on a musical is the sheer excitement of attending a musical.

I was reminded of that production of A Christmas Carol when I saw Rob Marshall’s movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, also released at Christmas, that time of year when people love to get lost in the voices and lyrics of another world. The movie’s a hit with audiences, who are taking their kids and grandkids and posting social media applause notices about the wonderful magic and life lessons of Sondheim’s dark fairy tale world.

It’s also a terrible film, the movie-musical equivalent of the cardboard-cutout unimaginative Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, also a big hit with tourists. With the exception of a couple early-on scenes and performances (Johnny Depp scores nicely as the Wolf, even if his number is de-sexed, and his Red Riding Hood is a terrific Lilla Crawford), the movie feels as inspired as something dragged out each year, propped up in front of an audience, filled in by “star” performers undeserving of their roles, and presented in such an antiseptic way that no one could possibly leave the theater offended or provoked or enthralled. It was my community theater production of A Christmas Carol on a much larger scale!

Marshall’s goal as director for the flick would appear to be simply getting the film done, making sure he gets from point A to point B without any glaring mistakes, and making sure it’s family friendly enough so people see it. Sondheim’s music and A-list actors fill in the rest of the blanks. Kudos to the new musical movie success lever. The film cost about 50 million, it enlisted the likes of Meryl Streep, for starters, and North Korea is unlikely to object. How to Succeed in the Business of Movie Musicals Without Really Trying to Make Them Good should be an instruction manual for anyone who wants to embark on that path.

Most of the major league players involved in Into the Woods aren’t particularly interesting singers, and some simply aren’t. Emily Blunt fares the best, but she’s hampered by a script that becomes a Cliffs Notes morality tale by the second half, with major plot twists and developments and character deaths tossed around in a matter of a few lines and short songs. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your… wait, why are you even in this film?

It’s a Disney film, after all, with a roaming giant that seems hastily borrowed from visual gimmickry films like Jack the Giant Slayer or Oz the Great and Powerful, and about as terrifying as any monster in either, so how dare we expect true horror in the wonderful world of Walt. Bambi was a Disney film too, a cartoon that crushed our childhood dreams with real lessons about life and death. When ITW wraps up, you’ll more than likely have to do a mental recap to remember who died and how.

When Blunt shares scenes with Anna Kendrick, whose Cinderella is a feminist (another plot-point that’s dealt with and done in a matter of minutes), the latter is so uncomfortably conventional in manner and speech I wanted them to place a Pinkberry yogurt store next to her.

The thrill of Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as dueling Princes singing “Agony” should have stopped the movie show. It was fantastic onstage. But rather than watching two standout performers kick it to the balcony, we get two pretty faces with unmemorable voices going through the motions, and (the big finish!) revealing their chests with about as much spontaneity as an auto-tuned Glee number. Jessica Lange performing “Life of Mars” in Ryan Murphy’s other TV show with music, American Horror Story: Freakshow, was more proficiently executed than any number in ITW.

As for Streep, who’s my favorite female actor on the planet, she starts out well enough, but ends up almost schizophrenic in characterization, as if she were pulled in at the last minute without a script or rehearsal time or even a clever makeup artist. And why did they not show a tight shot immediately after her transformation? Were they afraid the 65-year-old actress is not pretty enough for her close-up, or, truth be told, too old for the part? If it sounds like I’m being tough on older women in Hollywood, think how demeaning it was of Marshall to keep her face at a safe distance from fans. Streep’s exit is so inexplicable in the movie version it’s as if they couldn’t afford to keep her around any longer, or she got smart and dropped out.

As much as I love Meryl, I’m never going to buy her records, and I haven’t been this uncomfortable watching her in a film since, what do you know, Mama Mia! If we’re living in any sort of movie musical cinema revival, it’s time to start asking ourselves what we sacrificed to get there.

Marshall led the return with his Academy Award winning Chicago, whose only great achievement is the fact that it got made after decades of unsuccessful attempts, starting with creator Bob Fosse himself. On stage, Fosse’s work was a genius product of 21st century cynicism, the triumph of style over substance and fame at any price, displayed with so much razzle-dazzle you almost sided with the thesis. The film reduced the conceit to an amateur-hour sitcom; stripped of great voices, great numbers, and anything remotely considered great dancing. When Renee Zellweger and crew failed to thank the late Fosse at the Oscars, it was oddly appropriate–the crux of the show was buried along with him.

Starting with a wink-cute Catherine Zeta-Jones gliding through “All That Jazz,” (cue the quick cuts to overcome the hum-drum dance moves), one of the most intoxicatingly delicious theater-foreplay numbers ever created onstage, meandering through an uneventful Queen Latifah and an unbearable-to-listen-to Richard Gere, and ending with a sap-happy Charleston machine-gun finale, Chicago the movie is everything Chicago the show resents–safety. In an opposite-case scenario of Streep, Zellweger was too young for the part of Roxie, forcing the elimination of the character’s penultimate confession, “I’m older than I ever intended to be.” Whereas the stage version dared you not to look at the performers, the film only dares you to believe people actually sing in public.

In Fosse’s Chicago, you can practically see the blood on the hands of those stage-bound merry murderesses. In the film, even “Cell Block Tango” got chopped up and dismantled and then Frakensteined to resemble a New Vegas theme show. In the original Broadway production (which I saw with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera when I was ten), people were known to walk out of the theater in disgust or shock or disbelief. I can’t imagine anyone walking out of the movie version unless it’s to get a soda or check messages or watch it more comfortably on Netflix.

Since the goal of movies is to get people to see them, isn’t the sacrifice of dumbing down musicals for film worth the reward? If that were the only answer I’d probably say yes. Rather, I think, like Broadway itself, we’re forgetting how to make great musicals, and patronizing the audiences in the process. Worse, we’re ignoring the wonderfully talented performers growing up in a world where their triple threat talents (singer, dancer, actor) will only get them background work as a backup dancer for Neil Patrick Harris on any given awards show.

Film adaptations of movie musicals have almost always favored stars who might not be best for the roles; Janet Leigh in Bye Bye Birdie is a great example. But even that film gave us Dick Van Dyke and the irresistible Ann-Margret as the trade-off. You could argue the merits of a lip-synched Natalie Wood in West Side Story, but good luck arguing Jerome Robbins’ brilliant choreography.

In the 12 years since Chicago won the Big Award, there’s been only one performer in a movie musical that has literally gotten me off my feet; Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is goose-bumps perfection, and, before we forget, Beyonce, not Hudson, was the intended star of the flick. Nikki Blonsky was great in Hairspray, but unfortunately overshadowed by the absurd casting of John Travolta as an overweight woman. In the original show, and in the original film, the role goes to a drag queen, enticing audiences to accept those who do not fit the norm. Not acceptable for mainstream audiences? Then the part should have at least gone to an actual overweight woman, not a star placed there for simple stunt casting.

For every terrific Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables (another actress who’s not going to be selling records anytime soon), there’s been a polar opposite Russell Crowe, living out his “I’ve always wanted to sing in the shower for millions” unwarranted fantasy. Ditto almost the entire cast of Marshall’s last musical adaptation, Nine.

It’s not just the Golden Age of movie musicals that provided us with terrific talent. In the late 60s and 70s and even 80s we witnessed magnificence in musical movies. Barbra Streisand blew-up the screen in Funny Girl, and to a lesser extent in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and her own miscast Hello, Dolly! Heck, even Yentl gave us some spectacular moments. Julie Andrews gave wonderful voice in The Sound of Music, and even returned to form in 1982 for Victor/Victoria. There was a wonderful Shirley MacLaine in the under-estimated Sweet Charity, and Bob Fosse’s choreography at one point sweeps up the set. No one will ever forget Minnelli in Fosse’s Cabaret, a sort of flipside to Chicago, in which director Fosse captures Liza’s presence so well you’d almost swear you were wearing 3-D glasses. Later, Fosse would scare us to death with All That Jazz. It’s the film he opted to make after Chicago fell through, and if the film’s devastating themes don’t destroy your senses, Ann Reinking’s flawless movements will. I dare you not to look at her.

Nowadays, it would seem that animated musical movies are the only times real performers are utilized. Why take the time to build a star when, like Frozen, you can simply draw one?

If filmmakers don’t step up to bat, if audiences start to accept, even applaud, mediocrity in movie musicals, and most important, if directors and casting directors and writers and producers don’t support the gene pool of brilliant performers waiting for their big break, we might as well sit back and wait for Rob Marshall’s thrilling Disney remake of Cabaret, starring Taylor Swift as Sally Bowles, the adorable kooky singer who escapes those mean Germans and ends up living happily ever after with a very straight novelist Zac Efron and their loveable unthreatening gay emcee, Neil Patrick Harris. Or we could just go back to revisiting A Christmas Carol back in my childhood suburbia. They probably still have the sets.