How ‘Into the Woods’ almost became a Jim Henson puppet musical
LOS ANGELES—Can you imagine “Into the Woods” as a live-action puppet film? According to the musical’s legendary composers, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, the sassy, enjoyable mishmash of fairy tales almost got adapted into a movie a la “The Muppet” franchise.
“There were a couple of abortive attempts to do the piece as a movie,” said Stephen, regarded as one of the best ever composers in musical theater, in our interview with him and James. The two are a formidable team. James wrote this film adaptation, based on the musical he and Stephen (who composed the music and lyrics) debuted in Broadway in 1987.
“As a matter of fact, Jim Henson was going to be involved,” continued Stephen, a charming man at 84, especially when he breaks into that rakish smile. He wore a brown sweater and chino pants. “The animals were going to be played by puppets. It was going to be a combination of puppetry and real people. Then, Jim Henson died and the movie went into studio limbo for a while.”
Stephen, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for drama with James for “Sunday in the Park with George,” added, “There were a couple of attempts to do the movie. Readings were held. They never got off until Rob Marshall got onto it. Rob says that I suggested it to him. I think what it came down to was, Rob wanted to do ‘Sweeney Todd,’ but it was already being done as a movie.
“So, I said, ‘Why don’t you do ‘Into the Woods’? That would be very cinematic. Rob looked into it. So, it started as a very casual conversation. It wasn’t like it had been planned for a while. Rob got it off the ground.”
We don’t know how that live-action puppet version would have turned out, but Rob Marshall’s version doesn’t disappoint; in fact, it’s an enthralling musical with wonderful singing-acting performances by the entire cast led by Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski and James Corden.
“Working on the script with Rob was great,” said James, 66, bespectacled and sporting a zip sweater and jeans. Aside from “Into…” and “Sunday…,” James also wrote the book for and directed Stephen’s “Passion.” “In many ways, it was an advantage having all the distance between when I first wrote ‘Into the Woods’ and coming back to it, because I have a different frame of reference. I related to the Baker when I wrote it. Now, I relate to the Baker’s father. It was liberating to go back and re-evaluate it, to look back and remember the person who wrote it, and be encouraged by that person who is no longer me. It was fun!”
Stephen, whose many memorable songs from his musicals include “Send in the Clowns,” “Losing My Mind” and “Being Alive,” explained further how they came to create “Into…” He recalled, “We had written this one show together, ‘Sunday in the Park with George,’ and had such a good time doing it that we wanted to do another show. James asked, ‘What kind of show do you want to write?’ I said, ‘I always wanted to write a quest musical, like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I would like to make my own ‘Wizard of Oz,’ something that has fantasy/adventure and that sort of thing.
“James said, OK, he would think about it. After a couple of days, James came back and said, ‘The trouble is, there are no parameters, and to make up a series of events, you can go, here, there and everywhere. There’s nothing to guide me!’
“We started to talk about fairy tales. James said, ‘The problem with fairy tales is that they are very short. You can’t take one off, although Rodgers and Hammerstein did take one and expand it into a full-length piece (‘Cinderella’).’
“So, James decided to take a number of fairy tales, interweave them and hold them together by inventing another fairy tale of his own, one that would allow the interweaving and have all these characters from these different folk tales meet in the woods.”
As for their Witch, the riveting Meryl Streep who goes the full range in singing their songs, from soft and tender to growling and intense, Stephen said, “First of all, she’s one of the few people I know who can sing and act at the same time. A lot of people can sing, and a lot of people can act, but doing it simultaneously is a very rare thing—and she does it!
“When we had the recording session, I was astonished that every time we would do a different take of a song, or even a passage of it, she would come at it from a slightly different angle. The nuances were different. No two ‘readings,’ so to speak, were alike.
“Usually, when you record songs, the singer does the same thing over and over again, and just gets more accurate or he breathes in a different place. But, Meryl actually tries little different things so the color of the lyric is different every time, even the way she phrases the music.
“It’s exactly what an actress does when she reads a line over and over—she tries it different ways. Most people can’t do that with music; the music straightjackets the singer into certain inflections and rhythms. But, Meryl finds variety. It’s quite remarkable and I was astonished!
James chimed in, “You know what’s so amazing about her? She always surprises you. You think OK, I have seen Meryl Streep—but, you have never seen her! She always disappears into what she does that you forget it’s her.”
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