It has taken 27 years for the smash Broadway musical Into the Woods to finally find its way to the silver screen, but it finally has—and with James Lapine, the original Tony-winning writer of the script reprising that job for the movie. The adaptation was given first class treatment with both Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim, who joined director Rob Marshall (Chicago) to make sure its screen transfer found the magic that gives this Grimm fairy tale a “happily ever after” life in the movies. Lapine’s legendary previous collaborations with Sondheim have included Passion and Sunday in the Park with George on the stage, but film adaptations of Sondheim shows have had a spotty track record in Hollywood. (A Little Night Music with Elizabeth Taylor, anyone?) Lapine recently sat down with me to tell me how they made sure the same fate would not greet the beloved Into the Woods.The excellent boxoffice results so far (nearly $100 million domestic) and Golden Globe Best Picture – Comedy or Musical nomination would seem to indicate they have succeeded way beyond expectations.
This was a long time to finally get this thing to the screen. It’s been a lot of starts and stops.
After it finally opened on Broadway I thought, “Well, this is perfect for a Disney animated musical movie,” and they weren’t interested. And then somebody optioned it after that a few years later, and it just never took off. I don’t know why.
That’s interesting you thought it was perfect for Disney.
Well, it was the time of Beauty and the Beast, just the very beginning of that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman stuff.
Wasn’t Penny Marshall going to adapt Into the Woods at one time?
I think so. I had nothing to do with any of that. Steve (Sondheim) was a little involved in it, but I didn’t have any interest in being involved.
So how did this version come about that you, the original creators, got to be involved?
Well, after I read the other one they were doing, when Rob (Marshall) came around I thought, “You really should try to do it.” Because I felt that after I saw what somebody else had done to it, I just felt I could not be faithful so much as just be true to what the original was. So Rob immediately was fine with that, which I was very grateful for, and we had a great time working on it.
That seems rare. It doesn’t always happen in Hollywood that way, right?
Yeah, I gather. I understand why, too, as I worked on it. Not so much for the craft of it, but you’re so close to the material that I could see where it’s difficult to step back from it a little bit and be a little bit freer or less precious about it. I had figured that since so many years had passed since I had had anything to do with it that I would be a little bit more dispassionate about it. And the irony was, Rob was very wed to the original material. So I started arguing, “Well, let’s do another opening number.” He was going, “Whoa.” We were an interesting balance with one another that way. I knew as a writer what I couldn’t do in the original because of the limitations of what you can do onstage. So for me to have the opportunity to open it up was just a delight. And then I learned kind of a little bit more about what I had written then and who I am now, so that was interesting.
Now there were tough decisions beyond that to make. With Meryl Streep there was a song written for her that you had to cut.
It was a song that came after Rapunzel goes off, and Steve wrote it, and of course we were so excited that he was writing a new song. And Meryl was excited, and she did it great, it was shot, it was in the first cut. And the song just stopped the action. With Steve it’s not like a song is yanked out and put somewhere else. It’s very site-specific and character-specific. What (the song) did is, it played fine but then everything after it started to slow down. It seems weird, the chemistry in musicals; it’s really odd what it does.
A lot of people worried that the adaptation would get “Disneyfied,” that Disney was going to turn into a Princess of the Week kind of thing, which it didn’t do. What was the studio like to work with on this?
Well, in fairness to them I think it was probably really hard. First of all, I know the fairy tales from the Grimm versions, and way back then Sondheim knew them all from the Disney cartoons. He never read a fairy tale, he only knew all the cartoons. But this is sort of what Disney’s trademark is in a way, so Into the Woods would be screwing around with that. By the way, they chose to do it, so hello. I think there was healthy discussion. A studio exec said to me, “You know, there’s an awfully high body count in this movie. Will anybody have to die?” And so there was a little bending here and there. But I don’t think it got Disneyfied. I’m pleased to say when I saw it I thought it was actually surprisingly dark in ways. I think they made it for a price, I guess that’s what you say. It wasn’t going to be Pirates of the Caribbean. I think they were supportive. I feel that it’s really a good representation of what we had set out to do.
Sometimes we’re just lucky to have Hollywood make one musical a year. I think every musical that comes out is responsible for the future of the form in a lot of ways. The studios, which obviously made them for years and years, seem to be scared of them to a degree, even after something that’s hugely successful like Chicago. Now we have two opening within a week of each other with Into the Woods and Annie. Is there a musical that you think should come to the screen that hasn’t?
Well, I want to do Sunday in the Park with George, but I don’t know in this day and age whether you could get it made. But Irwin Winkler came to us when it was on Broadway and said, “I’d like to do a movie of it. I can do it for this amount of money. You can direct it,” and I went, “Yeah.” And the studio said no. What musical would you like to see done as a movie?
I sometimes think if you’re going to remake something, do something that was screwed up the first time. So I would like seeing a really decent screen version of Man of La Mancha because it’s not ultimately film-able. Every filmmaker I talk to has a terrible horror story about trying to get musicals to the screen. Everything takes a long time. Into the Woods took 27 years between its debut and now.
Even the beginning of it took longer to get up on the screen than it took us to get it to Broadway from a blank page. It’s a long process. I’m just in awe of how dedicated you have to be to it on every level. It’s not enough that you just make the movie, but you have to deal with all the politics of it and the actors, and casting, and budget. And the only movies I’ve done have been relatively small.
Rob Marshall has talked about how Into the Woods has relevance with all the heavy topics of the day. Did you feel that at all while you were writing the script or talking to Rob about it?
No. I just keep coming back to the fairy tales. They’ve been around for a long time for a reason, because they have a malleability about them that’s always contemporary on some level. They speak to such basic things as good and evil, and right and wrong.
What do you want to do next on the stage?
I’m working on an original project for the stage, but I’m going to be really coy and not talk about it just because it’s such a good idea. I’m doing probably a revival of Falsettos. And this summer I’m going to do the Encore! series of a show I did with Bill (William Finn) called A New Brain. It really didn’t quite work, and so we’re going to put a little work into it. And I’m trying to get this small movie off the ground in the spring. We’ll see. It’s very small, but I have a nice cast, and so we’re trying to move towards that.