A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , , ,

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