Dinsey unveiled another piece of the Oscar season puzzle Saturday night with an innovative bi-coastal screening of their big holiday release, the musical adaptation of Into The Woods, which screened simultaneously in New York City and at Disney Studios in Burbank (where I saw it).
Post-screening, a satellite-transmitted Q&A featured director Rob Marshall, screenwriter James Lapine and key cast members. Full disclosure: I have been in love with this Stephen Sondheim masterpiece since even before it debuted on Broadway on Nov. 5, 1987. Southern California native that I am, I trekked down to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986 for its pre-Broadway tryout and instantly fell in love.
It’s not only one of my favorite Sondheim musicals (in the top three to be sure with Company and West Side Story), but high among the greatest theatrical experiences I have ever had. I have seen the show in various incarnations several times since. And in those 28 years since its debut, there have been several false starts, by directors including Penny Marshall, at a film version .
So I was hoping against hope this would be a definitive version. I am here to say they got the right Marshall this time. The man behind such Broadway transfers as Nine, the superior TV movie version of Annie, and most significantly the Best Picture Oscar winner Chicago, the last film musical to take the top prize, has thankfully done Sondheim proud.
Despite the inherent stage-bound theatricality of the setting, Marshall, Lapine and Sondheim have been smart enough to realize the difference between what worked on a stage and what will work on film.
Unlike similar failed attempts at stage-to-screen transfers (such as 1967’s Camelot and 1972’s Man Of La Mancha), this one sings with all the power of the source material for a new audience, most of whom will be experiencing it for the first time.
It is, as I enthusiastically tweeted right after Saturday’s debut, the most dazzling movie musical since Chicago. Chicago had the benefit of a great and smart screenplay by Bill Condon, who was nominated for an Oscar. Condon similarly cracked the code to make a stage production a cinematic experience after two decades-plus of other people’s attempts.
Disney is saying we can’t “review” Into The Woods until mid-December, so I will force myself to hold back the superlatives I want to throw and instead discuss the mere miracle that this has finally reached the screen. In terms of movie movies, the only Sondheim musicals that have become movies since his days as only the lyricist (West Side Story, Gypsy) have been an ill-fated 1978 version of A Little Night Music and a fast-disappearing 2007 version of Sweeney Todd.
Johnny Depp starred in the latter and has an amusing brief role as the Zoot-Suited Wolf in Woods. Perhaps it took his star power to move these films more quickly along the production path (although Meryl Streep‘s presence certainly didn’t hurt Woods’ saleability).
But it is clearly this creative trio that has the smarts and know-how to realize the gem of a film version that this has become. Sondheim, who can be quite vocal about others’ productions of his work, enthusiastically endorsed Marshall’s version in a letter (he couldn’t attend after becoming ill) that Streep read (hilariously as she kept correcting his grammar) at the end of the Q&A.
While noting that stage shows are “notoriously difficult” to bring to the screen he and Lapine, his book wrioter and director on the original show, were involved in this one from start to finish. Sondheim wrote that it was “an exhilarating and exciting experience that is reflected in the final result.” But what really touched me most was Marshall’s stated reason for making the film now.
“I do feel this is very much a fairy tale for the post-9/11 era,” Marshall said. “I have to say it was 2011 and I was listening to President Obama speak to the families of the victims on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and it was incredibly moving, and he was incredibly compassionate. And he said to the families, ‘You are not alone. No one is alone.’ He said those words. And I remember hearing that and thinking it is such an important message for today.”
Marshall went on: “It’s obviously, to me, the main song in Into The Woods and I felt this might be the time for kids of today, families of today, that there might be some hope in the world. And that’s when I called you (Lapine and Sondheim) and said, ‘Could we do this?’ And I feel, and I still feel that kids today live in a much more unstable and fragile world than certainly when I grew up. And I feel like there needs to be something to hold on to, something for them to understand that it’s okay when something happens disappointing, some loss, and it’s that theme of loss and how you move forward that struck me. This explores what happens after ‘Happily Ever After’ and it deals very much with life and moving forward. And I really felt this is for kids and families of today.”
So for those who don’t think a musical, or another lighter kind of film (at least on the surface) has enough “gravitas” to win over serious-minded Academy voters, I would submit Into The Woods as Exhibit No. 1. I have experienced enormous loss in my life, as have many people, and in addition to being a knockout entertainment, I found Into the Woods to be enormously cathartic in its own way.
The post-screening Q&A was moderated expertly from NYC by New York Film Society’s Eugene Hernandez and also featured cast members Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tracy Ullman, Chris Pine and James Corden.
The latter, who is scheduled to replace Craig Ferguson in March as host of CBS’ The Late Late Show, did indeed show why he was picked for that job by stealing the Q&A with hilarious stories and observations.
There were many highlights though, not least among them Baranski’s comparison of the familial dysfunctionality to that “K family,” obviously referring to the Kardashians.
Ullman saluted the movie’s raw devotion to telling grim Grimms Fairy Tales the way she remembers them, not the homogenized way of today (sorry, Disney, though you made up for it by financing this film).
I am not at all sure what to say about its awards possibilities. I can’t imagine a world in which this is not duking it out for Best Comedy or Musical Golden Globe against Birdman, or not also competing to the finish for the SAG Awards Outstanding Cast prize.
If anything defines a true ensemble, it is this film. That said, I think basically this is a cast supporting each other. If there’s a nominal “lead,” it’s Corden. He drives the action as the Baker, along with his wife, played beautifully by Blunt.
Disney is pushing both in lead categories, which could pay off at the Globes, but I don’t see Blunt’s role as large enough to get her into the Best Actress Oscar race. And quite frankly, if they campaigned Corden in support he’d have a decent chance, but no way will he be able to make way in the uber-competitive Best Actor Oscar race.
Streep is obviously the strong bet here and she’s a cinch to land her incredible 19th Oscar nomination, this time in supporting for her wicked(ly) funny and multi-dimensional witch.
Pine and Kendrick are standouts too. There can be no question the film will land nominations for Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Dennis Gassner’s production design, the makeup and hair styling and possibly Dion Beebe’s cinematography.
Sound mixing is always a strong bet for musicals, too, often winning. Of course, so is music, but there are no original songs here. The one new tune Sondheim wrote for Meryl Streep was cut from the film as Marshall, Lapine and Sondheim himself felt that, once seen in the context of the movie, it simply didn’t move the story along.
I remember speaking to Streep about it when she came to do my screening series last year for August Osage County, and she told me it was a highlight of her life to record that song of Sondheim’s. Perhaps it will be in the DVD extras, but it means no Oscar nomination for Sondheim, a previous Oscar winner for Disney’s Dick Tracy.
The real question remains whether Into the Woods can become a serious contender for Best Picture and Director. Musicals have a spotty record. Sure, Marshall’s Chicago won but he was overlooked for Director, losing to The Pianist’s Roman Polanski even after he won the DGA award.
Before Chicago, it had been 34 years, 1968, since the last Best Picture Musical winner, Oliver! I like the chances for an Into The Woods nomination but then again I remain stunned that Disney’s terrific Saving Mr. Banks didn’t make the cut last year and landed only a single nomination for its music score (Disney, other than during its Miramax days, has never had a home-grown Best Picture winner).
And keep in mind that though Into The Woods won a handful of Tonys in 1987 for its score and book, it was steamrolled in the Best Musical category by the still-running The Phantom Of The Opera (which became a flop film, a fate I am confident won’t happen here).
This film should have great family box-office appeal for its perfectly timed Christmas Day release, but will be competing with yet another film version of Annie for family musical lovers.
Other than his Dick Tracy song, Sondheim’s big Oscar moment came early in his career when West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards, still the biggest haul for a musical in Oscar history. We’ll have to wait and see in this still wide-open year where this one lands.