Soundtracking is a regular column that appears on Cineplex.com looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. Shane McNeil looks ahead to the long-awaited cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Originally published on Cineplex.com – December 22, 2014.Into the Woods hits theatres on Christmas Day, bringing one of composer Stephen Sondheim’s best love works its biggest on-screen treatment to date.
A dark look at the fairy tale realm, the film boasts its share of stars; including Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. However, to a large chunk of its audience, the film’s biggest star is Sondheim himself.
A Broadway veteran of over 60 years, Sondheim has seen his fair share of cinematic adaptations as both lyricist and composer. The biggest of those, happened to be one of his first works to get adapted.
Sondheim provided the lyrics for the Best Picture-winning West Side Story, which hit screens in 1961. Sondheim’s lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent score crafted a musical that garnered near-instant classic status.
It would show the beginnings of Sondheim’s knack for syncopated, overlapping and complex lyrical arrangements that have since become his signature.
Some of Sondheim’s other early successes would find their way to the big screen in the 1960s, including 1962’s Gypsy starring Natalie Wood (with music by Julie Styne) as well as the 1966 adaptation of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” starring Zero Mostel.
However, when you mention “Sondheim” to true musical theatre junkies, it is not necessarily these titles that spring immediately to mind. From the 1970s onward, Sondheim did music and lyrics for the majority of his productions, marking a turn away from collaborations and helping establish his very unique style.
A lot of these shows have not yet received proper cinematic treatment, but are viewed as many of the finest works of musical theatre in the late 20th Century: shows like “Company”, “A Little Night Music” and, of course, “Into the Woods” amongst countless others.
Sondheim’s shows don’t tend to be full of the melodic show-stoppers that have made Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “Phantom of the Opera”) a frequent target for movie musicals. In fact, Sondheim’s greatest cinematic achievement to date came writing fresh material for the 1990 Warren Beatty adaptation of Dick Tracy. After years of stage success and multiple Tony Awards, Beatty enlisted Sondheim to write some original material for the film, to be sung by Madonna.
One of those songs would go on to win him his lone Oscar thus far.
There has been one successful adaptation in recent years as far as Sondheim is concerned.
In 2007, Tim Burton took a run at one of Sondheim’s most prominent works. He cast Depp as the lead in his adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”
The show – about a demonic barber that kills his customers to keep a successful pie shop in fresh meat – opened on Broadway in 1979. So, why the nearly 30 years between stage and screen?
The answer may be in the material itself. It is dark, to say the least, so it needed the touch of an auteur like Burton who had made his name on more grim fare over the years. Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice both embodied Sondheim’s spirit in being very black comedies.
Sweeney Todd was not exactly a smash to the scale of films like Moulin Rouge! and Chicago (whose director, Rob Marshall, helmed Into the Woods) that helped revive the musical genre in the 21st Century, earning just over $50 million domestically. However, it did garner a small handful of awards recognition. A Golden Globe for Depp and three Oscar nominations for the film helped signal that Sondheim’s individual compositions could be faithfully adapted.
Have a listen to Sweeney Todd as a primer for the dark, twisted, fairy tale world of Into the Woods.