As frightening... as bewildering... as wrong as it is to say after a decade of breakthroughs (Moulin Rouge!), critical triumphs (Dancer in the Dark, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and box office hits (Chicago, Dreamgirls, Hairspray) and problematic but Oscar nominated efforts (Nine, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera) ... the movie musical is still in trouble. It probably will be until another Vincente Minnelli or Bob Fosse arrives on the scene, someone who understands and breathes and trusts the very cinematic language of the musical. Until then we'll get bored directors detouring or novices who think it might be "fun" to try one... or Rob Marshall.
Stage turned film director Rob Marshall was initially seen as something of a savior of the form when Chicago (2002) became a smash hit and Best Picture winner. It had been 34 years since a movie musical had had that honor. But his musical follow up Nine (2009) proved a massive flop and a target of critical derision. Though I thought it was better than it got credit for being (how could it not be given the vitriol?) in tandem with Chicago it revealed too little range and an inherent distrust of the form he had been handed, without competition, to rule; the music in both films emerged on sound stages as hallucinations or performative fantasy. His two subsequent non-musicals (Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) were much worse, with listless dramatics and overstuffed weightless business for plot. Nevertheless, Hollywood logic prevails. Disney, looking at the colossal gross of On Stranger Tides, has obviously forgiven Marshall for Nine's red ink and rewarded him with the reigns of the film version of a bonafide masterpiece, Stephen Sondheim's twisted fairy tale classic Into the Woods. Never mind that I could have directed On Stranger Tides (it would have been all about the mermaids and they would have drowned Captain Jack in the first half hour) and it would still have been a top grosser. In Hollywood you get credit for blockbuster grosses even if you are obviously replaceable since anyone helming a long running franchise will produce a similar size hit. Audiences are lemmings when it comes to those big franchises.
So though I weep that Into the Woods isn't getting a world class auteur, and I shudder most of all to think of those glorious songs sung by people who can't handle the intricacies of the music -- Marshall casts for stardom first even if they can't sing and Sondheim obviously writes only for great singers who can act -- we should try and stay positive. Let's play...
For those of you who aren't familiar, Into the Woods is a musical by the living legend Stephen Sondheim. He typically favors a two act construction where the second act shifts the tone and meaning of the piece. Into the Wood's first act introduces you to a bunch of very familiar fairy tale characters and it's all very funny and light and it ends happily as watered down modern reworkings of fairy tales often do. In Act Two, though, the characters start getting bored with their "Ever After". Neurosis and resentments and fear and all sorts of recognizable humanity punctures the archetypes and it becomes a very different and very genius musical altogether. It has tremendous fun and insight in investigating the relationships between parents and children and the relationship between people and their aspirations in particular. Into the Woods is a true ensemble so there aren't really any leads but let's cast a few key roles. The most important thing is that all players have to have great voices and be equally at ease in comic and dramatic moments.
Bernadette Peters originated this role and Vanessa Williams reprised it on Broadway. If you have to cast for major movie stars, this is the role you do it with. The witch needs to be a sassy beautiful mature diva with real pipes, an actress who could have fun playing both an old crone and a beautiful younger bitch. She has to be able to do comedy ("Beans") a thwarted curdled sense of maternity ("Stay With Me") and authoritarian fury ("The Last Midnight"). She's sort of a villain but not really because Sondheim always beautifully complicates things. A lot of people would work here and though I'm partial to Kristin Chenoweth -- no one beats her in the realm of musical comedy with spectacular vocal work -- I'm expecting they'll go with the biggest movie (or pop) star they can find in this showstopping role. And once it gets to casting you'll hear every name imaginable I'm sure. [Trivia: in the proposed film version in 1994, Cher was to play the witch! You do need a diva in this role.]
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
Obviously a younger actress here, with a certain comic innocence mixed with sexual precocity ("I Know Things Now")
A younger boisterous actor here to play the famous beanstalk climbing adventurer. Must be able to show adventurous can do spirit while also playing vulnerable fears and humanity ("Giants in the Sky") No Nicolas Hoult because I'm sure he won't be reprising the role anytime soon!
Laura Benanti, who we recently loved on "The Playboy Club", won a Tony nomination for this role in the last Broadway revival. You need a beauty with a gorgeous voice. I mean they have to be able to nail the penultimate ballad "No One is Alone". Here's Bernadette singing it.
BAKER and BAKER'S WIFE
These two, not based on fairy tale characters, are crucial to the emotional success of the piece. You need two good actors who'd work very well together with emotional range; they have an unhappy childless marriage and do a lot of desperate dreaming. The Baker's Wife eventually runs off with Cinderella's Prince and the Baker takes Jack under his wing and gets one of the most moving songs in the whole show ("No More"). [Trivia: in the aborted 1994 film version Robin Williams and Goldie Hawn were set for these roles. Goldie Hawn has a beautiful singing voice which you'll already know if you've seen Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You (1996)]
THE WOLF / WOLVES
Wide age range possible here. Must be able to do sexual lasciviousness and unchecked appetite without being too icky ("Hello Little Girl") and thus must be funny [Trivia: This was going to be Steve Martin's role in the '94 version]. In an interesting note the wolf or wolves are sometimes played by the same actors as the princes. Movies don't generally employ this stage thematic connection trick, but it might be fun if movies did if the filmmaking were skillful enough.
RAPUNZEL'S PRINCE and CINDERELLA'S PRINCE
Should be lookers who can also sing and who are gifted with comedy. They have some of Gaston's arrogance from Beauty and the Beast to cite a semi-kindred example though they aren't evil. They're more confused than angry about what the princesses want from them. I vote Patrick Wilson but who else...?
You need someone with solid dry wit here -- not overtly "aren't I hilarious?" antics. This is going to be the most problematic role for a movie version -- a very stage-centric role. He comments on the proceedings but takes no part in them though the other characters do try to involve him humourously -- and one that I fear will trigger all of Marshall's worst instincts about "audiences don't like musicals so here's a conceit by which you'll understand that people are singing!!!"
• WOULD YOU LOVE TO SEE AN "INTO THE WOODS" OR ARE YOU TO NERVOUS ABOUT ROB MARSHALL?
• WHO DO YOU SEE IN THE ROLES?