The Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods predates the term "mashup" by about 15 years, but it's clearly in the spirit of that most 21st century of genres. Produced with long-time Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, the play put Grimm's fairy tales into a postmodern blender. What if, it asks, all of these familiar stories were set in the same place at the same time? And then, what happens after everyone lives happily ever after?
The original musical had the misfortune of debuting in 1987, the same year as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, and thus played second fiddle on Broadway to that juggernaut of schlock. But it has proven to be an enduring work because of its strong feminist undertones and Sondheim's prodigious lyrical gifts. The legendary composer, who first attracted attention working with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, doesn't write soaring hooks like Webber's "Music of the Night." What he does best is tricky wordplay and wrenching complex themes out of the staid world of musical theater. This is even more evident in the work that followed Into the Woods, 1990's Assassins, a musical where every wacko who ever tried to off a president gets a song, which is being mounted in Memphis at Circuit Playhouse in February. But until my dream of seeing Assassins on the big screen can come true, I'll have to content myself with the Disney production of Into the Woods. Luckily, it's pretty darn good.
The construction of Into the Woods is fairly ingenious and arguably ahead of its time. The framing device Sondheim and Lapine used to bring disparate characters together is the deep woods of Midieval Europe, where, in Grimm's tales, unknown evils lurk. It is also a place of personal liberation outside the suffocating social strata of royalty and peasants. The central quest around which all of these familiar tales are wound is the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) trying in vain to have a child. Early on, after a song which elegantly establishes the entire sprawling cast's motivations, the Witch, (Meryl Streep), who happens to live next door, arrives to reveal to the couple that their childlessness is the result of a curse she put on the Baker's father for stealing magic beans from her garden. But the curse can be lifted if the couple is able to deliver to her four material components for a magic spell: a red cloak, a lock of blond hair, a white cow, and a gold slipper.
Meanwhile, the other fairy tale protagonists go off to have their own familiar adventures, which happen mostly offscreen. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent to sell his beloved cow Milky White to help feed his starving mother (Tracey Ullman), but encounters the Baker and his wife in the woods, where he is convinced to sell her for five magic beans. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is being oppressed by her evil stepmother (Christine Baranski), goes into the woods to pray at her mother's grave, where she is given a magical makeover to go to the ball and get cozy with the Prince (Chris Pine). Meanwhile, the Prince's brother (Billy Magnussen) has discovered a love of his own, a beautiful girl named Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) who the Witch is holding captive in a doorless tower. In yet another subplot, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) confronts the Wolf (Johnny Depp) on her trip through the woods to her Grandmother's (Annette Crosbie) house.
The intertwining fairy tales of the first act work great, but it's the second act, after everyone "lives happily ever after," where Into the Woods really gets subversive. Jack the Giant Killer's repeated forays into giantland bring down the wrath of the Giant's mother onto fairy tale land, with devastating consequences, and everyone must band together to save the day.
As you might expect with a Disney movie, director Rob Marshall (Chicago) sands off Sondheim's rough edge of satire, but under the pen of Lapine, who wrote the screenplay, the strength of the original material remains. The cast are, to a woman, committed and able. Kendrick's Cinderella, Huttlestone's Jack, Blunt's Baker's Wife, and Crawford's Red Riding Hood stand out in the talented cast. Depp's Wolf is fine, but it's just Depp doing his Depp schtick. Streep, who earned a seemingly reflexive Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the Witch, uncorks a show-stopper with her final song, "The Last Midnight." One of the great musical theater works of the past 30 years has survived the translation to screen, and that is a kind of magic.