‘Into the Woods’ Turns the Spotlight on Recent Musical Adaptations

The highly anticipated film adaptation of Into the Woods begins exactly as anyone familiar with the stage musical would expect: with the simple narrated words, “Once upon a time.”

click to enlarge Into the Woods
Into the Woods

The highly anticipated film adaptation of Into the Woods begins exactly as anyone familiar with the stage musical would expect: with the simple narrated words, “Once upon a time.” Musical theater geeks — purists, we’ll call them lovingly, seeing as this author is one of them — expected composer Stephen Sondheim’s signature orchestra stinger to follow that line, to jolt the audience into attention as it does in his Broadway musical.

That doesn’t happen.

And in that moment, the filmmakers subtly declare that their movie will not strictly be the stage version on film. Rather, it will be a new work inspired by its theatrical source material. The vast majority of audience members won’t notice that moment and other changes that follow — some equally subtle, others as large as a giant climbing down a beanstalk. But the purists will surely notice. In advance of Into the Woods’ opening next week, it’s a fine time to glance back at the faithfulness of some notable 21st century movie musicals.

Rent

(2005): This film version remained so true to its roots that it kept (mostly) the original Broadway cast, despite each of them being noticeably 10 years too old for their roles. Why, then, turn around and needlessly change several songs into spoken dialogue?

The Producers

(2005): This movie-turned-musical-turned-movie gets all around good grades for authenticity. Mostly because even the stage version — with its gonzo budget and Hollywood leads — felt like a dress rehearsal for the film version.

Dreamgirls

(2006): Not sure if director Bill Condon deserves the credit or the serendipitous timing of this adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit. Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson were born to play their roles. Condon got them both and then got out of the way as they ripped through the original material. And we, and we, and we were gonna love them.

Hairspray

(2007): Arguably the most underrated movie musical on this list. It nailed the original’s delightful tone with great production numbers and all-around good casting. This includes John Travolta and Amanda Bynes before they went looney, and Christopher Walken before he slept-walked through NBC’s live Peter Pan earlier this month.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

(2007): For the aforementioned musical theater geeks, this is a film they love to hate. On the surface, the master of macabre Tim Burton was the right man to bring Sondheim’s bloody musical to the screen. But in doing so, he might have overshadowed the brilliance of the original with his signature flourishes. Casting Johnny Depp, chief among them.

Mamma Mia!

(2008): A musical based on the ABBA songbook doesn’t require too much gravitas. Any, actually. Why, then, throw serious actors at it and expect it to work? Especially when they don’t have much vocal talent. Any, actually. Still, it was probably true to its source material. There just wasn’t anyone awake in the theater at the end to find out.

Nine

(2009): With his Midas touch on Chicago, Marshall got the green light to adapt this newer Broadway hit. To call the film a box office failure might be putting it mildly, especially given its exorbitant budget. But was it true? Yes and no. In fact, one of the criticisms is its theatricality — staging several of the big numbers in a theater and presenting them as if it were the live show. But it also cut several big showstoppers from the original score. Something the purists noticed.

Rock of Ages

(2012): If Mamma Mia! is light on content, Rock of Ages is helium. But this crazy jukebox musical that presents ’80s power-ballads as works of art at least knows it’s ridiculous. As do the A-list stars who show up to belt out and whip their hair around. In that sense, it’s faithful to the stage version. It just feels completely different seeing unknowns rock out to bad Metal.

Les Misérables

(2012): Any liberties, even subtle ones, weren’t going to fly under the radar in this awaited film adaptation. To his credit, director Tom Hooper didn’t much veer from the tried and true. He added only the now-obligatory original song in order to qualify for an Oscar nomination, but otherwise he presented the source material honestly. One wishes his framing wasn’t so boring — and that Russell Crowe missed his audition time.

Jersey Boys

(2014): Director Clint Eastwood was clearly a fan of the Tony-awarded stage show. To show his faithfulness to the musical, he even had the actors break the proverbial fourth wall, directly addressing the audience. It’s an interesting device, and one that surprisingly isn’t used by musical adaptations more often.

Into the Woods, of course, isn’t the only movie musical on the “coming soon” list.

A new version of Annie with Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis hits theaters this week. Clearly, faithfulness won’t be one of its signature qualities. In fact, how they reboot this time-honored classic will be one of the reasons to check it out.

The Last Five Years, starring the ubiquitous Anna Kendrick, is due out in February. Knowing those musical theater geeks and their deep affinity for that show, it had better be true. Given its lack of name recognition in the general public, musical theater geeks might be the only ones there on opening weekend.

If there’s a single word changed, they’ll know.


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