Thursday, December 25, 2014


For many years now, I've been spending Christmas Eve with my college friends. We're a merry gang: David and Christopher, identical twins who are both opera directors; Peter, Christopher's husband, also an opera director; Matthew, an opera impresario; and your reporter. It's dinner and a show; this year it was Shun Lee West, a very classy Chinese restaurant, and Into the Woods.

The movie is wonderful, but I can't assess it in detail because it's so faithful to the original work. Unlike the film of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, it retains most of the score. Unlike Sweeney Todd, it fields a cast that can sing. Meryl Streep, as the Witch, doesn't simply act her way through her numbers, and she throws out a tremendous reading of "The Last Midnight," so balefully glorious that I finally believe that she really was a contender for the Evita movie. As always with the Hollywood translation of a stage show, the view opens up geographically. We see the castle, the beanstalk, the giantess. Streep's comings and goings are playfully fierce. She doesn't simply enter in her first scene: she blows the bakery door in. I would imagine that a moviegoer new to this work would wonder how it could ever have fit into a theatre, because so much of it--now--is so physical.

Sondheim aficionados will simply be swept away, with little to analyze. There are certain amusing details--Annette Crosbie, who played the magical godmother in another fairy-tale film, The Slipper and the Rose, is now Little Red Ridinghood's granny. Sometime during Cinderella's flights from her Prince, we hear the tiniest bit of one of the main waltz strains of A Little Night Music, a tasty treat for the Sondheim gourmand. Little Red is less querulous than usual, and rather prim and sensible. Jack isn't a glorified chorus boy but a real-life kid (with an English accent that doesn't match the inflections of the rest of the cast). The two Princes are absurdly handsome and the village folk quaintly ordinary. They truly seem like humans fit for the Grimm Brothers, whereas the original Broadway cast struck me as too "theatrical," in an Upper West Side of New York Professional way; the whole show could have taken place in Zabar's.

For the first time, Into the Woods takes you into the woods most sincerely, amid a tangle of flora, in swamp and fog, most of it dark even in daytime: the place of crucibles, of testing. There's an almost spiritual feel to the story now, somewhat akin to The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the novel in which Thornton Wilder makes an overtly religious inquiry into why his handful of characters all met death in a terrible accident (the bridge, traversing a gorge, collapses). Wilder's conclusion is that each of them had, whether he knew it or not, finished his life's work. There was no reason for any of them to go on living.

Into the Woods is just the opposite: everyone's life is just beginning, because, except for the Witch, he or she is just on the verge of getting to know him- or herself. The movie's physicalizing the woods emphasizes this: you really see how spooky free will is. More than most musicals, Sondheim's tell us of the danger inherent in making choices--in taking on company or nurturing follies. He has elaborated the notion of consequences in the musical (Sally: "I should of [sic] died the first time."), which is why, after ignoring the form for generations, the academic world suddenly sprouted analysis specialists on what the musical has been saying all those years. It was Sondheim who spurred them on. And let us note that, no matter who his librettists are, he has been consistent in exploring this perilous psychological real estate of the life-changing decisions we all have to make sooner or later. Ben: "It's knowing what you want, that's the secret."