A lot of us are confused too, Meryl Streep
You may have gone to the theaters over the holidays or in recent weeks to see “Into the Woods”. Perhaps you liked the idea of mixed up fairy tales or you enjoyed musicals. Perhaps someone like myself told you it is one of the best American musicals ever.
Then you may have left the theater wondering what exactly people like me meant. Some of the songs were fun, sure, but why did the movie seem to have 15 endings like Return of the King? Well, let me implore you to listen as I explain the problem is not the source material, it is in the adaptation. And don’t be so quick to say the movie is bad, because honestly, this movie languished in development for years for the very same reason–it is not an easy musical to adapt because it is designed to work on the Broadway stage, not the big screen. Let me explain and answer some other questions that might help you understand what you didn’t love about “Into the Woods”:
Why didn’t the movie just end after the cow made that potion and Cinderella got married?
Believe it or not, this is the end of the first act of the play. The instrumental music you hear as Cinderella passes the Baker and his wife on the way to the palace is “Ever After”, a 2:20 song that effectively wraps up all the stories, with each person ostensibly living happily ever after. When this musical is shortened for what is called “school” performances" or children’s versions of the shows so kids can see them and not go insane watching a three hour show, they typically just do the first act and call it a day.
Thing is, thematically, all of the interesting stuff (and some of the best songs) come in Act II, which resumes MONTHS after Act I concludes in the play, not a day or two like in the movie. So, rather than give the second act the hour plus that it needs to fully develop, this plot of the giant attacking the land gets squeezed into the last 35 minutes or so in order to satisfy the fans and try to finish up with the thematic notions that wishes aren’t always what they cracked up to be, that parent-child relationships are complicated, and that fairy tales never tell you that things might go bad after “Ever After”.
Did Cinderella know all along that the prince was a faker and charming, but not sincere? They never seemed to really be in love and he cheated on her like two seconds later.
As I mentioned, Cinderella and the prince were married a good year or so in the play before he went and made out with the baker’s wife in the woods. What you also don’t get to see in the movie is that both Cinderella’s prince and Rapunzel’s prince actually get restless and get a wondering eye with Cinderella’s prince falling for Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel’s prince falling for Snow White, presented in a hilarious reprise of the song “Agony”. And, as you notice in Anna Kendrick’s beautiful rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace”, she wanted out of her life, but she was never entirely sure this was the guy for her.
So Rapunzel runs off with her man and leaves her Mom the witch to just…die? Seems like she would go out with more of a bang, right?
Okay, another huge departure from the play. In the play, Rapunzel actually dies. She runs into the giant’s path and gets trampled, prompting the Witch to sing the same song you see Streep sing in the song after her daughter leaves her. Makes a lot more sense that she was so sad, right? In the movie, she seems a little selfish, whereas in the play, it is about the fact that the world is a scary place and as a parent, the Witch was just trying to protect her from the scary world by locking her away and it blew up in her face. In the play, she returns at the end to revise her “Children won’t lisen” refrain to “Children will listen.”
There are a lot of random ghosts in this movie, huh? Cinderella’s mom, the Baker’s wife, the random appearance of the Baker’s dad. What’s the deal?
You’re right. There are a lot of ghosts in the play too. But in the play Cinderella’s mom is more a voice in her head than a ghost. And in the play, well, the father character is a LOT more complicated.
You see, in the play there is an old guy who kid of pops up now and then that ends up being the Baker’s dad. To make things even weirder, this guy also plays the Narrator. Yeah, there is a guy who stands downstage and narrates the action, much like the Baker’s voice over does in the movie. At one point, the cast even decides to feed him to the giant in an attempt to get her to go away. I’m not kidding. So it isn’t as out of left field as in the movie. What I found especially strange is that the ghost dad shows up to deliver the moral of don’t repeat my mistakes, but they can’t invest the two minutes in singing “No More”, which is one of my favorite numbers from the show.
So, hopefully that explains some of the confusing spots. As for how to deal with the weirdly truncated second act…I don’t know if I have a good answer. I typically hate splitting books up into two movies, but in the case of “Into the Woods”, I really don’t know how you do it without having a Part I and a Part II and just releasing them maybe a month apart? For me, the first act is all fun, but the second act is where the morals and the life lessons get dispatched. While many things were cut from the first to squeeze down time, I feel like too much was sacrificed from the second for audiences unfamiliar with the show not to tear up during “No One Is Alone” or to feel the Witch’s heartbreak in her “Lament”. I laud the cast and crew for the attempt and give a massive shoutout to Anna Kendrick for making me care about Cinderella for the first time ever and Emily Blunt for putting a whole new spin on a role Joanna Gleason defined in her initial Broadway run. And I’ll give Meryl a good hustle, but I am sorry, I simply cannot agree that this movie wouldn’t have been infinitely better with the original Witch, Bernadette Peters, reprising her role, bewitching us with the songs that make this probably my favorite musical of all time.
If you are curious about the actual musical and it isn’t coming to your area any time soon, the Original Broadway Cast has a recording available for rental on Amazon and it really is a treasure to watch.
And in case you’re curious, this is “No More”, the song the Baker sings with his dad shortly before they try to kill the giant: