Once upon a time, before musicals were reborn at the box office, Hollywood tried to mount a feature adaptation of Into the Woods, the 1987 fairytale musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Penny Marshall staged a reading with a cast that included Robin Williams, Cher and Goldie Hawn, but the film never happened. Jump to 2002, when choreographer-turned-filmmaker Rob Marshall rebooted the genre with Chicago, turning it into a $307 million global blockbuster and best picture Oscar winner. He went on to make the musical feature Nine and the $1 billion-plus grosser Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and now has timing on his side with Woods. Not only does the musical complement Disney’s strategy for reimagining fairytale franchises (read: Maleficent and ABC’s Once Upon a Time), but for Marshall, the film is a metaphor and answer to today’s global turmoil.
When you began Into the Woods, what state was the project in? Were there any preproduction elements left from when Penny Marshall took a stab at it?
There was nothing. For me, it started in 2003. Chicago had opened, and I told Stephen Sondheim that I wanted to do one of his musicals. We talked about Sweeney Todd, which hadn’t been (adapted) yet, as well as Follies and Into the Woods. Stephen said, “I think Into the Woods would be fantastic for you.” That stayed with me, but then other projects came and went. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was listening to President Obama speak to the victims’ families at Ground Zero and in consoling them, he said “You are not alone. No one is alone.” It just hit me because that’s a lyric from the song, “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, which to me is the musical’s central message about how you get through loss and move forward. You do it as a community, rebuild and get through life. I turned to John DeLuca, my partner, and I said, “It’s the right time for Into the Woods.” Children today live in a much more fragile, unstable world than when I grew up. The Giant in our piece is terrorism, school shootings and even climate change. Into the Woods was ahead of its time. I called James Lapine and Stephen and said, “I’d love to do this.” And they said “We would love for you to do this. We only ask that you actually get it made this time.”
For years the musical was dormant at the boxoffice. How did you know moviegoers were primed for them with Chicago?
I was very aware of the fact we were so out of fashion when I shot Chicago. And I was trepidatious as to whether it would be seen or embraced by anybody, but I’ve never stopped believing in the genre. There’s nothing like it. It’s American-born. And what I love about musicals when they work is that words aren’t enough, so you sing… A musical needs to feel seamless, particularly between the ramp up of the dialogue into the song. It needs to feel earned and organic. The key element for me is, why are they singing? With Chicago, conceptually, I made it (about) the fantasies of Roxie. In Into the Woods, it was easier… Our opening number is 16 minutes long, and everyone’s introduced at the same time. This works on film because this song immediately establishes the language of the piece. Everyone starts singing, they move into dialogue and back into singing, and it feels seamless. That’s the genius of Sondheim.
How do you know what musicals are better suited for the big screen? Sondheim’s later canon is known for conceptual works that aren’t very story-driven.
You have to find your way into a musical in order for it to translate to film. Even in our heightened reality of Into the Woods, I wanted to make sure there was a truth, a reality and even a grit to it, because you’re asked to believe in these characters. That’s a key element for me, especially when the movie gets more real toward the end, you’re asked to care about these people… Sondheim is so brave. He’s always pushing the envelope, but it is tricky. You have to be careful when choosing a film musical. You have to really weigh whether your creative choices make sense. While working on the screenplay, James Lapine, John DeLuca and I always asked, “Does that work on film?”
What did you sacrifice as you went from stage to screen?
We had to eliminate the Mysterious Man because there were too many characters. This then leads to the hard decision of losing a song, such as his tune, “No More.” Pacing is a bigger issue than in the theater. You also have to earn a ballad on film… Stephen wrote a new song for Meryl Streep’s witch that we shot and had to cut after previewing the film before an audience. That was difficult. When you work on a film, you must serve it—not the actor, director or composer. The film starts telling you. It was clear to Stephen, James, Meryl and I that as good as the number was, it didn’t work. It took us into a different direction; it slowed us down in a place where we needed to move. Film is a living, breathing thing. It’s very delicate, and you have to listen and watch for what it tells you.
Rob Marshall photographed by J.R. Mankoff