Unlike some of the Broadway types who people Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Stephen Sondheim has always loved Hollywood. Though he has gained fame as the composer-lyricist of many musical theatre classics, Sondheim actually started his career writing for a witty TV series, Topper. Twenty years later, he and Anthony Perkins collaborated on the screenplay for an intricate shipboard mystery, The Last of Sheila. Sondheim has written film scores, and has contributed songs to a number of movies. “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” was sung by Madonna in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, then went on to earn Sondheim an Oscar. To celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday, Turner Classic Movies made him its guest programmer for March 22, 2005.
As a movie-lover, Sondheim has never been snobbish about film adaptations of his major musicals. His A Little Night Music (itself based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night) was adapted for the screen in 1977, with Elizabeth Taylor featured as the rather tone-deaf lead. (Amazingly, the film was distributed in the U.S. by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.) Then in 2007 Tim Burton filmed the memorably gruesome Sweeney Todd, with mixed results. Now it’s the turn of Into the Woods, one of Sondheim’s most beloved works. As a stage production, Into the Woods has proved popular with high school and community theatre groups because it features such familiar fairytale characters as Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood. But though the first act is charmingly upbeat, ending with the promise of happily-ever-after for one and all, Act II introduces into the fairytale mash-up some very modern doubts and fears. That’s part of the reason a film version has proved tricky.
Back in 1995, Sondheim was approached by Columbia Pictures and the Jim Henson Company, who hoped to film Into the Woods with the Muppets playing the key animal roles. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, best known for Parenthood, wrote the script, which survived two star-studded readings by some of Hollywood’s finest, including Robin Williams as the Baker, Goldie Hawn as the Baker’s Wife, Cher as the Witch, Elijah Wood as Jack (the one who climbs the beanstalk), Roseanne Barr as his mother, and Steve Martin as the Wolf who lusts after Little Red. Wrote Sondheim, wistfully, “All that and Jim Henson too. I wish . . . .” Alas, a shakeup of studio honchos sidelined the project.
In 2014, none other than Disney put the musical into the hands of Rob Marshall, whose own cast of singing actors can hardly be bettered. Meryl Streep as the blue-haired Witch! Johnny Depp as the Wolf! Anna Kendrick trilling beautifully as Cinderella, with Chris Pine her hilariously hunky and self-absorbed Prince Charming! Best of all, James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, the two characters who come closest to representing our own down-to-earth reality. Having just seen a fine stage version, that of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I’m equipped to compare them. Though the film’s star power counts for much, the film medium is too fundamentally literal for full-fledged enchantment. We see on screen a real cow (Jack’s Milky White) and real horses; I missed the fun of an actress playing the sad, scrawny cow, as well as princes riding tricycles equipped with hobby-horse heads. The stage play necessarily puts more faith in the viewer’s imagination: the woods are more suggested than seen. And the fact that the film’s singing is pre-recorded is distractingly obvious. Still, the movie brings this fascinating show to a far wider audience, giving both adults and sensitive children something worth pondering.