Monday, January 19, 2015

Out of the Woods and Onto the Silver Screen: Sondheim’s Into the Woods Hits Theaters

I'm please to introduce guest blogger, Beth Kelly, who will give her take on Into the Woods, Sondheim, and other recent movie musicals.

Theater lovers and cinephiles alike are buzzing about the movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. The play, which has been running in some form for the better part of two decades, is a darkly twisted take on some very near and dear fairy tales, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. The plot twists and turns as the audience sees the characters they thought they knew in a whole new way. The movie, produced by Disney, stars well knowns such as Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Emily Blunt.

Since "darkly twisted" and "Disney" are terms at odds with one another, some changes had to be made to the plot to make it a bit more family friendly. The original story line follows the baker and his wife, trying to break the curse of a witch so that they can have a child. The witch tells them that they have to locate four ingredients to a potion for the curse to be broken, "the cow as white as milk (from Jack), the cape as red as blood (from Little Red Riding Hood), the hair as yellow as corn (from Rapunzel), and the slipper as pure as gold (from Cinderella)."

The basic plot, while it sounds like a ready-made Disney story, also includes some details that had to be edited to make it more appropriate for family audiences. In the play, Cinderella’s prince sleeps with the Baker’s wife, Rapunzel dies, and Red Riding Hood and the wolf have a very sexually-inclined interaction, none of which are going to appear in the movie adaptation.

Into the Woods isn't the only musical play that has been adapted to the big screen in recent years. Other notable plays that have seen acclaim in the box office include:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman. Following Burton’s penchant for dark themes, the storyline follows Sweeney Todd, a barber bent on revenge as he kills the people who stand in his way. After he kills them, his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, bakes them into meat pies.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

This musical comedy drama is based on a rock musical about a band whose lead singer is a transgendered East German. Hedwig, born as Hansel, uses rock music to help her navigate through the difficulties of love, politics and a botched sex change operation.


Named for the working-class youth subculture of “greasers” in 1950’s America, on Broadway the production became infamous for its raw and raunchy depiction of high school life. The film toned down much of the vulgarity, and it became one of the most popular movies of the 1970’s - not to mention the highest-grossing movie musical to date. Starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, it received positive reviews from critics and even went on to spawn a sequel, Grease 2. Both are must-sees for anyone who hasn’t already, luckily they’re easily streamable (click here for more info) and even available on YouTube.  


This satire film focuses on the idea of the "celebrity criminal" as it explores the corruption in criminal justice. The main characters, Velma and Roxie, murderesses and vaudevillians, compete for attention and fame from both the other inmates of the women’s prison and the world at large.

As Sondheim and others like him know, converting a musical into a film can be a bit like seeing your life’s work chopped into pieces with a chainsaw. Sometimes, what works for a play doesn't translate to the big screen. Audiences also expect different things; theatergoers may be drawn to themes and storylines that are grittier than might appeal to a larger audiences. The move from play to screenplay often sees drastic changes in the dialog, and the musical numbers must be re-evaluated for the screen as well. Despite initial controversy, Sondheim eventually found himself satisfied with the work the filmmakers had done translating his work, even if there had to be some changes. No matter the little tweaks, Into the Woods is a film that will thrill the youngsters while including enough veiled innuendo to amuse the parents, all the while keeping everyone engaged in the familiar fairy-tale story line. 

Beth Kelly is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL. A lifelong musical theater fan, she holds a degree in Communications and Art History from DePaul University. In her free time she loves watching obscure Lifetime movies and trying new smoothie recipes. Follow her on Twitter @ bkelly_88

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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