Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why the Internet Needs to Calm Down About "Into the Woods"

Meryl Streep will play the Witch in Disney's film adaptation of Into the Woods, and regardless of how much they change the material she will still be Meryl Streep.

At a recent event for high school educators, Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim let slip some of the planned changes for the upcoming film version of his beloved musical Into the Woods.  The Powers That Be at Disney, which is financing and releasing the film, have made several changes that soften the musical's darker edges, such as desexualizing the relationship between Little Red and the Wolf, sparing Rapunzel from her death at the hands (feet) of the Giant, and removing the Baker's Wife affair with Cinderella's Prince.  (Ironically, Sondheim revealed these changes at an event about censorship of the arts, specifically in high schools, when a teacher shared that he was hesitant to produce the show at his school due to potential backlash over the same issues.)  The Internet promptly went insane, declaring their hatred of Disney and how they were boycotting the movie and how Disney has "ruined Christmas" (which is when the movie is scheduled to be released).

If you ask me - and by clicking on the link to this blog entry, you kind of did - everyone needs to calm the hell down.  The fact that anyone can legitimately be surprised and/or upset by this news is baffling, and shows they have a complete lack of understanding of how these things work.

First and foremost, theatre and film are entirely different mediums, with different strengths.  In order to take advantage of the new medium, you almost have to make changes (which also helps justify why you're changing mediums at all).  Just about every film adaptation of a stage show features alterations and cuts, some of them major departures from the original.  The Sound of Music reorders a large chunk of the musical numbers, cuts pretty much any music involving Elsa and Max, and adds new songs like "I Have Confidence."  Dreamgirls rewrites the majority of the show's second act in order to flesh out the characters, provide more closure for Jimmy (who just sort of disappears in the stage version), and give BeyoncĂ© an 11 o'clock number because she's BeyoncĂ© (and also because Deena Jones can come across as an underwritten puppet onstage).  Cabaret, often cited as one of the last great movie musicals, completely recalibrates the original stage version to focus more exclusively on Sally (Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are barely in the film at all) and adds so many new songs that when Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall revived the show for Roundabout they changed it into a hybrid between the original and the film.  Even West Side Story, one of the most lauded movie musicals of all time and generally considered a pretty faithful adaptation of the stage show, swaps the placement of "Officer Krumpke" and "Cool" in a way that totally changes the tone and meaning of both.

The common thread shared by those movies is that most theatre fans consider them to be pretty damn good.  In fact, I would argue that both The Sound of Music and Dreamgirls are substantial improvements on the originals, and if Bob Fosse had just filmed the stage version of Cabaret we wouldn't have the Kander and Ebb classics "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time."  And while both versions of West Side Story are pretty close to perfect, I personally prefer having "Cool" take place after the rumble rather than before it.  While there are plenty of examples where the changes for the movie don't work out so well (*cough*Rent*cough*), we don't really have any way of knowing where Into the Woods will fall until the finished film is released.  If someone just listed the changes for the movies I mentioned without anyone having seen the finished films, people would be just as upset as they are about Sondheim's fairy tale.

Also, the fact that Disney is releasing Into the Woods should have been a major tipoff that the darker edges would be softened.  Disney is one of the most image conscious, carefully designed and maintained brands on the planet; it is a major part of their enduring, basically unprecedented success.  They care very much about their reputation as a family friendly company, so there was no way they would put out a fairy tale film (fairy tales being closely tied with their brand and image) as dark as the stage Into the Woods.  Sondheim is certainly aware of this, and is quoted as saying, "If I were a Disney executive I probably would say the same thing." As soon as we heard that this would have the Disney name on it, rather than one of their subsidiaries, we all should have been prepared for the inevitable changes.

And if that hadn't clued people in, casting sure as hell should have.  Little Red was originally cast as an 8-year-old girl (although later replaced by the slightly older but still prepubescent 12-year-old).  Did people honestly think they were going to keep the sexual undertones of "Hello, Little Girl" and "I Know Things Now" with an actual child playing the part?  If they did, they are frankly stupid and/or twisted.  It is one thing to see that subtext played out using an adult playing a child; it is another when Little Red is actually a kid acting opposite a Wolf who is in his 40s.  That is gross.  I argue that even purists wouldn't really want to see the story played as written with that particular age dynamic, and even if you think how uncomfortable that would be is the point you can't have really thought Disney of all companies would go there.

At the end of the day, besides the fact that everyone should have seen this coming, my real point here is that it doesn't matter because we haven't even seen the finished product yet.  The changes could be brilliant, or at the very least bring out a different take on the story than the stage version.  The fact that Sondheim and James Lapine are involved with the film and have helped with the rewrites means we have a better chance of preserving some artistic integrity than if an outside screenwriter had made the changes (it also means we get new Sondheim songs).  And if the changes end up being bad, and "destroy the show" as some people are already claiming, we always have the stage version.  Not only is it one of Sondheim's most performed works, but we also have the video of the original stage production, with the incomparable original cast reprising their roles, readily available on Netflix for you to watch whenever you want.

Personally, I'm expecting the film to be a mixed bag.  I think Meryl Streep will be a fascinating Witch, and Anna Kendrick is pitch perfect casting as Cinderella (see what I did there?).  But the changes will definitely affect the overall meaning of the story, and I've never been convinced that the sharp delineation between Act I and Act II will work in a medium without an intermission.  The commonly accepted reading of the show is that it is a deconstruction/dismissal of the idea of "happily ever after," but if that was all there was to Into the Woods it wouldn't be so enduringly popular and meaningful to so many different people.  And no one is forcing me or you or anyone else to watch the movie, and it's existence does nothing to negate or change everything you love about the stage version.

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