HOLLYWOOD TAKES A NEW PATH INTO THE WOODS
Long-time readers of this column will be familiar with my opinions on the movie musical – last winter, after the release of Les Miserables, I remarked that material written directly for the stage often becomes weaker when put on the silver screen. I wasn’t the only one who had mixed feelings about Les Miserables, a movie which remains controversial among cinephiles and musical nuts alike (I suspect the world is essentially divided between those who like it and those who don’t, sort of like with Cats). Yet critics aside, the movie was a financial hit which means that other movie musicals are headed our way.
This week, more news came down the pipeline concerning the movie version of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s seminal mish-mash of fairy-tales and their characters. First written in 1988, ITW won a heap of awards and has become a staple of the modern musical repertoire. According to Sondheim, in his book Look, I Made a Hat!, a movie version first began to take shape in 1995 where it would have been spearheaded by Jim Henson. Two readings were done, both of which included a cavalcade of stars including Martin Short, Robin Williams, Carrie Fisher, Steve Martin, Neil Patrick Harris and Julia-Louis-Dreyfus.
The very concept of ITW is one echoed in films like Shrek: it takes place in a storybook land and explores the darker side of the fairy-tale realm.
Now it looks like the movie is finally moving forward, this time under the guidance of Rob “I Directed Chicago and Nine” Marshall. It’s a perfect time, of course. Movie musicals and fairy tales have both become the rage and ITW’s mash-up of fairy tales echoes those from the popular TV shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time. It’s no coincidence that the fairy tales used in ITW have all become blockbusters in recent years – Rapunzel became Disney’s Tangled, Jack and the Beanstalk became Bryan Singer’s Jack, the Giant Slayer and Little Red Riding Hood became Red Riding Hood (2011) . The very concept of ITW is one echoed in films like Shrek: it takes place in a storybook land and explores the darker side of the fairy-tale realm.
So given the current market, the film makes savvy business sense, but that still didn’t leave me any more interested, especially when word came that Johnny Depp was being courted. Depp, of course, butchered the score to Sweeney Todd a few years back and it was largely assumed he was being asked to play the Baker, the lead in ITW. The move reeked of Hollywood’s producers stacking the deck in the marketer’s favor, casting an actor for their fame rather then whether they were right for the role.
Sorry if that sounds cynical, but let’s face it: authors, be they screenwriters, playwrights or composers, often take a backseat in Hollywood to the producers, directors and A-list stars.
Then the miracle happened: word has come that while Depp has been cast, the lead has gone to a relative unknown. In a move that defies conventional movie musical casting, Hollywood has cast James Corden in the lead. A stage actor, Corden is known for star turns in One Man, Two Guvnors and The History Boys. Depp, meanwhile, has been cast as the Wolf (the one who eats Little Red) and may also play Cinderella’s Prince, a doubling which echoes how casting is done in the stage version. Meryl Streep has also been cast as the Witch, which is not the worst decision, given that she can actually sing.
After years of forcing us to stomach movie musicals in which Hollywood celebrities try to sing scores that are beyond their ability (I’m looking at you Russell Crowe), it almost seems as if there’s a change in strategy. The rest of the casting (not yet announced) will prove if this is true, but if so, then it shows a respect for the artist that is often absent in the cinematic world. Sorry if that sounds cynical, but let’s face it: authors, be they screenwriters, playwrights or composers, often take a backseat in Hollywood to the producers, directors and A-list stars. My problem with both Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd was that the limited talents of the stars muted two glorious scores: as I tell people repeatedly, you have to go to a Broadway cast recording if you want to hear the way the score should sound (sidenote: for Les Miz, check out the Complete Symphonic Recording; for Sweeney, the Original Broadway Cast).
Corden’s presence isn’t the only apparent shift in strategy. Back in 1995, Sondheim wrote a new opening number for the Jim Henson film version, as well as other new material. Material written for the stage doesn’t always work on screen – much of the material in ITW is theatrical in concept and will need to be altered for the cinema – and hopefully the filmmakers will either resurrect the songs Sondheim wrote or encourage him to write new ones. In any case, I won’t exactly start lining up for tickets, but I will be tentatively optimistic that ITW will inspire a shift in Hollywood’s musical-making ideals – especially as film versions of Wicked, Jersey Boys, Book of Mormon and a new version of Annie are all in the works.
One factual detail that doesn't make sense:ReplyDelete
1995 can't be the right year for a Jim Henson led version since he died 5 years earlier in 1990. It may have been in collaboration with the Henson Workshop and their creations but Jim had nothing to do with a 1995 reading.
In fact, if I recall correctly, Rob Reiner was the director of the readings.
You may be right, Chris - but for the record, the quote from Sondheim's book reads: "In 1995, Columbia Pictures and Jim Henson approached James [Lapine] and me with a plan to make a movie of the show...." (pp 105 of "Look, I Made a Hat").ReplyDelete
Sondheim may have meant the Jim Henson Workshop or may have simply gotten the year wrong....