This year, Disney’s big holiday release and bid for awards season is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. While Broadway nerds are pouring over song lists and anxiously studying Sondheim’s interviews for signs of trouble, some audiences will be experiencing this musical for the first time on the big screen. Here is everything you need to know about Into the Woods before you see it in theaters.
What is the story?
Into the Woods is actually several fairy tale stories woven together into one bigger story, and all the characters are connected because they are wishing for something. Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Little Red Riding Hood wants to visit Grandma. The Baker and his wife want a child. Rapunzel wants to see the world. Jack wants to find instant wealth and riches so he won’t have to sell his pet cow. The Witch wants to be beautiful so her daughter will never want to grow up and leave.
The first half of the musical follows the traditional fairy tales, and nearly everyone finds their happy ending. After the happy ending, however, is where things get really interesting. Everyone starts to reap what they sowed, including the so-called heroes, and there are consequences that they never could have imagined.
What is the history?
The show premiered on Broadway back in 1987 with notable cast members including Bernadette Peters as the Witch, Chip Zien as the Baker, and Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife. Most of the original Broadway cast can be seen in PBS’s filmed performance of the stage show, which is available on DVD.
At the 1988 Tony Awards, Into the Woods was nominated in 10 categories. The show won three awards, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Joanna Gleason. It lost out Best Musical to Phantom of the Opera.
Even though she is technically one of the villains, the Witch is usually considered one of the leading female roles. Since the original production, the Witch has been played by a wide range of great actresses including Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show), Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty), and Donna Murphy (Tangled).
Why are the songs so wordy?
Stephen Sondheim is the musical’s composer and lyricist, and he is a man with a lot to say. His first Broadway musical credit was lyricist for West Side Story in 1957, and even then, the songs were packed with words. “We’re gonna rock it tonight/We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball/They’re gonna get it tonight/The more they turn it on the harder they fall.”
This trend continued with 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle, especially with “Everybody Says Don’t.” “Everybody says don’t/Everybody says don’t/Everybody says don’t walk on the grass/Don’t disturb the peace/Don’t skate on the ice.”
Even the lyrics for his ballads are mouthfuls, like “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George. “Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water/On the green purple yellow red grass/Let us pass through our perfect park/Pausing on a Sunday.”
Sondheim’s writing style is unique, and for some people, it takes some getting used to. His work is well-worth delving into, though. Sondheim’s songs are dense both musically and lyrically with really brilliant wordplay and double-meanings, and his songs reward audiences on repeat listens.
So, is this just Once Upon A Time: The Musical?
Absolutely not. Disney might have brought Cinderella, Rapunzel, and some of these other fairy tale characters to life on the big screen before, but despite earlier rumors, Rapunzel will not end up with Flynn Rider. Other rumors of Disney toning down the plot, including removing a major death and axing an infidelity subplot, have also turned out to be false. If the film is true to the spirit of the original musical, this will be far from a traditional Disney fairy tale.
What is up with Johnny Depp’s Wolf costume?
The Wolf character is a take on sleazy, zoot suit-wearing lounge lizards. Since the original production, he has been tacky and over-the-top. He is supposed to be greasy, gross, and an obvious predator to anyone over the age of 5.
Little Red Riding Hood is young and very naive, but she isn’t that naive. She has a vague idea that he wants to devour her in more ways than one, and she might want to let him. If that sounds disturbing, that’s because it is. This aspect is sometimes played down depending on the production, but everything is right there in the lyrics.
Again, this is not a typical Disney fairy tale.
Fairy tales are for kids. Plus, Disney movies aren’t really my thing, and neither are musicals. Why should I see it?
Disney is pushing this movie for awards season, so anyone watching the Oscars race will want to see Meryl Streep’s performance as the Witch. As far as fairy tales being for kids, I recommend digging up some of these original fairy tales, before Disney and children’s book publishers started spinning them as bedtime stories. Some of them are very dark and gruesome, and by today’s standards, they are meant more for adults than for kids.
If musicals are absolutely a no-go, there isn’t much that can be said to sway that opinion. People like what they like. All I can say is that Stephen Sondheim is perhaps the greatest living Broadway composer and has been writing great Broadway musicals for over 50 years. If there was a time to make an exception to a self-imposed rule about musicals, it would be for Sondheim.