Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Into the Woods" on Film: Perfect Realization

Rob Marshall's film Into the Woods is a perfect realization -- I choose those words carefully -- of a delightful stage musical.

It's a realization in the sense that the film makes real what on stage had been implied.  Jack on stage sings of how it is to climb down from the sky, how "the world you know begins to grow: The roof, the house, and your mother at the door, ...the world you never thought to explore."  In the movie, we see that roof and Jack's mother from high above, out of focus between the vines of the beanstalk and Jack's feet in the foreground: It's breathtaking, all the more beautiful for lasting just a second.        

It's realization in the sense also of de-artificialization.  On stage, Cinderella's hearth, Jack's hut, and the Baker's cottage are presented side by side like panels in a comic strip; as each story reaches a climax, it is "framed" by an on-stage Narrator's storytelling and by each character's singing straight to the audience what he or she has experienced; our applause cues the next part of the story. In the movie, it's one continuous movement inside the frame.  We may miss some of the artifice, as if someone cracked open an ornate Faberge egg.  But, in an interview with The Sondheim Review (Spring 2015, pp.24-25), director Rob Marshall explains why this had to happen: "The biggest disservice you can do to a film of a musical is to be too faithful to the original.... You have to say, this is a different medium -- there's no fourth wall, and you have to figure out how to make things work."  So Red Riding Hood and Jack explain their stories, i.e., sing their songs, to the Baker;  the Baker's Wife and Cinderella sing their songs as if carrying on an internal debate.   

The film is perfect in the original sense of thoroughly made, better to my mind than mere "flawlessness."  Marshall says that the film was relatively low budget ("just" 50 million), but that was enough to pay for a company of actors and designers whose dedication to the story shows in every frame.  We see the Witch (Meryl Streep) hovering between hurt, tenderness, and fury when we watch her sing "Stay with Me" to Rapunzel.  Her eyes, her breaths, the sudden changes of tone and volume in her voice let us know every twist and turn in her thoughts.  Meanwhile, we also get a deeper sense of her character when the camera shows us the mixture of alarm and shame on Rapunzel's face.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella conveys a half-dozen conflicting feelings when she wonders whether she should let the Prince catch her "On the Steps of the Palace," asking herself,
What would be his response?
But then what if he knew

Who I am when I know
That I'm not what he thinks
That he wants? 
Just as effective is Emily Blunt, as the Baker's childless wife.  She draws us into sympathy with her thoughts and feelings from the first time we see her, from outside the window, her eyes brimming with tears, as she sings "I want a child." She also grounds her character in our every-day world kind of reality, so that it's a laugh when she's a little embarrassed to explain that her husband's away breaking a spell.  When Cinderella's Prince wants to seduce her, Blunt's effectiveness at playing an everyday woman in a fairy tale world earned her a laugh at the multiplex when she sang, "What am I doing here? ...I'm in the wrong story!"  Later, reflecting on the possibilities of her new relationship, Blunt's face and voice vary with each line:
Why not [have] both instead?
There's the answer, if you're clever.
Have a child for warmth,
And a baker for bread,
And a Prince for -- (she smiles) -- whatever.
Never!   ("Moments in the Woods")
Her husband the Baker is played by James Corden, a British stage actor.  "I was actually excited by the fact that he doesn't have a huge film audience in America," says the director Marshall, "because he needed to play the everyman.  We needed to relate to him in that way."  He sings beautifully, falls and rolls, gets angry, gets flirty -- always believable.  After the Baker's traumatic loss and confrontation with his own guilt, Corden sits on a tree stump and weeps in a way that must call up memories for us all.  The director lingers on that moment, while we hear in the background an instrumental echo of  Sondheim's song of paternal regret from the original stage version, "No More."

In contrast, the Princes (Chris Pine for Cinderella and Billy Magnussen for Rapunzel) do "officious" and "smarmy" like the cockiest frat boys you ever met.  Singing their duet "Agony" about the challenge of pursuing damsels -- "Always ten feet behind, always ten feet below, and she's just out of reach" -- their one-upmanship got the heartiest laughs and even applause at our local multiplex. All of Pine's lines sound like they came from a prince handbook, but we still see something real in those eyes when he looks up from the golden slipper to recognize Cinderella's face.  He's especially funny in the song "Any Moment," as he manipulates the Baker's Wife into a little canoodling in the woods, rebounding from her every objection to find a new way to break down her resistance.

Big name star Johnny Depp appears only fleetingly, but a lot of thought went into every element of his performance.  Digital effects could certainly have made a canine Wolf of him.  Instead, he's made up like a creepy clown in a pimped out zoot suit -- Party City claws and huge tail, extra.  But this emphasizes the strong subtext of his song, fusing two kinds of "wolf" with two kinds of "appetite," as the Wolf sniffs Red and conceives his plan to eat Grandmother first and Red, second:
Think of those crisp aging bones,
Then something fresh on the pallet. 
Think of that scrumptious carnality
twice in one day!
There's no possible way
To describe what you feel
When you're talking to your meal!  ("Hello, Little Girl")
There's a gesture or look -- a leg up on the tree, a sniff, a widening of the eyes, a proffered flower and smile -- for every line in the song.

Marshall also worked with the original writers James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim to rethink the play's second act.  On stage, the Giant's long back-and-forth with the ensemble over justice and retribution derails the show, and the act stretches with a series of necessary but somewhat preachy ballads.  In the film, Marshall is better able to keep us focused on the most appealing characters Jack, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and the Baker, as they come to depend on each other like family.  Those preachy songs become heart breakers, now that the act is shorter, and now that we're up close and personal.   Around Meryl Streep's nuanced performance of the song "Last Midnight," starting from a soft lullaby to Streep's belting her loudest and highest note, Marshall pulls out all the stops in the orchestra and special effects department to make the whole screen dance with Streep - her hair, the wind, her cape, the lightning -- in the film's most spectacular number. 

The only thing lacking to make the film complete would be applause.  To see a musical number performed so well, all its parts building to climactic finish, only to cut abruptly to the next scene in a silent theatre -- it feels unsatisfying.  Let this blog post be my way of expressing satisfaction and gratitude to all concerned.
[In another blog post, Sondheim's "Fault" and Virtuosity, I examine the short song "Your Fault" as a "prism" through which the brilliance of the whole show is refracted. See my Sondheim page for many other reflections on matters relating to Sondheim, his shows, and musical theatre more generally.]

1 comment:

George said...

Nice, Scott! I look forward to the other, related posts!