Once Upon A Time…. Out of Into the Woods

Once upon a time … there was a Musical. Not just any old Musical but a Stephen Sondheim Musical….

For me there is so much to discover and enjoy in Sondheim’s work. You know you’re going to have to pay attention, think – and really listen. Will children really listen? He’s a clever guy that Stephen Sondheim. He’s one of the greatest wordsmiths ( what a horrible word for something so remarkable – maybe lyricist or poet is better but he’s more than that. ) of musical theatre of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Let’s not forget West-side Story appeared on Broadway in 1957! So here we are in 2015. He is so good at what he does and I think that’s at the heart of the problem with the film. I enjoyed it, there’s lots to enjoy but it’s not the theatre piece ‘Into the Woods’. This is very much Disney’s Into the Woods.

The night I went to Shrewsbury Cineworld to see it with my friend Ali, there was a fairly good audience of mostly middle aged women, some kids and a few young couples. The movie started and we got all the dazzling CGIs one expects from a Disney film – fantastic sets – I thought ‘Agony’ in the water was inspired, the witch’s magic and a brilliant beanstalk, but we also got a highly crafted classically structured ‘fugue-like’, through-composed musical. The young couple in-front gave up half way through the woods – too much singing? I have heard this complaint. The ladies behind started chatting and giggling. I sound like a musical theatre snob but what were they expecting – Mama Mia?

I love the original show – even Act Two, how I wish Disney hadn’t got their sanitizing hands on this work. Gone is the dark and disturbing sexual relationship between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, the death of Rapunzel and the Prince sleeping with the Baker’s Wife ( they did kiss a lot!). No, it’s great to look at but much of the real Sondheim magic is lost.

The casting is interesting. James Corden continues to be James Corden the happy nice chappie he always is – no great voice but his usual comic shtick (see One Man,Two Guvnors).

Johnny Depp – when will he become John Depp – here he is again in a Sondheim. I still haven’t forgiven his Sweeney! Well, thanks to Disney it’s a castrated Wolf – no balls!, no evil or danger, no hint of pedophilia. Way too safe. Thank God for Meryl Streep – she can do no wrong. Both she and Emily Blunt know how to act through song. I know lots enjoyed Anna Kendrick, I thought she was great in Camp and I’m looking forward to The Last Five Years but I didn’t care a jot about her plight.On the Steps of the Palace – is all about voice – boring. The Princes – Agony was terrific. Daniel Huttlestone’s Jack was excellent and Giants in the Sky was wonderful. But Meryl stole it for me with Stay with Me – classy stuff. We lost the narrator and gained Simon Russell-Beale – weird!.

Oh well, like Malificent or How to Train Your Dragon it was all lovely to look at! Maybe we’ll get the perfect Sondheim Film Musical one day….. I wish….