I’m not the biggest fan of musicals (blame it on a couple of extra enthusiastic exes of mine), so I was procrastinating seeing Into the Woods (2014). I had heard that, to make it a family-friendly film, much of the second act had been removed, which irked me. All of these preconceived notions kept me from actually seeing the film, and now that I’ve seen it, I must confess: it was much better than I expected.
That being said, let’s talk about musical movies. The way I see it, musicals should be made into movies as a way to bring musical productions to a wider audience. Not everyone can catch Broadway shows in NYC or on tour, especially those in smaller towns. But when musicals are made into films, Hollywood rejects the star power that makes musicals special and vibrant; they value name recognition over vocal talent, and that makes me irate. Throw in a big name if you must, but these productions should do well if the musically-experienced actors are cast. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at Les Misérables (2012). Yes, Anne Hathaway won an Oscar, and she and Eddie Redmayne gave very powerful performances — but overall the film was mediocre at best. The production was extensive and the live-singing idea certainly was interesting, but Les Mis is a tough musical, even for Broadway singers. When you cast some of the bigger/tougher parts with inexperienced singers, it just becomes a mess. We can all agree that Russell Crowe was a disaster. And Amanda Seyfried’s hummingbird vibrato was distracting. Yes, they have star power, but their inexperience detracts from the artistic package. It could have been absolutely magnificent if they had cast appropriately, like Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, a musical theatre veteran. Ok, I’m stepping off the soapbox.
With that out of the way, I’ll say that I enjoyed Into the Woods much more than I did Les Mis, even though it didn’t have as impactful individual performances. As soon as you drop the live-singing idea, things already get much better. Anna Kendrick, having plenty of musical chops, is a strong Cinderella; Lilla Crawford, also a Broadway veteran, shines as the ever-hungry Little Red Riding Hood; Daniel Huttlestone, perhaps the greatest part of Les Misérables, excels as the lonely Jack; using experienced actors for musical roles is invaluable. Emily Blunt, the baker’s wife, has a gorgeous voice and she performed beautifully both in and out of song. Chris Pine, a charming Prince Charming, apprehensive about his musical abilities, performed a pleasant and entertaining “Agony”. Not surprisingly, even with all that talent, Meryl Streep, who plays the witch, steals the show.
I must confess that, when she received her 19th Academy Award nomination, I was a little skeptical. I thought she was just nominated because she’s Meryl, but her performance was impressive. She’s had experience in musicals before, perhaps most notably in Mamma Mia, but she really nails it out of the park in “Stay With Me”. In the span of that one song, she explores many different emotions and moods and convincingly conveys them all. She starts the song furiously reprimanding her daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), then retracts into a mousy version of the witch that we haven’t seen yet. She’s vulnerable and attempts to explain her intentions for protecting her daughter so extensively. She sings beautifully but meekly, showing us a side to the witch that you maybe didn’t think existed. She then adds the power as she tries to convey just how much she loves her daughter, even though her actions don’t necessarily show that. She withdraws again, finishing her song quietly. Streep explores many different emotions in three minutes: frustration, shame, love, confusion, hope. And what makes it even better is that her performance is daring. She makes the song her own. She doesn’t just perform a nicely-tied-bow of a song, she roughs up some edges and doesn’t shy away from exploring her vocal abilities. She gave me chills with performance, because it moved me and I saw the many dimensions of The Witch.
What made an impression on me when I first saw the show live was the second act and how it tears down the idea of “happily ever after”. In some ways, the film succeeded in it, but in other ways, it did not. Disney produced a very enjoyable film, but taking a dark musical and producing a family-friendly Christmas-time film doesn’t completely work. What moved me most in the musical were those dark, bleak moments that forced me to reflect on the often problematic and dogmatic lessons that fairy tales teach children, and how a myriad of our modern stories have those same problems engrained in them. Into the Woods did not risk fully exploring what could have been a real experience, and that’s a shame. For that, you’ll have to go see a live production of the musical.