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DEEPER INTO THE WOODS, a comparison piece.

(This is not a criticism of the film but rather an exploration of the differences between the stage version and the new film. SPOILERS aplenty.)

In 2005, I saw one of my most ambitious projects come to life. I was a producer on an amateur musical theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Broadway musical, INTO THE WOODS. When I took the project on some months earlier, I had no idea how much it would change my life nor just how much I would draw from the show itself. It continues to inspire me to this day.

Given how close this show is to my heart, I was both excited and scared when Walt Disney Pictures announced that it would produce a long gestating film version of the Tony Award winning musical. INTO THE WOODS is a dark show, to put it mildly. It weaves together the storylines of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales, including “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella”, but doesn’t leave out any of the original violence or subtext that is so often glossed over in modern adaptations. Ironically, Walt Disney Pictures has been the primary culprit of these distortions.

Does this make Disney the perfect company to produce the film version or the worst? Would they vindicate themselves for some of the damage they had inadvertently done throughout the years by shielding children from the dark realities of life? Or would they just continue to perpetuate the notion of happily ever after?

With both Sondheim and Lapine directly involved in the production, I thought I saw a glimmer. With Rob Marshall, director of musicals as strong as CHICAGO and as weak as NINE, at the helm, that light was getting dimmer. That said, with a cast as talented and as vast as this one, including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and Christine Baranski, promise was possible and I remained as open minded as I could going into it. Johnny Depp, who almost ruined the film adaptation of Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD a few years back, is also in the cast; fortunately for all of us though, he only plays The Wolf, who appears in just two scenes.

I don’t pretend to be an INTO THE WORDS expert, but I do invite you all the same to go deeper into the woods and down the dell with me. The path may not be straight but I know it well enough and I promise to have you into the woods, then out of the woods and safely home before dark.



INTO THE WOODS is a very complex, calculated musical. While many of the show’s musical numbers do stand out on their own, they are more or less variations on the same melody. To fully be appreciated, the show needs to breathe and not be rushed. It works best when explored as a complete and cohesive piece and so we will look at it in this fashion.

The show and film both open with the same prologue, which runs approximately fifteen minutes long. In this prologue, the majority of the characters are established, as are their wishes. Cinderella (Kendrick) wishes to go to the King’s festival; Little Red (Lilla Crawford) wishes to bring some sweets to her grandmother who is sick in bed; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wishes his cow wouldn’t have to be sold at market; and then you have the Baker (Corden) and his wife, known only as Baker’s Wife (Blunt). They are the only original characters in the show, serving as the main protagonists that tie everything together. Their wish is to have a child, only the Witch (Streep) from next door placed a curse on them rendering them barren. To reverse this curse, they will need to collect a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn (cue Rapunzel, Mackenzie Mauzy) and a slipper as pure as gold. They only have three nights to bring all of these items to the Witch as that is when the Blue Moon will appear. This is the first notable change (if you don’t count the elimination of Cinderella’s step father from the show completely or the absence of a separate narrator). I can only surmise that adding the Blue Moon angle was to make it clear to film audiences why everything has to come together in three days. That said, I feel like the Witch might have come to the couple for help earlier if she wanted to avoid the last minute stress.

If after these fifteen minutes, you don’t find yourself engaged and tapping your toes along with the syncopated singing style, INTO THE WOODS may not be for you. (Our critic, Nick Watson, was mostly mixed. Read his review here.)

(Kudos for adding the extra layers of harmony in the song’s signature finale.)



INTO THE WOODS gets very dark, very quickly. Depp appears to Little Red as the Wolf (a part which, on stage, is usually split with Cinderella’s Prince, given they both have uncontrollable appetites) in the show’s third musical number. On stage, the implications are unmistakable. Perhaps it is the lyrical content (“Look at that flesh, pink and plump. Hello, little girl.”) or perhaps it is the inherent symbolism behind the redness of the cape or the flowers she is encouraged to stray from her path for. Or perhaps it is the phallus dangling between the wolf’s legs. Whatever it is, it is clear to everyone watching that the Wolf is no ordinary predator, but rather a sexual one as well.

Understandably, Disney had some issue with this. In order for INTO THE WOODS to be successful for Disney, it had to be family friendly (which means no phallus). And while none of the lyrical content is changed in this number, the musical arrangement has been altered to give the song a jazzier, lighter feel, instead of a sombre, menacing tone. We still see the Wolf eyeing his prey from afar and encouraging her to stop and smell the flowers, but the meaning can be interpreted both implicitly and explicitly now. This way, children will simply see a wolf who wants to eat a little girl, which is still scary, but is also in line with what they already know of the fairy tale. Adults meanwhile, can read whatever they like into it. Cutting the Wolf’s trademark pelvic thrust at the end of the number probably doesn’t hurt either.

This ambiguity solves the whole pedophile issue but it causes a problem in the subsequent number. In my opinion, not being direct about what exact kind of innocence Little Red is losing in her experience with the Wolf, renders her solo, “I Know Things Now”, somewhat meaningless and hollow. I had no real idea as to what things she was claiming to know now. As a result, her overall arch is rather dull. (Also, I have no clue what Marshall was thinking with the whole “Alice in Wonderland” like flashback to show Little Red’s experience of being eaten by the Wolf. Flashbacks are also unique to the film because, well, you can’t flashback on stage.)

Without going into great detail, I also felt the same lack of depth in Jack’s journey. Both youngsters experience a loss of innocence but their plights are secondary to those of the bigger characters.



INTO THE WOODS is a rather lengthy musical. Some of it had to go no matter who was putting it together. Some of these cuts are clearly there in the interest of saving time, while others probably didn’t make the cut because they simply wouldn’t work cinematically. For instance, with each passing midnight in the show, the ensemble has a number to commemorate the moment and what they’ve learned thus far along their journey. Cutting to a bunch of one-liners from each cast member would be jarring on film so all we get in the film is the Witch announcing the passing of another midnight. The reprise to “Agony”, an Act 2 number in which the two princes (Pine and Billy Magnussen) sing of their lady woes, is cut from the film because hearing it once is enough for a film audience. These cuts, along with another significant one, which I will get to later, make perfect sense to me.

There are however other numbers, or even parts of numbers, that don’t make it to the film that I miss dearly, as they contain some of the funnier or more insightful lyrics from the show. Here’s a sampling of what lyrical gems you miss in the film.

From “I Guess This Is Goodbye”, in which Jack says goodbye to his cow: I’ll see you soon again. I hope that when I do, it won’t be on a plate.

From “Maybe They’re Really Magic”, in which the Baker and Baker’s Wife debate whether it was fair to buy the cow for beans: If the end is right, it justifies the beans.

(The intention of this number, which is to show that they will really need to work to get this child and that they’re asking themselves if they’re ready for that, is established with dialogue instead.)

This next bit is one of my favourite passages from the show. I feel it encapsulates so much of what the show is trying to say about wishing and getting what you want. The song it’s taken from, “A Very Nice Prince”, is still in the film, but the end is cut short. I suspect it may be because one of the ladies singing it (Blunt?) couldn’t hit the high notes required, but this is merely suspicion. Anyway …

Cinderella: How can you know what you want until you get what you want and you see if you like it? All I know is what I want most of all is to know what I want.

Baker’s Wife: All I know is I never wish, just within reason. When you know you can’t have what you want, where’s the profit in wishing?

These themes are further explored in a later number but they will forever be missed for me. (Chunks of “Any Moment” and the most famous song in the show, “No One Is Alone” are also missing, leading me to believe Marshall just didn’t have enough faith in the audience’s attention span or tolerance for musicals.)



After the disaster that was MAMMA MIA, I had a great deal of concern that Streep would not be able to handle the vocal demands of the Witch, which are immense, I assure you. Some of the music is written in different keys for her but overall, Streep gives an impressive performance, both vocally and emotionally. When I first heard her rendition of “Stay With Me”, I breathed a giant sigh of relief.

The Witch is a very interesting character. While she is easily seen as the film’s antagonist, she is far more complex than that. She is the only character who is truly direct about what is happening in the woods. She does not sugar coat anything but yet, she keeps her beloved Rapunzel locked away in a tower where she can remain innocent forever. This duality highlights one of the film’s major themes, which is the dangerous effect parents can have on their children when they try too hard to protect them from the outside world. Despite trying to shield Rapunzel from the “wolves and humans” of the world, she is still exposed to them and, in the end, the Witch loses her entirely because of her over protective ways. I guess no matter how high the towers, there will always be princes willing to climb them by way of a maiden’s hair.



I would never think that cutting both the Act 1 finale (“Ever After”) and the Act 2 opening number (“Act 2 Prologue”) would be an inspired choice but it works perfectly in the film. The first song establishes that everyone has gotten their wish, while the second establishes that some time later, they all find themselves wishing again for more. In the film, Marshall simply has an instrumental version of “Ever After” play over a scene where Cinderella and her Prince get married. All of the characters attend the festivities and the narration alerts us that they are all happy. Just when they are at their happiest though, a giant descends upon the kingdom and ushers in another important theme, which is what happens after “happily ever after”.

When I produced this show, audience members sometimes felt it was over after the first act. Everyone has what they want so what more could there possibly be to the story? Most criticism I’ve read about the film eludes to how the second act is a “giant” letdown, often citing that it was great fun until their stories concluded themselves, but that what followed felt odd and unnecessary. While I feel that you are entitled to not like the second act of the show, to dismiss it as unnecessary means that you’ve missed the point entirely.

INTO THE WOODS deals directly with debunking the myth that everyone lives happily ever after, never wanting for anything more again after getting your wish fulfilled. While I have debated that the show has some structural issues in the past given that these types of reactions are frequent, I now wonder something else entirely. Is it possible that those who don’t understand the point of the second act just don’t want to know about what comes after everyone gets their wish? Perhaps they would rather think that Cinderella and her Prince ride off into the sunset for eternity but this cannot be the case. They will have to face each other in the morning whether they like or not. Some people just don’t like reality in their fairy tales (or in their lives, for that matter).



One of the biggest complaints from fans while the film was in production was that Rapunzel was not going to die, as she does in the show. INTO THE WOODS can be a very violent show and Disney and Marshall have dealt with the death and violence in a very specific way. Yes, Cinderella’s step sisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) still have parts of their feet cut off to fit into the golden slipper; yes, Rapunzel’s Prince is still blinded when the Witch hurls him into a briar patch; and yes, some of the characters, albeit not Rapunzel, still die in the film. To get around this, Marshall simply doesn’t show any of this on screen. So while we see Cinderella’s birds descend upon her step sisters to peck their eyes out, the actual pecking is left to our imagination.

As for Rapunzel, she neither dies at the hands (or should I say feet) of the giant, nor does she bear twins in a desert after being banished by the Witch. Instead, she exits with her Prince at one stage, vowing to never see her mother again. As for the twins, well those are a bit of a gaping plot hole in the show as it is, so excluding them here is probably best.



Despite having a number where a lascivious wolf lusts over the flesh of a little girl, this number between Cinderella’s Prince and the Baker’s Wife was Disney’s biggest point of contention with the film. The two characters have a bit of a dalliance in the woods before the Baker’s Wife sings about the confusing nature of spending too much time in the woods. Symbolically, the woods themselves can mean a number of things but the most common understanding is the most obvious, that the woods are a place we all must go to at some point in our lives. They are dark and confusing but going into the woods can lead to clarity and meaning when we finally get out of them. This number shows that even seemingly reasonable people can make mistakes if they spend too much time in the woods. The point is to get out of the woods in time before this happens but some of us are not so fortunate.



Unlike the show, which ends with an ensemble number that leaves the audience on a reasonably upbeat note, the film, which has already done away with these group numbers and therefore couldn’t really end with one, finishes with a more sombre tone. The “Finale” is sung in voiceover instead and runs into the credits. Albeit a little odd, it is still a fitting end for this particular interpretation, and still includes that last “I wish” to suggest that the story doesn’t end here either.

In the end, I believe Disney and Marshall made the most authentic version of the show that they could have given the restraints they faced. And they even managed to win this critic over, which was not an easy task given the expectations I went into it with. This can certainly be attributed to how much I enjoyed the ensemble, as well as the art direction and updated orchestrations. Primarily though, my admiration for the film stems from keeping the main theme in tact, which is to be careful what you wish for.

INTO THE WOODS is a story about the most complex times in our lives, which are often brought about by our own wishes and wants, as explored through fairy tales we all more or less grew up with. The great irony here is that the over simplification of fairy tales and their influence is what often leads to these bewildering moments in the woods to begin with. Given that Walt Disney Pictures is responsible for pushing so much of these damaging ideas upon us in our youth, I think it is only fitting that they be the ones to lead us out of the woods now.

And so, I will leave you with just one last thing before I go … I wish!


  1. Love this! I haven’t seen the stage musical, so it’s really helpful/interesting to learn what changes from stage to screen. I like your reading of the ending and of some audiences’ unwillingness to accept what comes after ‘happily ever after’, since the final act is one of my complaints about the film, but I like seeing it in this context.

    And yay for Meryl!

    • Thanks, Pat! You can actually get the original stage production on blu-ray now. You will see just how dark it can be. Structurally, I think just most people find the second act jarring. It may not be not wanting to see what comes after everyone gets their wish but rather just not being used to seeing that. Perhaps a second viewing of the film will help it flow more smoothly for you. Also, the second act has some of the best numbers in the show … Moments in the Woods, Your Fault, Last Midnight, No One Is Alone … To dismiss the second act would mean missing out on all these gems. Happy new year!

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