Into the Woods, Again and Again

by Thomas Burns Scully, OnStage New York Columnist I have watched ‘Into the Woods’ a lot in the last three days. On Friday I had never seen it before, it’s now Tuesday, and I’ve seen it three times. On Saturday I saw a matinee preview of Fiasco Theater’s new off-broadway production for Roundabout Theatre Company, on Sunday I watched the DVD recording of the original Broadway hit, and yesterday I went to the movies to see the Rob Marshall helmed film-adaptation. Apart from getting ‘Agony’ stuck in my head, this deluge of modernized fairy-tale mash-up has given me a lot to think about. We have a lot to get through, then. Into the woods, to hear a play, to watch a DVD, to see a movie.

Let’s begin with a look at the musical on its own, regardless of production. Put simply: I like it. It’s not about to enter my list of top ten shows, but the music is good, the plot is clever, the jokes are fun, and the emotional punches work. The show’s messages of actions with consequences, the myth of happy endings, and being careful what we tell are children are all strong, well realized, and effectively communicated. I’m not the biggest musical fan that there has ever been, but ‘Into the Woods’ gave me something that I have taken away positively. Having established that the source material is strong, we can now look at interpretation.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that, of the three versions I watched, I thought the original 1987 Broadway Production was the best. Hands-down it is the most unified production as a whole. You don’t need me to tell you that, of course. Its numerous Tony Awards and enduring legacy tell you all you need to know. That said, it also doesn’t preclude that other versions have nothing to offer. The film interpretation gives viewers the chance to see the world of the woods completely realized and fleshed out in the way that only a film can. Conversely, the Fiasco production’s appeal lies in the fact that it is a deliberate double down. Quite probably as a reaction to the film adaptation, Fiasco proudly advertise their show as ‘10 actors, one piano and boundless imagination’. So both shows have value that the Broadway production doesn’t. And yet the Broadway version is still my pick of the three. To answer why we must go deeper in to the woods.

Fiasco’s production is bold in its use of theatricality. Their use of found-object puppetry, shadow-puppetry and general stagecraft is excellent. A feather duster is a chicken, an actress’ shadow is the giant, a taxidermically stuffed wolf-head is used to create the Wolf. All these effects are clearly well-rehearsed, the slickness and speed with which the cast perform them shows us this. Interestingly enough, however, speed and pacing is where the Fiasco production falls down the most. The production nears three hours in length, and there are times when the audience really feels it. I didn’t realize it until I watched the Broadway production, but some of the songs were performed at a slower tempo, adding countless seconds to the run-time. The ensemble have also added lots of little touches of stage business. Some of these I whole heartedly welcome. Their choice to have Milky-White the cow played by Andy Grotelueschen wearing a cow-bell around his neck bordered on genius. I must confess that I missed him in both productions I watched subsequently. The plastic cow of Broadway and Tug, the cow of the film, failed to live up to the majesty of his performance. Shame on them. That said, all these little bits added runtime. Fiasco’s show is at least twenty minutes longer than the Broadway Production, and nearly a full hour longer than the movie.

The cast are also not equally matched as singers. Patrick Mulryan’s rendition of ‘Giants in the Sky’ is magical, and Jennifer Mudge as the Witch sings wonderfully throughout. However, Noah Brody’s voice strains a little more than is comfortable (Though he and Andy Grotelueschen are great fun during ‘Agony’), and there is a general feeling that not every member of the cast is comfortable tackling Sondheim’s difficult material. Fiasco, as a company, are very capable as performers, with moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout, but the cracks that show when the pace slows down, coupled with deliberately reduced production design, give the theatre-goer the unnerving feeling that they may have been tricked in to coming to a community theatre production. Perhaps these are kinks that will be worked out by official opening night (January 22), however, if the cast are to be believed, they have been working on this show for years. It makes one wonder how much they will be able to fix if they haven’t done so already.

So, the Roundabout production is bold, and, for the most part, fun, but sometimes drags, and makes you think about the $99 charged per ticket to see ten actors singing around a piano in a black box. I don’t want to downplay the stuff that’s good in it, but I left the theatre in a decidedly ambivalent mood. When I watched the Broadway production, suddenly the show seemed to really move. Things that seemed annoyingly childish before, became charmingly silly. That is the secret strength of the Broadway show: there is no dead stage-time whatsoever. Fiasco could do with some of the same mustard.

What both productions get right, however, is that they understand that ‘Into the Woods’ is meant to be fun. It has its dark edges, yes, but at its core its a story about witches and giants and storybook logic. This for me, is where the main failing of the film comes in.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, had I watched the film first, I would have liked it a lot more. I should also stress that I don’t hate the film. It’s exciting and dynamic in its own way, but when viewed against the source material it becomes immediately frustrating. Everyone making the film seems to have forgotten that they’re supposed to be having fun. I have trouble remembering a single moment in the film where Anna Kendrick smiles; the Princes flirt with being cheesy, then quickly revert to being broody and intense; Meryl Streep as the Witch is dark and vengeful, and utterly repetitive to watch after a few scenes. No-one seems to have remembered that this is a fairy-tale, and the complete lack of whimsy this creates in the film makes it bleak and un-charming. I understand why all this happened: they wanted to create a realistic world for the story to take place in. But that is the exact opposite of what the material demands.

‘Into the Woods’ demands a world where storybook logic makes sense, and the more realistic it is made, the less fun it becomes. For instance, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. There is nothing wrong with Huttlestone as an actor or a singer, but casting an actual young boy in the role of Jack immediately changes the semiotics of the character. In the Broadway and Roundabout versions, Jack is played by a boyish looking grown man. The result is that Jack becomes much sillier as a character. He is referred to as a boy by everyone, and he acts like a boy, but because he is played by a man, his boyish nature seems naive. There is the implication that he’s a developmentally challenged man-child. It makes his devotion to his cow all the more strange, inexplicable, and funny. When you suddenly have him played by a real little boy, his story becomes tragic. His love of the cow makes perfect sense, it’s his pet after all. When he sells Milky-White, it’s sad. It’s a fine choice, but it makes for a different show, and I would go so far as to say it goes against what the material demands.

These choices to make the film seem more real all detract from how fun it is supposed to be. Meryl Streep’s serious, actorly choices, contrasted against Bernadette Peters’ over-the-top fairy-tale caricature, give the film a grittiness it doesn’t need. Personifying the giant in the form of Frances de la Tour, and showing her fully on screen makes the climax of the film more disturbing than it ever has been on stage. The whole first act, meant to be the epitome of a light-hearted romp to allow for the darkness of the second act, feels far too serious. So much so, that the (heavily curtailed) second act feels like a tacked-on extra ending. Ironically, in spite of the cuts and changes Disney insisted on, the film is darker in tone than the musical has ever been. Everything I have mentioned (plus Johnny Depp’s co-starring as the bizarrely out-of-place, overly explicit pedophilia metaphor) makes the film super serious. And it just doesn’t need to be. Gritty-reboot syndrome is rife, and it makes the changes Disney made all the more silly. Removing the death of Rapunzel, and the Witch’s punishment of making her bear twins; these are all sops to what is considered decent by the public, they don’t make the story less dark. Which raises the interesting point as to why Johnny Depp seemingly about to molest a child is fine, but a giant crushing a girl isn’t. So the film is dark. Which is annoying, because the musical is darkly comical, which is what I’ve always preferred.

I can gripe about the movie all day. The above doesn’t even begin to cover my list of problems and concerns. But (and this is a big but) all of these issues don’t take away from the fact that, taken on it’s own merits, the film works. Separate from any past renditions, the film is highly serviceable. The story is well told, the cast are generally excellent, the singing is up to snuff, and the cinematography is great. Its a movie you can take your mom, your dad, your kid, or your date to and, unless one of you is a Sondheim buff, you’ll probably really enjoy yourself. It is not a bad movie, not by any stretch of the imagination. As I said before, had I watched the movie first, there’s a good chance I would have really enjoyed it. It’s just that, in light of what had been done before, we could have had something that was part Mel Brooks, part Terry Gilliam, part Tim Burton, and all Sondheim. Instead we got a solid, dependable, family film. Which is fine, and yet I still feel a little cheated.

Do I have any criticism for the Broadway production? Yes, actually, I do. Generally speaking it’s strong all-around. The cast are great, the direction sublime, the show feels very complete. However I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the production design. I know it was being deliberately storybook-ish in its look, but there are certain elements that look and feel so cheap that it grates on my nerves. The birds on strings, and the plastic cow in particular seemed to offend me the most. Maybe I was simply missing Andy Grotelueschen. Apart from that, I find it hard to really complain about the Broadway production. There’s a reason it’s the benchmark version of itself.

So what conclusions can I draw from all this? I can tell you that if you want to go and see the best version of ‘Into the Woods’ you can see, then you should rent the DVD of the Broadway show. If you want to go to the theatre and watch an entertaining, if imperfect, live version of ‘Into the Woods’, go and see Fiasco do it at Roundabout. If you don’t have the money for the theatre, but you still want to go out for a show, go to the movies and see ‘Into the Woods’ there. Provided you’ve never seen it before, you’ll probably have a good time.

That’s all from me. I’m off to go and watch something that’s not ‘Into the Woods’.


Original Broadway Production:

At Roundabout:

'Into the Woods' the movie is playing at all major cinemas

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