Shortly after his film version of Chicago came out in 2002 to rave reviews, big box office numbers and, eventually, six Oscars (including Best Picture), director Rob Marshall visited Stephen Sondheim at the composer's townhouse in the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan.
They knew one another from having worked on Broadway revivals of Company and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and they chatted about what Marshall's next movie project might be. Marshall said he'd like to do one of Sondheim's shows, and as he recalls, Sondheim said, "I think you should do Into the Woods."
Now, over a decade later, Into the Woods, the sly, and yet touching, story of what happens to fairy tale characters after their wishes come true, will debut in movie theatres on Christmas Day with a star-studded cast that includes Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp as Little Red Riding Hood's Big Bad Wolf and Meryl Streep as the Witch whose curses drive the plot.
Read Playbill.com's interview Anna Kendrick, where she discusses playing Cinderella and singing brand-new lyrics by Sondheim, here. The journey between Sondheim's townhouse and neighborhood Cineplexes across the country has been long, twisted and filled with rumors and concerns that the $50 million film will downplay the darker aspects of the characters' fates that made the show so original when it opened in 1987 and so beloved by fans ever since.
But the movie's makers say nothing could be further from the truth. "Those are my favorite parts, too," says Marshall, who recalls seeing Into the Woods three times during its original run.
Marshall also loved Sondheim's suggestion of bringing the show to the screen. But he knew that earlier attempts to turn the musical into a movie — Robin Williams and Cher were rumored to star in one version, the Muppets in another — had stalled. So he tucked the idea away until three years ago, when he was watching TV and heard President Obama consoling families of the 9/11 victims with the words, "You are not alone. No one is alone."
The phrase echoed the lyrics and title from one of the best-known songs in Into the Woods, and Marshall felt that might be a sign. "Knowing the song so well and knowing the message of that song, I thought maybe it's time to do the show," he says.
Sondheim and James Lapine, who had written the original book, embraced the idea. "He's from our world," says Lapine. "So it was sort of more a theatre-centric kind of attempt to do the film, which was kind of great. "
One of the first decisions made was to have Lapine write the screenplay instead of getting a film person to do it. "I really wanted to make sure that we honored the original piece," says Marshall. "Musicals are so specific, and it's very difficult to bring someone into the world of musicals that doesn't understand the language." But that didn't mean that he, Lapine or Sondheim wanted to do Into the Woods exactly as it had been done onstage.
"The reason to do it as a movie is to be able to open it up visually," says Lapine, who happily made changes during the nine months they worked on the script. "I was kind of all gung-ho about throwing the whole thing in the air and starting over again. Rob was the one who was the purist and wanted to keep bringing things back." Marshall admits that he was "trying to hold on to those things that I love and that I know people love," but he says he was also inspired by how audacious Bob Fosse been — changing storylines, dropping half the musical numbers from the stage production — when he transferred Cabaret to the screen. "He was very bold."
Many of the changes in the movie version of Into the Woods are equally bold. The Narrator who opens the show, introduces the characters and comments on the action in the stage version is gone, as is his alter ego, the Mysterious Man. Marshall says there is voice-over narration in the film but it's been given to the character of the Baker, who is played by Corden. The film now opens with the story of how the Witch became wicked.
The character of Little Red Riding Hood has also been given a slight makeover and is now younger than she has traditionally been played. Marshall said he intentionally cast younger actors to play Little Red and Jack, of the Beanstalk story, because "I really feel this is a piece about parents and children. And I felt it would be odd not to have children in the piece."
"You never know these things, and then they present themselves," Marshall says of the casting change. "She was incredibly talented, and we realized that doesn’t work. It needs to be someone who’s knowing and smart and quick and funny, which is what Lilla is. She’s a perfect age for us."
"I think probably once you realize that there's this seduction going on with the wolf, you realize the story is really about a girl in puberty, and becoming a woman and becoming more of an adult and responsible," adds Lapine, who was not in rehearsals when the casting change took place. "Someone that young might not have been telling the story the way it should be told. Also, you don't want to see Johnny Depp having that relationship with somebody maybe that young."
Meanwhile, at least three songs have been reconceived. Jack no longer simply sings about his adventures with the giant he finds at the top of the beanstalk; the number "Giants in the Sky" will be accompanied by a flashback that shows what happened. Similarly, Cinderella's song "On the Steps of the Palace" becomes a fantasy sequence that Cinderella imagines as she flees the ball. Marshall says Sondheim willingly wrote new lyrics to make the song work better in the present tense. But the lyrics to the song "Ever After," which usually ends the first act, have been dropped completely, although the tune remains as instrumental music.
A new number called "She'll Be Back" that Sondheim wrote for Streep's Witch was taken out — along with Sondheim's chances for a Best Original Song Oscar — after a rough cut was shown to a preview audience. "Meryl does the song so brilliantly and it's a beautiful song," says Marshall. "But it was very clear to all of us, including Steve and James, that it stopped the action."
As rumors of these changes and others began to circulate on the Internet and even in a New Yorker magazine article in August, fans began to worry openly.
One of the things that most distressed them was the news — spoiler alert — that the film's Rapunzel isn't killed, as she is onstage. Lapine and Marshall confirm that but they insist that her fate remains a dark, if more ambiguous, one.
"I always got a little nervous that her death" (she is trampled by Jack's Giant) "was treated in some ways as a joke," says Marshall. "Our film does not have a cartoon sensibility. I really wanted to make sure that the relationship with Rapunzel was real and you felt the loss, and there is a loss."
Lapine's reassurance is simpler. The fans should "chill out," he says. "I think people who love the show are going to be very, very happy with the film."