Stage vs. Screen: Into the Woods

Disney recently released their adaptation of Sondheim’s beloved Into the Woods in digital format, allowing a giant musical theater geek such as myself the opportunity to check it out. The catch? The box of programs from plays and musicals  I've seen and/or been involved in at the high school, college, community theater, and professional levels somehow does not include one from this play. Upon learning this, after recovering from the shock, friends told me I must see the original (and far superior) Broadway cast production. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to compare the two  as an objective first-time observer, rather than a biased super-fan. 

Movie adaptations of Broadway musicals are always a risky proposition. In my opinion, the best ones are those that stay as close to the source material as possible. I don’t mean with regard to cutting out material or adding new songs, but in terms of the production. A favorite of mine is the 1955 film version of Guys and Dolls. Say what you will of Brando’s Sky Masterson, that movie still gives me chills. They just don’t make them like that anymore; wooden backdrops, big dance-y production numbers, a stagier presentation overall. The 2005 adaptation of RENT comes to mind as a counterexample, and the 2012 film Les Miserables is an exception, where the story lends itself better to a realistic movie. 

The movie version of Into the Woods, unfortunately, follows the more recent trend of trying to naturalize the unnatural. It was capable of achieving some impressive feats by means of digital effects, the likes of which would be nigh impossible to reproduce on stage. But those achievements were, for the most part, unnecessary. Good for you, Movies, for being able to do what you do, but this story didn’t need them. In this case more than others, a production requiring more imagination works to the advantage of the fairy tale source material. 

In the original Broadway stage production, the effects used to capture some of the more fantastical ideas in the story were simpler and far more effective: the scrim and shadow effects at Granny’s house, Rapunzel’s tower rising from the floor, the actress playing Cinderella’s mother staged inside a tree. These effects brought the story to life much better than, for example, the CGI tunnel shown when Little Red Riding Hood sings of being swallowed down “a dark slimy path.” OK, great, you showed us the dark slimy path and, further, the inside of the Wolf’s stomach, but we didn’t need to actually SEE that. Showing it to us takes us out of the story while we observe the quality (or lack thereof) of the effect and distracts from the performance and the message of Red’s song. 

Emily Blunt played a decent Baker's Wife, but Joanna Gleason set that bar way too high.

Emily Blunt played a decent Baker's Wife, but Joanna Gleason set that bar way too high.

Then there are the performances. I must start out by saying that, for the most part I think all the people involved in both productions are extremely talented. But in almost every role, the stage actor’s performance is superior to its movie counterpart. I didn’t think I’d ever say that there was an actor in the world who could do something better than Meryl Streep, but Bernadette Peters is simply born to play the Witch. Streep does what she can with the role and she’s not bad, but it’s simply not her thing. Peters’s performance is funnier and more sincere at the same time. You believe her love for Rapunzel more than you do Streep’s and she certainly made me laugh more. It’s as if Streep chose the wrong moments to inject gravitas into the role and that made the more sincere moments less believable. 

The Baker’s Wife is another character who is portrayed much better in the stage version. Joanna Gleason is an accomplished stage actress and Emily Blunt can’t hold a candle to her. Gleason’s performances makes the Baker’s Wife’s motivations clearer; Blunt just seems whiny and dissatisfied for no reason. Stage Jack’s age makes his character a lot funnier and more believable, and his lack of accent makes him far less punchable than movie Jack. And then there’s Johnny Depp, just Johnny Depping it up. We get it. We’ve seen it. I love you Johnny, but move along, your brand of quirk is not required in this instance. The exception to this rule, I think, is Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince. His performance benefits from a levity that Robert Westenberg’s lacks. 

The music is one thing that stays pretty faithful. Like many other elements of the show, for the most part, the stage versions of the songs are superior. However, the movie has a couple of wins in this area. The oneupmanship of “Agony” comes across better in the movie. “On the Steps of the Palace” also benefits from some movie magic. But these are small moments that don’t add up to overcome the great difference between the two. 

A much less Depp-ish approach to the Wolf.

A much less Depp-ish approach to the Wolf.

And then there are the general changes to the story, the most obvious being the elimination of the narrator in the film version. This is one of those changes that is so fundamental that it becomes difficult to compare the two on this point; they’re completely different animals. I get that including an outside observer of a character is easier to do and makes more sense on stage than in a movie. And I liked that the film incorporated a narration element into the Baker’s voice over, and eventually tied in to him telling his son the story at the end. But by cutting that character, you lose the Mysterious Man and good deal of emotional depth to the Baker’s backstory. It’s an artistic choice, one that’s difficult to judge as good or bad, but it’s definitely one I didn’t like. The play is more complete and more affecting, and the movie suffers from the cuts it makes to adapt the story to this format.

Overall, in making this movie adaptation of Into the Woods, so much was lost that made the story more complete and made it make more sense. I will say that I think the inferior movie performances were thus because of the inferior material. I’d be interested in seeing a movie version that attempts to capture more of the stage magic, but as that’s a style of days gone by, I don’t see it happening. So if you’re craving some fairy tale magic and a little Sondheim, find a local live production or stick with the 1990 video of the Broadway production.