I was going around the circle at Curves the other day, and the attendant was complaining about the new movie Into the Woods. For her it had two endings: the expected fairytale ending and the second dark one. She also was surprised that there were musical numbers. I tried to explain that this was a film adaptation of a classic musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim. Who?
There has been a wide range of reactions to this film. I imagine the range would depend on whether you had ever seen it as a musical. It was done live here in Sacramento a couple of years ago, so nothing really surprised me when I saw it today. I thought as film adaptations go, this one was excellent.
How could you want a better witch than Meryl Streep? Or a better wolf than Johnny Depp? I was especially impressed with the diction. Every one of Sondheim's words could be clearly understood. I think the movie's flaws are the musical's flaws. I think Sondheim couldn't bear to write a fairytale ending.
Anything can happen in the woods.
P.S. I've never really been a fan of Sondheim, except as a lyricist. His first big project was writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), possibly the best of all American musicals. These are truly great songs. Sondheim, it seems, thinks they're too poetic.
He's been very busy since then. He's done a lot of shows that I've never seen, and people seem to like to sing his songs. But a string of songs by Sondheim generally makes me cringe. I can only tolerate Judi Dench singing "Bring in the Clowns," for instance.
Early in the blog I wrote: "While I was in London, I tried to see Sunday in the Park with George, mainly because I've never seen a Stephen Sondheim musical. Unless Sweeney Todd is Sondheim." I went on to say, "Sondheim is short choppy phrases of three to six syllables with tunes
played on the black keys. All the tunes sound exactly the same. How
does he do that? Perhaps it's a minimalist musical."
But then I kind of liked Sunday in the Park with George when I saw it on Broadway. Still no hit tunes, but I kind of liked the content. With Sondheim it's more words over music. Ideas over execution.
And then this year came the marvelous Sweeney Todd at Lincoln Center with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, a truly great event. Their gigantic personalities raised it above itself.
I can only shrug. He's too significant to simply ignore, but musically he never grabs me. I'm now going to retire Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. Enough.