‘Into the Woods’ and the Dumbing Down of the Movie Musical

By David Toussaint


When I was about seven years old I starred in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol. Or, rather, played a supporting character–Schoolboy, to be exact–because I was too overweight to get the coveted role of Tiny Tim. As the company that produced the show, the Dramateurs, made it a yearly event, I did it for a few seasons until I hit the big leagues and got accepted into the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. So long, suckers!

Being in that theater every year was a highlight of my unpopular youth. I loved every minute: the lights, the audiences, the fake snow; it was magic. Looking back, I realize the show was probably dreadful. Each year they dug out the same sets, used the same director, a woman named Charlotte whom everyone feared, who happened to be the wife of the same man who always got the role of Scrooge, a sweet guy named George who had a tiny role in American Graffiti and was the closest thing I’d ever met to a movie star, and then filled in the blanks with the local “talent.”

I remember one year a Jacob Marley that couldn’t remember a single line, and poor Scrooge on the stage telling his own ghost what his horrifying night was about to entail. Regardless, that show was a sellout, because even more exciting than putting on a musical is the sheer excitement of attending a musical.

I was reminded of that production of A Christmas Carol when I saw Rob Marshall’s movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, also released at Christmas, that time of year when people love to get lost in the voices and lyrics of another world. The movie’s a hit with audiences, who are taking their kids and grandkids and posting social media applause notices about the wonderful magic and life lessons of Sondheim’s dark fairy tale world.

It’s also a terrible film, the movie-musical equivalent of the cardboard-cutout unimaginative Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, also a big hit with tourists. With the exception of a couple early-on scenes and performances (Johnny Depp scores nicely as the Wolf, even if his number is de-sexed, and his Red Riding Hood is a terrific Lilla Crawford), the movie feels as inspired as something dragged out each year, propped up in front of an audience, filled in by “star” performers undeserving of their roles, and presented in such an antiseptic way that no one could possibly leave the theater offended or provoked or enthralled. It was my community theater production of A Christmas Carol on a much larger scale!

Marshall’s goal as director for the flick would appear to be simply getting the film done, making sure he gets from point A to point B without any glaring mistakes, and making sure it’s family friendly enough so people see it. Sondheim’s music and A-list actors fill in the rest of the blanks. Kudos to the new musical movie success lever. The film cost about …read more

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