We take Stephen Sondheim very, very seriously around these parts. One doesn't become objectively the best creator of stage musicals in history without earning the right to have one's work treated with the gravest respect and unbridled love. This has not, to date, been the attitude shared by Hollywood, which has largely manhandled and mistreated Sondheim's musicals in adapting them to cinema. There haven't been very many attempts, of course, but when one of those was the ghastly 1977 version of A Little Night Music, a viewer has the right to be gun shy.

This means, at any rate, that the new film version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods comes laden down with Baggage for the present reviewer. Lots and lots of Baggage, of a sort that makes it virtually impossible to get a handle on it alone. Which is why I'm not going to.

Please join me in welcoming back to the blog Zev Valancy, Chicago theater professional regular commenter, and my occasional co-author of conversations about the thorny world of stage-to-screen adaptations. He and I last joined forces to joylessly gawk at Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest, and the arrival of the first cinematic treatment of Sondheim since Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd in 2007 seemed the ideal opportunity to pick things back up.

And so, let me hand things off to Zev, to sketch out the history of the show and share his own thoughts on the musical before we get into the whole matter of what the movie does with the source material.

ZEV: Thanks so much, Tim! It's a pleasure to come out of my self-imposed blogging retirement to talk with you about Stephen Sondheim!

There are three ways to look at Into the Woods, the fairy tale musical by Stephen Sondheim (score) and James Lapine (book), which premiered on Broadway in 1987 and has been seen in every high school in America every year since: the aesthetic, the historical, and the personal.

The Aesthetic

The musical's plot interweaves several beloved fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, primarily), with the newly invented story of a Baker and his Wife, who are sent on a quest to retrieve four magical items (sing it with me: "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold") by the witch who has cursed them with infertility. The first act end with every "good" character getting their wishes, while the second explores the ways in which their wishes didn't live up to their hopes, and the unexpected consequences of their at-all-costs pursuits of their desires.

Now here comes the controversial part: I think Into the Woods is a flawed piece. Several of the songs are brilliant (the opening is a remarkable piece of musical theatre storytelling, and I will never not cry upon hearing "No One Is Alone"), and none are outright bad, but the score as a whole doesn't reach the heights of Sondheim's greatest works. Lapine's book is more troubled: the first act feels hectic and jokey, the second overly preachy.

The essential problem, to my mind, is that the fairy tale plot structure means that an awful lot of the show is given over to songs and scenes in which the characters spell out the specific lesson the audience should be learning at that particular moment. Each of the individual moral-presenting songs or scenes works, but the sheer number of them gets a bit wearing, at least to me.

It's still a wonderful show, and an album I listen to once in a while, but when ranking Sondheim shows, I'd place it in the second tier.

The Historical

At 765 performances, Into the Woods had the longest original Broadway run of any Sondheim musical other than A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It won Tonys for its book, score, and Joanna Gleason's performance as The Baker's Wife (losing pretty much everything else to The Phantom of the Opera), went on tour, was produced on the West End, was taped for broadcast on PBS, and has since been revived repeatedly on Broadway, in London, in a wide swath of regional theatres, and in countless educational and amateur productions. The show has been seen everywhere, and I'd posit that its opening marked the tipping point in Sondheim's transformation from "cultishly adored but too complex for the mainstream" to "unquestioned culture hero".

The Personal

The remarkable success of Into the Woods has had another effect: this is a show that matters to people. Nearly every musical theatre lover between the ages of 20 and 35 has seen at least one production, whether the video of the Broadway cast, a professional production, or a high school or community theatre (I'm pretty sure I've seen ten separate productions since I was in third grade or so). Most everyone who acts in musicals has done at least one production. (I played Cinderella's Prince at age 16. I wasn't half-bad.) The chance that the average musical theatre freak can do a significant portion of the score from memory, on demand, is high. The combination of the ubiquity of the show, the age at which people first see it, and the emotional potency of its best moments, make it a treasured piece, and one that carries significant meaning to a lot of people. (It ranks up there with Les Misérables on my anecdotally-compiled list of Musicals That Make Straight Guys Cry.)

I could go on (I assure you, I could go on), but I should really throw things back to our distinguished blogger: Tim, what's your experience with Into the Woods? What do you feel about the musical? And how do you feel about the nominal subject of our review, Rob Marshall's film adaptation?

TIM: I think that we are going to be ripped apart by an angry mob, because as you point out, this is a show that people loooooove. And I'm right with you in thinking that it has some decent-sized problems. In fact, I like it even less than you do: I wouldn't just put it in the bottom half of Sondheim's output, I might even call it my least favorite of his stage musicals (of the ones I know well, which does eliminate some of the likeliest contenders for his worst). It's a little show-offy and pretentious for me, the only one of his shows I'd level that accusation at. The music I find to be willfully complex and difficult for the material, and especially the rather blunt lyrics which, as you say, just out-and-out tell us what the themes are. If I'm going to have that kind of HERE IS THE MORAL BECAUSE THIS IS A FAIRY TALE preachifying, I want it to come in the form of something a bit more toe-tapping and hummable.

Still, low-grade Sondheim is still Sondheim, and there are some wonderful, wonderful moments in the show. Which, to answer your other question, I have previously only known from the 1987 cast recording and the 1991 PBS video with mostly the same cast (for I was not a theater kid in school). As far as the new movie goes, then, the problem for me was always going to be that I have some pretty clear expectations for the performances: it's not just the Witch, it's Bernadette Peters's Witch. It's not just the Baker's Wife, it's Joanna Gleeson's Baker's Wife. Which is probably why Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt, taking over those roles in the film, were the biggest disappointments to me.

Outside of Johnny Depp as the Wolf, of course. That was just awful in every way: the pain in his voice as he sang, the stupid make-up that screamed "theater convention!" in a movie that otherwise made everything take place in a realistic setting, the hairy zoot suit.

But mostly, even the people who let me down still did a really great job with the material: as a collection of musical performances, the Into the Woods film is pretty terrific. The orchestrations are nice and rich without being too runaway "big", or losing the musical thread (I mean, no surprise, it's Jonathan Tunick and he's a genius). The singing is rarely weak - I was a little nervous about Streep during the prologue, but she quickly won me back, and nobody else was even that big of a problem - and it's frequently quite excellent. All the performers nailing their big moments, or multiple big moments, and I was knocked flat at least a couple of times: Streep's despair in "Stay with Me", Anna Kendrick's measured flightiness as Cinderella in "On the Steps of the Palace". Of course, not everybody still had their big moment left intact. But I am sure we'll turn to that.

So that's the good part. The not-as-good part is, unsurprisingly, good ol' Rob Marshall himself, and the filmmaking generally, which is mostly just... fine. Fine and flat. There's a repeated problem, one that threatens to torpedo the very lovely and well-acted prologue especially, of cutting on musical beats in the most literal, obvious way, to make sure we can always see the singer, even when that results in awkward collisions of images. There's a moment in, I think, "It Takes Two" when the film cuts from a two-shot of the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker's Wife, to... a different two-shot of the Baker and the Baker's Wife, and it made my soul cry. I don't know that we can blame Marshall or editor Wyatt Smith for this - the hurricane of shitty cutting that comprised Marshall's 2002 adaptation of Chicago makes me want to throw this at the director’s feet - but it strips the energy from the numbers in a bad way.

And as for the story, well- but I've gone on for a bit. And I think we're going to have a whole lot to talk about story structure. So do you want to take the reigns on that? And do you have any other thoughts on the performances, or things you disagree with me about, before we move too far past that point?

ZEV: For the performances: I would rate them as mostly strong, if rarely spectacular. Nobody exceeded my expectations aside from Chris Pine, of all people (more on that in a moment). Otherwise, I'd rank Blunt, Kendrick, and Christine Baranski (dreadfully underused) near the top. Depp was no worse than I expected, and I'm glad they didn't beef up the part to match his stardom. The biggest disappointment for me was Streep: she was transparently giving a campy "star turn", playing tics and eccentricities rather than a fully realized character. I'd have preferred it if she had actually chosen to dig into the character or, at least, gone full-throttle loony with it. This just felt lazy.

Okay, one more thing on the cast: It's really exhausting, in 2014, that filmmakers still default to all-white casting. It's a fantasy, so there's no "historical realism" to defer to, and it's absurd to contemplate that the most talented person they could find for every single role just so happened to be white. Blunt and Kendrick did strong work, but can you imagine how terrific the film would have been with Audra McDonald as The Baker's Wife or Anika Noni Rose as Cinderella? For a film about the power of stories to use only white people to tell its story is dispiriting, at best.

Now, on to the adaptation (and fair warning, this includes spoilers for both the movie and the play):

One of the great strengths of live theatre is how it allows actors to use their connections to the audience to speak or sing directly to them. There's nothing wrong with an unbroken fourth wall (I wouldn't trade the best of theatrical realism for anything), but narration, soliloquies, and subtle acknowledgements of audience reactions are part of what makes theatre uniquely theatrical and, to me, more engaging than images on a screen could ever be.

And the stage version of Into the Woods has a ton of audience engagement. The Narrator is a very present and active character, who ends up pulled into the story in the second act, and at least half of the songs are delivered more to the audience than to the other characters. It would take a remarkably nimble screenplay and creative director to find a suitably cinematic way to translate this material.

And James Lapine and Rob Marshall's work is... not bad? The adaptation is certainly not the hideous botch that Nine was - few of the choices are wrong - but it's not very creative. The Narrator is gone entirely (with the bare minimum of his lines going to Corden, in voiceover), and a lot of the songs are cut. The soliloquy songs that can't be cut are mostly awkward - what on earth was going on with the shadow puppet stuff during "I Know Things Now" and the random blocking and camera movement during "Giants in the Sky"? The only really creative choice was for "On the Steps of the Palace": setting the entire song inside Cinderella's mind, in one moment as she flees the ball, was a strong choice, and one of the best parts of the movie.

Additionally, the play cleaves quite cleanly into two acts: about a year passes during the intermission, and Act II has a markedly darker tone than Act I. The film removes that elapsed time, which both undercuts the theme (there isn't time for the characters to get disillusioned with their wishes) and makes the tonal change a lot more jarring.

As for all of the choices around the removal of The Mysterious Man, the (wasted) Simon Russell Beale as the memory/ghost of The Baker's Father, and the cutting of "No More", I can only offer a heartfelt shrug of confusion.

Essentially, though, here's my problem with the film, which I found generally respectful, well-made, and well-acted and sung: it didn't feel like it needed to be a movie. The production design and costumes are undistinguished--nothing here can't be seen in the dozen other "dark fairy tales" that have been released this year. There's almost nothing you can get from this movie that you can't get from a decent stage production, and a lot is lost or made awkward in translation.

The was one exception: "Agony". The song, in which Cinderella's Prince (Pine) and Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen) pine for their unreachable loves, was filmed as a demented parody of romance novel covers and perfume ads, complete with conveniently placed mountain streams and ripped-open shirts. For two and a half minutes, the movie was doing something only movies can do, and it was the best part of the film by far.

Well, except for that musical quote from A Little Night Music. That was a tasty bit of fan service. I'm pretty sure that me, my husband, and our friend were the only ones in the theatre who got it, but we guffawed.

What are your thoughts on the adaptation, Tim? Is there anything you disagree with, or anything I missed? Any other things about the film that must be said before James Lapine puts a curse on us?

TIM: See, now you go and remind me of "Agony" - easily the best part of the film, and Pine in it is the best acting in the movie (and Magnussen does a great job playing off Pine, to be fair) - and all it does is get me all sad that the "Agony" reprise was cut, because how good would that have been?

But then, it sort of had to be cut, didn't it? There might not be a good way to make the second half of Into the Woods happen in a film: the very concept of the show is structured to have two acts with an intermission to allow the audience to step away and recalibrate. With that taken, away, we end up stuck with the confused, madcap pacing of the film's... back half? I don't know what to call it. But the plot gallops and jerks along, and half the cast just sort of fizzles into oblivion. The rewritten Rapunzel conclusion, in particular, not only turns her into a completely pointless character, it robs the Witch of everything that makes her interesting in the second act. The themes are painfully undernourished, since the carefully developed links between the two halves of the show are all ripped to hell, and the closest it has to a mission statement is the gallingly out-of-place Meryl Streep voice-over singing that closes things out on a needlessly minor note.

Incidentally, between this and the 2007 Sweeney Todd, I think I have learned that Sondheim shows have very theatrical, tableaux-like endings rather than actual dramatic conclusions, because that's two films now that have ended by cutting the final ensemble number and as a result basically evaporated their way over the finish line.

I mostly like the first half. But the second half is terrible. The flow is bad, the characters make no sense, and it's ugly, with Marshall and his go-to cinematographer, Dion Beebe, slathering everything in a grimy blue filter that is the most boring thing to watch for what feels like a solid hour of unchanging imagery. And so that brings me back to the filmmaking. A mutual acquaintance of ours, who is welcome to take credit in comments, shared with me his immediate thought about the film: "Rob Marshall is still figuring out why you point cameras in particular directions for specific lengths of time, huh", and that's as concise a description of the problem with the film's directing as I can imagine. It's so cloddish. You called out "Giants in the Sky", which is absolutely the worst of it (which especially upset me, since that song makes a solid claim to being my favorite in the show), but there are so many places where the shot choices do everything in their power to rob the music of its life: the conclusion of "Last Midnight" is confusing and busy, "A Very Nice Prince" is bland and flat. "Agony" and "On the Steps of the Palace" are the only numbers where the filmmakers seemed to even have a visual concept, let alone put it into practice.

"There's almost nothing you can get from this movie that you can't get from a decent stage production", you say, which I think errs on the side of generosity: I think a decent stage production would acquit itself better. The film has been presented with such slack technique that I think it actually ends up looking cheap and thin, with its fake-ass woods and the frequently terrible make-up (it's easy to pick on the Wolf, but he's so bad) and the unnatural crispness of the costumes. It's easy to imagine the whole thing being packed up and rolled away at the end of every night's shooting; there's no sense of an actual reality that we're peeking into.

Anyway, all those problems being very real and very dreary, I did actually kind of like the movie. The material works even with Marshall trying to smother it, and I'm charitable towards the performances, though the farther I get from it, the less I understand why Streep is the one with awards heat, because she's definitely one of the weak links. You know who shocked the hell out of me? Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood. After Sweeney Todd, I was a bit hostile to the idea of casting actual children, and Daniel Huddlestone's Jack is definitely rough (the way the film ruins his big number doesn't help), but her super dry staccato singing was, I thought, actually pretty terrific.

So I liked it, -ish. It's not Nine. But it definitely doesn't understand what makes the show work, or find effective cinematic replacements for what can't be ported directly from the stage, and I'm more than a little annoyed that the half-measures of Sweeney Todd are still the best adaptation of Sondheim to screen that we've got.

That's all I've got. Final thoughts, complaints, praise?

ZEV: With all we've just dissected it, I'd still call this one of my favorites of the recent crop of stage musicals adapted to film. "Has a good amount of worthwhile stuff, and doesn't botch anything too horribly" shouldn't place a movie in the top tier of its genre, but...

And the fact that it made nearly $20 million more in its opening weekend than Mamma Mia gives me a little bit of hope for the genre's future. And according to that same article, the opening weekend of the movie had four times the number of attendees as the Broadway run and the revival combined. Exposing all of those audience members, many of them young, to Stephen Sondheim...overall, I'd call it a win for our culture.

Tim’s Rating: 6/10
Zev’s Rating: 7/10