Meryl Streep is a truly amazing woman.There she was on the Academy stage after last night's screening of the new Disney musical film, INTO THE WOODS, and the 65-year old actress was looking neat and nifty, speaking wittily, after the audience had spent the previous two hours watching her play the unkempt Witch in this wondrous film. She told us that she had been approached 25 years ago, "When I was 40," to play three witch roles, but had turned them all down. Now here she was all these year later, playing a witch. "I never would have dreamed such a thing would happen, but it did. Thanks to Rob Marshall." She was sitting near the modest, brilliant director/producer of the fillm, whom I have reviewed favorably since he did the musical, CHICAGO, some years ago, a movie which won an Oscar for Best Picture. Also on the stage were a number of other cast members and support staff. Every red-blooded man in the audience was enchanted with sensual Brit Emily Blunt, who plays the barren Baker's wife in the movie. The Baker himself, James Corden, was there and made reference to the fact that he will be replacing Craig Ferguson as a late-night TV host in a few weeks. A lusty-mouthed Anna Kendrick, who plays Cinderella, was joined by Chris Pine, the handsome, silly Prince, and Christine Baranski, looking chic; playa Cinderella's mother. One of my favorite comediennes was also present, Tracey Ullman, who plays Jack's mother. The cool talented costume designer, Colleen Atwood, was sitting next to Rob, and the cinematographer Dion Beebe, was at the far end. (He has dine nine pictuures with Marshall.) Producer John DeLuca and screenwriter James Lapine were seated next to each other, as was Produce Marc Platt, an old friend. Not present were Johnny Depp, who plays the lascivious Big Bad Wolf, Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, Billy Magnussen as another Prince, and Mackenzie Manzy as Rapunzel. Actually, I have never seen so many members of a film's cast and crew onstage at the Academy as I did last evening. And you know what, I must applaud them all for making a memorable movie which will resonate with us all forever.
I must admit that I didn't even want to attend the screening, but at the last moment something told me that I must see the new movie on a big screen and not on a screener. And I am such a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, the world's best living lyricist/composer, that I drove there, albeit without great expectations. After all, I had attended the opening night of the Tony-award winning musical in New York back in 1987 and, to be truthful, had not loved the show. Many years ago I had crossed paths with James Lapine, the book writer of the original show, longtime Sondheim collaborator, and now the screenwriter, and admire his keen, sharp intellect. When Disney people told me that yes, Meryl and Rob Marshall would actually be there, I went. Thank God for little favors....I had one of most satisfying cinematic experiences of this exciting movie year.
If you are not familiar with the material, I will detail that INTO THE WOODS is a modern twist on several fairy tales. Many years ago I was involved with the Cinerama production of "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," so I knew a little about the Grimm fairy tales which provided the basis for this new film..."Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "Rapunzel." Sondheim and Lapine had incorporated them into one humorous, sometimes dark, fantasy tale by introducing an original story involving a Baker and his Wife and their unfulfilled wish to have a family. The next-door neighbor, a vengeful witch (Ms. Streep), has put a curse upon them because of something his father had done to her. She tells the couple that they must go ito the woods and fetch four objects before she will break the spell...a white cow, a red cloak, a gold shoe and a hank of blond hair. What begins as a rather lively, irreverent fantasy musical then becomes something more, a meaningful tale about personal responsibility, the relationship between parents and children, husband and wife, and the legacy we want to leave behind us. All is not brightness and light, for there is death and faithlessness and more. All hints of sexuality in the play have been erased, although Depp as the wolf does appear to lust after the little red riding girl. And in a subtle, sensual subplot, the Prince definiteely has designs upon the Baker's wife (and she for him.)
But it is Sondheim's extraordinary music which drives it all forward, and I was thankful I had opted for a hearing device so I could catch every precious lyric. The score is so melodic, almost operatic in scope, that it resonated in my head as I fell asleep last night. Streep, of course, will astonish you with her voice...it growls and soars, whispers and wimpers. (I am going to get the CD to hear it again. She told the audience that Sondheim had written a new song for the film but it didn't make the final cut, but will be on the CD.) The costume designer noted that the 3-hour show had become a perennial favorite among school groups, colleges and regional theatres everywhere.
Rom Marshall told us that in 1987, shortly after the musical opened, he had a conversation with Sondheim about ding a musical film adaptation, but time and several wonderful films inteceded. (The Oscar-winning Chicago,of course, anda much-less appreciated Nine.) Another Marshall, Penny that is, was set to direct it..and even did a all-star table reading. But nothing came of it. My friend Rom Minkoff, the Oscar-winning director of The Lion King, was attached for a longtime. (Hey, Rob, why not wait a few years and then do an animated version of this. I would be magnificent.) Rob Marshall told us that when he saw President Obama make his speech on the 10th anniversary of the tragic 01/11 incident, he was struck by the President's line....."You are not alone. No One is alone." He then called Sondheim and said, "The time has come to do that movie," and Stephan agreed. They enlisted James Lapine to join the creative circle and work began. Stephen agreed to write some new søngs and to tinker with the existing ones to fit the enlarging storyline. Casing began, and when Meryl came aboard all the cards were in play.
Credit must be given to Disney's Sean Bailey and Bob Iger, etc. for quickly realizing that this was the time and place, and they were the company, to make the magic happen. Yes, I understand there were fierce battles about some content and story points.....and Disney rightly kept pointing out to the sophisticated, all-knowing team that this was a family film. So, on Christmas day, in a time when theatres are rife with movies about brutality, infidelity, murder and mayhem, illness and disease, there is one film which will resonate with all viewers, from older tots to older folks, offering each group a satisfying visual, musical experience which will resonate far beyond the tbeatre. What a lovely holiday present from Walt's old studio.
Note to Hollywood Parents: My friend Lylle Breier, senior v.p. of worldwide events for Disney, tells me that the legendary EL CAPITAN THEATRE in Hollywood will be celebrating the event with a special showing of the film from 7 pm on Thursday, December 24th to January 11th, 2015. It will play at 10 am, 1:05 pm, 4:10 pm, and 8 pm, Tickets are on sale at the El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Blvd, online at www.elcapitantickets.com or by calling 1-800-DISNEY6. There are special group rates as well as a special GOOD AS GOLD offer of 8 tickets for $96 by callng 1-818-3110. An exhibition of Colleen Atwood's costumes for the movie will be seen in the lobby of the theatre before and after screenings
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org