Josh and the City: Is the ‘Into the Woods’ film jeopardizing its story by packing Hollywood stars into the cast?

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Once upon a time, it was said that Into the Woods was going to be made into a film.

It’s actually happening.

Right off the bat, I must say that I am ALL FOR THIS. While I did have hesitations about Sweeney Todd being made a few years back, I appreciated the final product and was glad that Stephen Sondheim was an active part of the musical process. His work is no stranger to the big screen; most of his shows have been theatrically recorded, released on DVD and/or televised for special syndicated programming. Several have been made into legitimate films: West Side Story (for which he wrote the lyrics), Gypsy (several times over), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney, and now Into the Woods. The first big announcement about the film being made simultaneously confirmed that Meryl Streep would be playing the coveted role of the Witch. A rumored cast list was released shortly thereafter, but recently IMDB.com has made some revisions. According to the site (which, in my book, is remarkably accurate most of the time), the Baker will be played by James Corden, his Wife by Emily Blunt (reuniting with Streep after their nominated turns in The Devil Wears Prada), and the Princes by Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Pine. And yes, in addition to this already star-studded cast, Johnny Depp will be playing the Wolf.

When I saw this partial cast list, I instantly thought back to another piece I wrote about movie musicals and the actors who are chosen for them. This rush of déjà vu brought with it the same opinion I expressed in that writing: I am, and will most likely remain, a firm believer in the idea that if an actor cannot sing the role, he should not be given the part. Correction: if he cannot sing it well (and by “well,” I mean just as good or better than a Broadway performer who sang the role eight times a week), then he should step away and gracefully bow out of the project. “Well” may seem like a matter of opinion, but we have to examine the facts here. Johnny Depp won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd but did he sing it well? I think he sang it well enough; he made it his own and understood the universe his character was living in, but he did not necessarily express the vocal depth or color that a musical theatre singer could have brought to it. Should he continue down the Sondheim path? Should any of the actors chosen even attempt to bring these characters to life on the big screen? They’ll have to now that they’ve been cast.

The truth of the matter is, I’m tired of Hollywood doing this. I don’t think it’s right anymore. We’ve seen film actors with little vocal training and questionable singing ability in general tackle enormous musical roles and most of the time it just does not work. People are still making fun of Pierce Brosnan for Mamma Mia and any time I hear Les Mis mentioned anymore, the first actor to come up is always Russell Crowe (and the comments are rarely positive). If producers want miscast actors to draw audiences, then their plan is working—I mean really: Jake Gyllenhaal as Cinderella’s Prince? Can he sing? I’ve never heard him; maybe he has a glorious voice and will pleasantly surprise me. But if he’s not a singer, then all I will be thinking during “Agony” is “TURN IT OFF!” (which will consequently make me dread the reprise that is bound to come later on unless it is rightfully cut). I am a huge fan of Chris Pine, an actor who I think is overlooked even though he has made a huge name for himself in the past five years. But if he can’t sing, then signing this contract might have been a mistake.

And Meryl. Meryl Meryl Meryl. We all know her, we all love her and we know that she could very well win her fourth Oscar next year, especially with August: Osage County coming up as well. I will admit, she is the main reason I continue to watch Mamma Mia when I want to flee to Greece and dance on the beach. But the Witch? The role that ties the entire show together and is often considered the most difficult singing part in the show? (apart from Jack, whose song “Giants in the Sky” is the one you should bring to an audition if you want the accompanist to slap you and ask you to leave). I know she’ll be brilliant, but I wouldn’t call her a singer; I would call her an actress who sings. I’m intrigued by the decision to cast her and I can’t wait to see what she does with it; my only hope is that she does something different with her sound than she did in Mamma Mia, A Prairie Home Companion, and any other film she’s ever sung in. Otherwise, it will just feel like it’s Meryl Streep singing behind green makeup and a prosthetic nose.

On the rumored cast list, it was stated that Patrick Wilson and Cheyenne Jackson were in talks to play the Princes. I practically leapt out of my chair upon hearing this; not only do both of these gentlemen have amazing voices, but they have Broadway experience as well as valuable time in front of the camera. They were the perfect choices! But no; Hollywood doesn’t work that way.

Hollywood wants money. Film actors—famous film actors—draw viewers. Into the Woods, one of the few Sondheim musicals with a catchy theme that is easy to remember, is not the easiest of his musicals to be told on screen. Honestly, the show is so vast in story and scope that a Narrator helps move the action along just like in traditional fairy tales. Alas, as has become the trend in recent movie musicals, changes are being made to accommodate the transfer to film. According to reports, Sondheim has written two new songs—one for the Baker and his Wife called “Rainbows” and another for the Witch—that were not originally in the production. When I heard this, I laughed. I mean, really: what is the purpose of messing with a perfectly written musical by adding new numbers? Is an Oscar nomination really so important that the flow of the original tale should be interrupted to accommodate an asterisk one’s résumé with a special footnote signifying their landmark nomination?

My opinion is no. New songs actually make me not want to waste my time seeing the film. Don’t get me wrong: the director should adapt the show to the screen and make bold, innovative choices that no one else would have thought of to make the story come to life. I’m all for that. But he doesn’t need to add unnecessary moments that detract from the running time of the film (like “Suddenly” did in Les Mis), thereby eliminating other favorite moments that may have been the reason behind a ticket purchase in the first place. And then there’s the mother of all considerations: the piece of art itself. Why would you sacrifice the integrity of a piece of influential theatre for the sole purpose of writing a song because Meryl Streep is playing the Witch? That’s what happened with Beyonce in Dreamgirls; “Listen” was added as a way to show that her character was “at a crossroads,” changing just like Effie White did. But did it do anything special for the musical itself? Not really, no. In fact, I think it would have been just as fitting on one of her solo albums, especially sing she was part of the songwriting team.

My point is, for someone who has never seen Into the Woods—and who might never see it again if the vocals are as embarrassing as Mr. Brosnan’s in “S.O.S.”—this will be his one chance to experience Mr. Sondheim’s work, the heart of which is answering the question of what happens after “happily ever after.” I don’t want to doubt the film before it even starts shooting, but I have to say that I’m starting to think movie musicals are heading in the same direction Act Two of Into the Woods does. I won’t ruin it if you haven’t seen it, but I can tell you that the path is grim. The Woods teaches lessons upon lessons about previous decisions that have been made and how one should learn from their aftereffects. And Hollywood just isn’t learning. It will never know how much better the film could have been if Wilson and Jackson—actual musical theatre veterans—had been given the opportunity to sing those roles.

Honestly, it doesn’t even matter if the performer hasn’t made it to Broadway; it’s a question of whether or not he possess the musical theatre chops to perform the role. For example, who gave the standout performances in Les Mis? Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche). Hathaway has had much on-stage musical experience, as has Tveit, and Huttlestone simply possesses the vocal chops necessary to have made his part as important as it’s supposed to be. What about Sweeney Todd? The actor who played Toby (Ed Sanders) blew me away—he was the best singer in the film, hands down. My question is, if Audra McDonald has won five Tony Awards, why wasn’t she chosen to play the Witch? If Sutton Foster is arguably the biggest name in modern-day musical theatre, where is her movie musical performance? I understand that politics is everything in this business, but what about the art form itself? Why does that cease to matter just so that the film can make a killing in its first weekend? And if it’s not going to be made into a sequel, why does it need to make a killing in the first place? Can’t it be a carefully crafted piece of movie musical magic to be enjoyed again and again instead of conforming to the ideal that it must be loaded with celebrities just to draw viewership?

It appears that my quest for answers has only led me to more questions, much like The Woods does for the characters who get lost in them. How fitting….

My only hope is that Into the Woods is not the abysmal disappointment that was Rock of Ages. If it is, I can’t say that I can ever bring myself to waste another moment of my life viewing movie musicals, at least not at the movie theater. Unless Oliver! is remade with Samantha Barks as Nancy. That I would pay big money to see.

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