A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 413 – Into the Woods

Into the Woods – April 17th, 2011

We’ve got the day off today and so in the wake of yesterday’s fairytale musical I suggested this, which is one of the longer movies remaining on our unwatched list. I’ve seen it a billion times and it’s one of the few Broadway musicals I can genuinely say I love. There was a time when I had the entire thing memorized and I mean entire, not just the songs. I knew it all, from dialogue to stage directions to what supposedly happens off stage. And to this day I have a thing for what are normally called fractured fairytales. I’m sure I was introduced to the concept earlier than my exposure to this, but this is such a fantastic example of the genre.

When I was a kid the school I went to had a thing about school plays and doing musicals. Now, on one hand this was a little frustrating. I was in the orchestra and had to get special permission to spend the music period time, when the rest of the kids took chorus, at orchestra rehearsals. The chorus teacher really seemed to hate that some of us preferred instruments over singing and went out of her way to make it difficult for us. And she advised the casting for the school plays. If you weren’t in chorus? You got a shit part. And thinking back on it, maybe this is the basis for some of my antipathy towards musicals. Except when I was in fifth grade someone convinced the principal and chorus teacher and everyone else that the fifth graders should do Into the Woods. Now, you might think that was an odd choice and you’d be right. I mean, looking at it now? What were they thinking!?

As a concept, it works fine for kids. It’s a number of classic fairytales (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.) combined together into a single story for the first act. Then the second act takes them and goes past the happily ever after endings. I do like that idea. I always have. And as kids who knew the stories and got the humor and drama of going beyond the endings that was great for us, but they definitely had to do some severe editing to make this musical family friendly. The Broadway version, which is what we’re watching? Not so much. For years I was bitter that my song had been cut out. I was the Baker’s Wife in act two and she’s got a song! And I didn’t get to sing it! You know why? Not because I can’t sing, but because it’s about having a one night affair. Yep. Right over my head for years.

These are definitely meant to be fairytales for adults. Not that the original stories most of our well known fairytales are based on are all that soft, but they’re not as overtly sexualized as this musical makes them. Or as cynical or sarcastic. Because right from the outset this show is full of double entendres and not-so-hidden meanings. Most of them having to do with sex. I mean, the Big Bad Wolf? His costume here is complete with exposed genitals. It vastly changes the tone of his song from hungry in an “I want lunch” way to an “I want sex” way, which I assume was the point. Likewise a whole slew of other comments, lines and verses in songs, not to mention where the witch points her staff when she’s feeling particularly mean (that would be the crotch, folks). Really, while it wouldn’t be difficult to adapt this show for younger viewers, and indeed I remember it being fun and coherent even missing the sexual content, it’s really intended to speak to adults. People who’ve grown up and found that getting married isn’t the end of the story, no matter how pretty the wedding might have been.

What I like here is not just the second act, though, but the first one as well. Because it’s not just retelling the basic stories. It’s incorporating them all into each other in a way that makes them feel like they truly did take place all in the same forest. Cinderella wishes to go to the king’s festival. Jack’s mother sends him off to sell their cow. The baker and his wife want a baby but have been cursed by the witch next door. Little Red Riding Hood is off to her Granny’s and destined to meet a wolf on the way. Rapunzel is trapped in a tower by the witch and two princes end up in search of the fair maidens who elude them. These are simple stories. Except to reverse the curse the baker and his wife need a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. Really, it’s that story that ties everything together because as they go venturing out to encounter the rest of the characters (I think you can make those matches yourself) and obtain the things they need they end up tangling everything together. So by the end of the first act you can see these characters not as parts of disparate stories but as a whole cast. The only one I really feel doesn’t quite make it is Cinderella. Sure, she meets up with the baker’s wife a few times, but her story isn’t as intricately woven into theirs until later on.

Now, in the second act? Things get dirty. And I don’t just mean with more sex, though there is the very clear implication of that too (which would be why the baker’s wife’s song got cut in my fifth grade version). All the consequences of the first act come crashing down, literally, when the giant’s wife descends to avenge his death. A lot of characters die. A lot. Major ones too. And it’s not just that. Wedded bliss isn’t everything Cinderella expected, the baker and his wife have realized they have no space for a family and Rapunzel is suffering from some major PTSD thanks to her incredibly messed up youth. Every single character in the show has some harsh realizations and they also all witness some horrible events. And it’s all done through a lot of music and song.

This is the musical that was the first exception to my musicals issue. I still know every song by heart, as evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t help but lip sync many of the songs tonight while we watched it. A few of them are a little overwrought for me, but I love how the majority of them are either at least a little tongue-in-cheek or are addressing the issues the play deals with, like consequences and growing up and taking responsibility. Of course, it’s the funny ones I really love, and it helps that in this production they are performed so wonderfully. The princes, singing about their “agony, misery, woe!” are definitely among my favorites, but the wolf and the witch have stand out moments as well. The whole cast is fantastic here, which is to be expected, given that two of them were nominated for Tonys and one (Joanna Gleeson as the baker’s wife) won. And things that I know I loved when I first saw them but have since glossed over, like the step-sisters tittering at pretty much everything they see and Rapunzel’s sudden silence as she notices the audience and the old man’s repeated “When first I appear…” lines and the group breaking the fourth wall and turning on the narrator? Those are fantastic moments that might not be as memorable as Bernadette Peters stealing the stage whenever she shows up, or the fantastic performances of Joanna Gleeson and Chip Zein as the baker’s wife and the baker, but they should be. Because they make the show. They make the attitude and tone and that’s what sells the whole entire concept. Sure, when edited down and performed by fifth graders it loses its edge (not to mention its tone, in more ways than one), but that’s because it ceased to be the same show there. Still, if I hadn’t performed it then I might not have fallen in love with the idea in the first place and taped this version of it and fallen for the real thing. And that would be a shame, because it really is a truly fantastic musical performed by a truly amazing cast and I would happily watch it again and again and again.

April 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Into the Woods

April 17, 2011

Into the Woods

More Sondheim tonight. Also more fairy tales. Amanda is exceptionally familiar with this production, but although I’ve heard some of the songs here I’ve never seen this musical. I really should have, because this is just the kind of strangeness that I tend to enjoy. It’s a riff on familiar fairy tales that blends them all together, allows them to share the same space and highlights the common tropes that they share. Then it takes them beyond the happily ever after and tries to say something about the uncaring brutality of real life and the hope we can find in that life.

What appeals to me most about this musical is that it’s so very self aware. We know all these stories, and Sondheim assumes just that. He introduces the characters and their stories and then lets them all run into each other. There’s Cinderella wishing that she could go to the ball. There’s Jack (a somewhat simple minded fellow who loves his cow) and his mother living in poverty. There’s the baker and his wife who desire only to have a child, but who are under a curse by their neighbour – the witch who as punishment for the theft of vegetables from her garden has taken the baker’s sister, Rapunzel, and is raising her alone in a tower deep in the woods. There’s Little Red Riding Hood on her way to see her grandmother.

It’s the witch that really draws them all together. She tells the baker and his wife that she will remove the curse which prevents them from ever having any children if they collect the components of a spell she wants to cast. She needs a cow as white as snow, a cloak as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and some hair as yellow as corn. So the baker and his wife set out to blunder their way through all these familiar fairy tales stealing elements from each. Then things get really interesting because once they gather all the elements and everybody gets what they wished for at the start of the show we’ve only reached the halfway point. Sondheim’s deconstruction moves beyond the happy ending to see what happily ever after really looks like, and what it looks like is life going on for these characters after the end of their stories. The two handsome princes, having achieved their unattainable brides, find that they’d rather seek new ones than live with the ones they already have. The baker and his wife find that being parents can be somewhat of a chore. Cinderella is vaguely uneasy as a princess after years of doing honest work. Rapunzel is just plain crazy, her story having involved being exiled to the desert by the witch for having been with a man, bearing twins in that exile, and coming upon her prince (blinded by brambles) wandering the wilderness. Sure things turned out okay for her at the end of the first act, but she’s pretty much come completely unhinged because these kinds of traumatic events might be fine for fairy tale folks, but they inflict lasting harm on people who live them apparently.

Then the giant shows up. Well giantess, really. She’s out for revenge on Jack, who stole all kinds of things from her home in the sky then killed her husband when he tried to climb down the beanstalk after him. She’s an unseen, unstoppable, powerful force of nature, and as she tromps through the fairy tale kingdom just offstage she destroys everything in her path. The play takes a very dark turn here. Not everybody survives. (You know things are getting particularly bleak when the fairy tale folk turn on the narrator, accusing him of telling a bad story and not being one of them, and give him to the giantess in an attempt to appease her.) There’s infidelity, murder, madness and despair. Not typical subject material for a happily ever after tale. Well, to be fair, it’s pretty consistent with most Brothers Grimm tales, but it’s an unfamiliar tale and it’s unnerving not knowing what’s going to happen to all these familiar characters.

I’ll admit that the second act felt a little drawn out and unfocused at points. I could feel my attention wandering. But there’s so much about this musical that’s great and worth watching that I don’t particularly mind. Bernadette Peters as the witch is clearly the star. She just commands the stage whenever she’s on, and when the witch gets her potion and her happy ending she is perhaps the first to realize that getting what you thought you wished for is not necessarily all that it is cracked up to be. The two vain princes are spectacular as well. Their friendly one-upmanship is hilarious to watch, as is their complete narcissism. I’m also quite taken with the evolution of the character of Little Red Riding Hood, who starts out fairly innocent, but transforms into a fearless action heroine, which is unexpected and fantastic. (Part of the thing that I tuned out for in the second act was a lengthy scene where Red is devastated by the loss of her mother and grandmother… I didn’t buy it in light of her character arc and felt thrown out of the action until she regained her moxie and started saving the day again.)

The DVD we were watching tonight is pretty much just the stage play captured on film. You can hear the audience reacting (and even see them in a couple shots.) There are an awful lot of cameras filming the action, which allows for close ups on certain characters most of the time, but there are no effects or fancy camera moves. It must have been a massive challenge to edit this together. Sondheim likes to pass a melody around the stage from character to character quite rapidly and the director of this film has chosen to try an pick out whatever character (or duet) is singing at any one time, which means a lot of quick cuts between the four or five cameras being used. There were times when I found this method particularly distracting – especially for some of the scenes that used the deceptively intricate set the actors work on. There’s a moving floor, interleaved backdrops, Rapunzel’s tower and the tree that marks the grave of Cinderella’s mother, and a great huge sloping setpiece that represents any number of hills and dales. Not to mention the moving walkway. I wanted to be able to see the magic of the stagecraft and set design, but the rapid camerawork made this difficult at times.

I did have a lot of fun tonight, and I can see why Amanda insisted that we watch this after watching Tangled last night. The two fit well together. I love a fractured or twisted fairy tale. Now I want to find our Juniper Tree books and read some of the gruesome tales that my parents read to me as a child. I also want to watch Pan’s Labyrinth again. Maybe we’ll do that tomorrow.

April 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment