Private Viewing: Is it safe to go Into The Woods when Hollywood has strayed from the musical path?

Meryl Streep as The Witch in the forthcoming film version of Into The Woods which has attracted crit

Meryl Streep as The Witch in the forthcoming film version of Into The Woods which has attracted criticism for straying too far from the path laid down by the original musical - Credit: Archant

Arts editor Andrew Clarke is a little disturbed by the news that Hollywood has tampered with one of his favourite musicals

Into The Woods (1991) with Don Gallagher and Wendi Peters, a still from the Wolsey Theatre productio

Into The Woods (1991) with Don Gallagher and Wendi Peters, a still from the Wolsey Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical which looks at the way that fairytales are a dark metaphor for real life. - Credit: Archant

It’s always dangerous to pass judgement on something before you have seen it but at the same time it’s difficult not to feel a little bit alarmed at reports about Rob Marshall’s film of the West End musical Into The Woods filtering across from preview screenings in the United States.

There is talk that tent pole songs such as Children Will Listen, Ever After, First Midnight, Second Midnight, No More, and the important reprise of Agony are either being cut from the film or being re-written to reflect a more family-friendly storyline.

Into The Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Grimmly’ dark tale about folk tale characters inhabiting the same world, is a stage musical classic. The musical is an examination about family relationships and the woods featured in the title represent the challenging world outside the home and Sondheim’s clear message is that real life events don’t always end as happily as fairytales. In many ways Into The Woods is cut from similar cloth as his tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

After Tim Burton’s successful transfer of Sweeney Todd to the big screen, Disney snapped up the rights to the equally acclaimed Into The Woods expecting an equally smooth transfer.

The acquisition of the rights raised eyebrows at the beginning because the dark subject matter doesn’t immediately cry Disney – even though the story does include fairytale characters such as Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, among others. However, initial fears about the film were calmed by the news that Disney had appointed Rob Marshall as director – the man behind the Oscar-winning big screen adaptation of Chicago.

That sense of relief was quickly overturned by the news that Disney were alarmed at the adult-nature of the storyline and were looking at making it more child-friendly. Red Riding Hood is now played by a child rather than a young woman and her encounter with the wolf no longer has sexual overtones, The Baker’s Wife’s affair with The Prince has been toned down, Rapunzel no longer dies, there is no Mysterious Man in the woods, and there is no longer a narrator. His role has been taken by James Cordon’s Baker who is, by necessity, part of the story.

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In the original stage production the role of the narrator is crucial. He exists outside the story. He provides order and when he dies at the beginning of Act Two that’s when the nice tidy world of fairytales starts to come apart. As news of these song and plot changes have spread through Broadway and musical theatre internet forums, the question has resurfaced time and again of why did Disney bid for the rights to a show that they clearly had problems with?

Into The Woods is not a kids’ show. It’s a show about life, the disappointments and setbacks that will inevitably come your way. It’s about parenthood and family relationships. It’s not about fairytale characters living in a world where everyone lives ‘happily ever after’. The fairytale setting is metaphor for our expectations of life and marriage.

Sondheim was so concerned about the growing backlash that he met with a group of drama teachers in New York to talk to them about the film and how he was pleased with the finished result. According to New York theatre magazine Playbill he was reported as saying: “...having now seen it a couple of times, I can happily report that it is not only a faithful adaptation of the show, it is a first-rate movie.”

When pressed about the film containing so many major plot changes and the loss of such significant songs as Any Moment which bookends the Baker’s Wife’s illicit liaison with The Prince, Sondheim said that modern artists had to live in the real world – just the lesson supplied by James Lapine’s book for Into The Woods. He said: “Censorship is part of our puritanical ethics. There has to be a point at which you don’t compromise any more, but that may mean that you won’t get anyone to sell your painting or perform your musical. You have to deal with reality.”

So, while I may agree with Sondheim that Into The Woods is an enjoyable film, what many theatre fans were after was a permanent record of a classic show – much in the way that My Fair Lady was, or Cabaret, or Rob Marshall’s previous adaptation of Chicago. If Disney didn’t want to do that then perhaps they should have left it for someone else.