Into the Woods is the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s hit Broadway musical from 1987, in which the characters from some of our most beloved fairy tales all interact with each other as their stories end up going in directions quite a bit different from the usual “and they lived happily ever after” resolution. Adapting stage shows to the screen has become something approaching a lost art since the heyday of movie musicals came to an end in the late ‘60s, and while Into the Woods suffers from some of the problems inherent in that (see review here), director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has a better sense of how to get the job done than many other modern film directors for whom the genre is a distant, hazy memory.
Marshall has also been helped by a knockout and very committed cast that included Meryl Streep as the Witch, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife, James Corden as the Baker, Chris Pine as the Prince, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and more. Blunt, Kendrick and Corden, along with Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother) and Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s Stepmother), participated in a recent roundtable interview with journalists in Los Angeles just prior to the movie’s opening, where they discussed prepping for the film, keeping the musical tradition alive and more.
Blunt, whose singing and performance are two of the highlights of the movie, was modest when asked about her newly revealed vocal abilities. “I don’t think I’m the best singer in the world, for sure, but I loved doing it,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed singing. I find it joyous. This music gave you such space and allowed for you to be an actor within it. You didn’t have to hit a high-C perfectly. You didn’t have sing live perfectly, every time. It allowed for these songs to be an extension of the character. They were emotionally so challenging and complex. I think we were all encouraged to focus more on making them conversational and making the audience want to listen. I’ll always find it tough, singing in front of people.”
On the other hand, Kendrick started her career on the stage and has already proven her tremendous singing chops to moviegoers in Pitch Perfect, but says that doing a full-blown film adaptation of a Broadway musical has always been a career goal. “I can’t speak for anybody else, but certainly, it was on my bucket list,” she confirmed. “And to get to do this piece, in particular, is a trip. I wanted to be Little Red (played in the film by Lilla Crawford) from the time that I first saw it… We all just always want to do something different, whether it’s a different genre or a different kind of character. Everybody gets bored easily, so I would imagine that, for anybody who’s ever even once sung in the shower, being in a musical is probably on the list.”
“I’ve always wanted to be in musicals, not just in film, but on stage,” agreed Corden, an accomplished stage and film actor/comedian who will take over The Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson next year. “I think it’s a wonderful medium. I think it’s joyous and brilliant. Some of my greatest times, growing up, were watching Grease or Guys and Dolls. They’re fantastic. So to get to be in an adaptation of a musical that’s so beloved by musical theatergoers, at the very moment it’s committed to film with such a cast and such a director, is thrilling. When done right, I don’t know if there’s anything better.”
All the actors agreed that their preparation for the movie was extensive, with Blunt saying, “We were given five weeks of rehearsal, and even before the official rehearsal started, we had our own time. I certainly had tons of singing lessons and weeks to prepare, which was wonderful. You never normally get that on a film. When you’ve got a creative like Rob Marshall, the attention to detail is so vast. And Colleen Atwood designed the costumes, working with the D.P. on how the light was going to look and what colors were going to work. There’s so much that goes into it, before you show up on set. I think everyone felt really prepared, at the end of the five weeks, to just go in there and try to do it justice.”
“When you get this material, your first fear and your first priority is learning that music and making sure you can sing it and hit the pitches,” said Baranski about getting ready to perform the songs. “Sondheim’s music can be very staccato with tonalities that are your responsibility to master. You’re trying to bring reality to those iconic characters, to say nothing of the various props you have to use, and the high heels and costumes. There are just so many elements that you have to master, and you do it over time.”
“It felt like we were doing a theatrical show,” added Ullman. “Everyone showed up on day one and read through it, and then we sang through it. And then we had three weeks in a studio with a wooden cow that looked like a stage production cow, and we came and went. I’d go and learn how to be with a real cow. Then I’d see Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince) and Chris Pine thundering past on horses, learning how to ride. It was like summer camp. We all had something to do. It was like a theatrical company, coming together.”
Baranski, a two-time Tony Award winner with her own extensive stage background, said that the chance to sing music by the legendary Sondheim was a huge incentive to sign on for the movie: “Well, there’s nobody like him. He was a groundbreaking and one-of-a-kind talent, but he freely admits to come from the tradition of Oscar Hammerstein. That was his mentor. I think it’s great that we got this movie done when we did. Sondheim is in great shape, and he’s writing his next musical, but he’s in his 80s. When you get something on film, it will actually be there forever. People will not have seen the Bernadette Peters-Joanna Gleason Into the Woods (the original Broadway production), but our grandchildren will watch this movie. It is a tradition that has to do with a quality of songwriting and writing of lyrics. A lot of Broadway is becoming very pop.”
With regard to the movie musical genre, which has occasionally come back to life with films like Chicago, Nine (also directed by Marshall) or Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, Corden theorizes that it’s never actually gone away but has morphed into different forms. “There was a great run of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid,” he explained. “Just because they’re animated, it does not mean that they should be discredited as fantastic musicals. Frozen, also. These are really great musicals that are brilliantly constructed and brilliantly written. For some reason, because they’re animated, I don’t know if they’re classed in the same way, but I feel that they should be.”
Whether the success of Into the Woods ($46 million since opening on Christmas Day) will usher more Broadway musicals to the screen – keep in mind, the newly released update of Annie is pretty much tanking at the same time – remains to be seen, but Ullman and Baranski hope it comes to pass. “I think people will make more musicals,” Ullman said. “Some are going to be awful, and some are going to be great. People were so embarrassed by the musical genre 10 or 15 years ago…It can go wrong.” Baranski agreed, adding, “When it’s wrong, you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. I think there will be more. I think this movie is going to do fantastically well. Disney is so excited about this movie… I think it will continue and keep the tradition alive.”
Into the Woods is out now in theaters.