Into the Woods (2014)

Into the Woods, the long-awaited adaptation of the now-classic Sondheim musical, is one of the finest contemporary movie musicals, and arguably the best since the instant classic Chicago (also by director Rob Marshall). Marshall translates an incredibly difficult work from stage to screen, and makes bold, fascinating choices to bring this story to an entirely new medium.

The original Broadway production featured flat, storybook-esque set panels which rose to reveal the dark and prickly woods, but still within mostly the same frame of vision – the focus, of course, less on the realism of a physical set and more on the narrative and raw emotion transpiring onstage. For film, though, a much more literal telling is required, and the flat cottages of the main characters are fleshed out into believable, three-dimensional, sweeping environments.

This more formal, concrete element is where Marshall’s directing chops are really illuminated. The choices he makes, given the sharply different setting, are fascinating in how they subtly convey the story. Within the Baker’s shop, for instance, the shots of the Witch are mostly facing the doorway (the outside world) while the shots of the Baker and his Wife are facing inside; this decision implying the Witch’s role as both the couple’s gateway to the outside world, as well as their obstacle from it (by physically blocking the doorway), told purely through visuals.

The careful planning in constructing each scene makes me eager to revisit this work; with so many engaging character interactions and little moments of power plays and bartering, there is undoubtedly a great deal more to discover within this piece.

Upon immediate viewing, however, it is clear how pitch-perfect the casting choices were. Emily Blunt, in the finest performance I’ve seen her give, is a revelation as the Baker’s Wife, Anna Kendrick plays a genuine heartfelt Cinderella, and Meryl Streep is a captivating, often hilarious Witch. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilariously over-the-top as Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, in a borderline obscene duet of sexual frustration whilst prancing around waterfalls.

Which brings us to an interesting point – Disney’s adaptation of this piece was prematurely criticized for lightening up the original’s darker themes for mass consumption by a more general audience. These fears, in my opinion, were in vain; while children may not pick up on the sexual subtext of the princes’ duet, romantic infidelity, or predatory strangers, these darker ideas certainly come through in the film version. Without spoiling, I truly applaud the changes from the musical to film; the work ends with a different finale song, leaving a very different tone and ultimate effect than the musical does.

This movie marks such an important moment for Disney. The adult themes are not ideas Disney films have really gone into, and certainly not regarding the fairy-tale characters they are so known for. Journeying into such territory, in addition to adapting such a complex, ambitious show, is a fantastic step for the Studios and would be a wonderful sign of things to come. This is truly one of the best movies of the year.

If/Then (2014)

The house lights dim, the orchestra plays a short instrumental prologue, then a blackout. “Hey, it’s me.” Spotlight on Idina Menzel as Elizabeth, above us on a catwalk, talking on her phone. She recounts a recent experience which brought back an earlier memory, and she speculates how things might have turned out if she’d made a different choice. Spotlight fades on her, as the warm light of Central Park swells below her, rich with people, movement, and color.

The Broadway masterpiece If/Then is filled with these moments of tiny intimacy, before shifting to bigger, more ambitious scenes. For a musical that covers so much ground, it never feels forced or unrealistic. Each of these characters, or vignettes, may stand alone, but their part in the aggregate context of greater New York and to each other shines through these moments.

Its ambitious story structure is one based on this initial choice – Elizabeth decides whether to stay in the park to listen to a guitar player, or to go with her friend to a protest. The narrative splits in two, with lighting cues to inform which story we are in (a pink-orange backdrop for much of the former story, blue for the latter). Even beyond lighting cues though, the story is reinforced through repetition; several scenes take place twice, each one resulting with different action and therefore different outcome.

The real brilliance of this show comes from its ability to take individualized events and shaping them into this aggregate. Almost every song of the gorgeous score, of mostly 3-5 minute rock/pop songs, is stretched out onstage to fit within various contexts, often between both stories. This choice not only illustrates the strength of these characters staying true to one idea, in any context, but also speaks to a broader emotional nature of the show. The more introspective, less action-driven songs, like the comical “What the F***?” and “You Learn to Live Without” may not sweep the story across, but seeing Menzel’s character go through the same emotional journey, regardless of the choices she makes, is a greater statement on the human experience and the pain and joy everyone endures.

Choice and destiny are two very prominent, overlapping but not conflicting, themes throughout this work. Elizabeth, of course, kicks off the story with her initial choice in the park, followed by the series of choices resulting from those two realities. A nice companion to this comes from her husband (in one life) Jason, who runs into Liz once, then cancels a trip back home to Nebraska, for the chance he may see her again – making a choice to opt for destiny.

Much of the musical’s profound beauty stems from this concept, of how fate overrides any choices we make. Without giving too much away, the very last scene is immensely satisfying through its implications that certain people are meant to be and will inevitably find their way into our lives.

This inspiring notion, paired with the brilliant flashes of human tragedy and pure joy, make If/Then one of my favorite musicals. The entire piece is bursting with passion and truth, and is truly an experience to be beheld.