Into the Woods: singing stars align for what may be Disney’s darkest tale

This story was first published on the INSP News Service.

A-list director Rob Marshall’s take on the smash hit Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods sees beloved fairy tale characters collide in what may be Disney’s darkest tale. It features an all-signing, all-dancing cast that’s packed with fresh talent, including Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine, as well as Hollywood royalty Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. “Right from the beginning, I said this is a unique piece, it’s a dark piece for Disney,” said Marshall when the directors spoke to INSP’s Laura Kelly, along with stars Anna Kendrick and James Corden, ahead of the film’s UK release.

James Corden as The Baker and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood

Two years on from the $442 million bombast of Les Misérables, and following such wide-ranging hits as Mamma Mia!, High School Musical, Sweeney Todd, Hairspray and Dreamgirls, it’s safe to say that film musicals are back. If you doubt it, just try getting Broadway staple Idina Menzel’s Frozen anthem ‘Let It Go’ out of your head.

It’s into this fertile soil that dancer-turned- A-list director Rob Marshall sows his latest magic bean, blockbuster musical adaptation Into the Woods. Shaped by his years on Broadway, Marshall is a man who – in addition to directing credits on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – can fairly lay claim to having started the latest wave of celluloid sing-alongs, thanks to his 2002 adaptation of Chicago.

In keeping with the genre’s ascendency, he’s attracted a cast list that’s packed with fresh talent, including Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine, and which also features Hollywood royalty Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Ahead of his new gig hosting America’s The Late Late Show, acclaimed UK stage actor and TV comedian James Corden gets an endearing introduction to international audiences that will surely be a breakthrough role. So the movie has some serious box office chops even before you consider that it’s an adaptation of a much-beloved Stephen Sondheim stage show, features all your favourite fairy tale characters, from Cinderella to the Big Bad Wolf and comes from the studio masterminds at Disney.

Rob Marshall

Speaking to INSP in London’s plush Corinthia Hotel, Marshall says that he never doubted that musicals would make a return to the big screen. “I am a champion of musicals for sure. It’s in my blood. I believe in the genre,” he explains.

“When I was doing Chicago people told me, ‘musicals are dead – no one’s going to come see this’. I never believe a genre is dead. It’s how it’s done. Everyone thought sword-and-sandal films were dead until Gladiator came along.”

For Kendrick, who also started out on Broadway, receiving a Tony nod for her performance in High Society aged just 12, the chance to work in a Sondheim production was a dream come true. Though she’s found international fame through her roles in the Twilight Saga, Pitch Perfect and starring opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air, her love of a show tune – and her powerful voice – has never faded.

“I feel really grateful to work in a time when movie musicals and being made,” she says. “I think Rob really brought back the movie musical with Chicago, but even then, it takes a couple of successes for people to be willing to take those kind of risks. So it was something I wanted to do but it wasn’t necessarily something that I thought was on the cards.”

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

As someone who was, by her own admission, never cut out to be an ingénue (“There are some girls that are really good at being compelling just by blinking. I need good material to help me do that.”) Kendrick is particularly drawn to the quality of writing for the female roles in Sondheim’s work.

It may look like Kendrick is living the Disney Princess dream as Cinderella in Into the Woods, but this is not the Cinders you’d recognise from Disney’s classic 1950 cartoon. Indecisive but headstrong, she doesn’t lose her slipper, but rather leaves it behind to test the Prince’s affections. So much the better, says Kendrick.

“People keep asking me if I wanted to be Cinderella when I grew up,” she snarls. “No! Maybe before I did this I should have gone to Disneyland and come up with some sort of great Cinderella story. But I wasn’t thinking about it like, ‘oh my god, I’m going to be playing Cinderella’. I was thinking – I’m in Into the Woods, this is fucking crazy. I’m working with Meryl Streep and Rob Marshall and Stephen Sondheim.”

Cinderella is not the only one who’s had a makeover in Sondheim’s take on the fairy tale. Drawn together by the ‘new fairy story’ of the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) who must break Meryl Streep’s Witch’s curse so they can have a baby, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack (along with his Beanstalk and Giant) are all repurposed for the musical.

Meryl Streep is the Wicked Witch

Despite their reputation for sweetness, Marshall says that Disney was fully on board with the new, murkier approach. “I was really impressed with Disney,” he confirms. “Right from the beginning, I said this is a unique piece, it’s a dark piece for Disney. I wanted them to understand that people die, Cinderella doesn’t end up with the Prince. I wanted them to understand that there’s a triste between the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince.

“But I think this is the sort of thing Walt Disney would be doing today,” Marshall continues. “I think he would be looking at how else these tales can be told that is relevant today.”

Death and adultery undoubtedly give a jolt in a Disney-backed fairy tale, but it’s not the 1950s any more and we’re increasingly used to seeing these themes addressed, even in kiddie fare. Johnny Depp’s Wolf, on the other hand, has become more disturbing with the passing of the years. In the light of continuing child abuse revelations in the UK, following the Jimmy Savile scandal, a predatory older man looking so lasciviously at a very young girl (at 12, Lilla Crawford is much younger than the actresses who have traditionally played Little Red on stage) is at the very least uncomfortable. Just look at the image below!

A lascivious Johnny Depp as the Wolf

“It is a delicate subject,” Marshall admits. “Although he is a wolf. He’s talking about eating his meal. I think you can see it both ways. I think that kids will take away that the scary wolf is trying to attack Little Red and get her off the path.

“One of the reasons I hired Johnny is that there’s a playfulness to him so he’s not threatening in an evil way.”

Context may give the Wolf extra bite, but the duality of fairy stories – their ability to be simple stories for kids, at the same time as dealing with issues around sex, power, poverty, parenthood and community – was their strength long before Walt got involved.

In reality, Into the Woods’ biggest shift from the classic fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm collected 200 years ago is the continuation past ‘happily ever after’. We’re granted the big, royal, fairy tale wedding but that is not the end. For each character, we see the consequences of the choices they made, and realise that their stories are all interconnected. Or as the climactic song would have it, ‘No One is Alone’.

For his part, as dad to a six-week-old baby and a three year old, James Corden says this key message about family and community resonated strongly.

“There’s a song at the end of the film called ‘No One Is Alone’, which I think is the overwhelming message of the film,” he says. “There’s a lyric in it where it says, ‘giants can be good and witches can be right, you decide what’s good, you decide what’s right’. I think it’s good taking kids to a film that says that it doesn’t really matter who you are or into what circumstances you are born, there’s some screw ups coming your way and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“At times like that you’re going to feel like you all alone in the world. It’s a really interesting, and positive message to say, you’re not. You’ll feel like you are but you’re not. I hope I can impart a bit of that on my kids.”

Into the Woods is in UK cinemas from 9 January 2015.