All together now! Stage versus Screen in Into the Woods

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[This post contains minor spoilers for the original stage version of Into the Woods.]

Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods has met with something of a mixed critical reaction. When reviewers draw the inevitable comparisons between the film and its source material, the tendency is to suggest that the adaptation process has not treated the original musical well, with the blame often placed squarely at the feet of the studio that produced the film, Disney. The original musical expertly weaves together a set of seemingly opposed attitudes, maintaining the validity of the familiar fairy tales it retells while also undermining that validity by cautioning against some of their lessons, particularly the ease of the happy ending. This contrast in attitudes is matched by contrasting tones in the musical’s two acts: the first slyly winks at its audience, acknowledging their familiarity with the stories it’s telling and the attendant expectations for how the characters from those stories should act by lacing much of what they say with innuendo, and the second grimly reverses the conventional happy endings achieved in the first. In the quest for entertainment “for the whole family,” some reviewers claim, Disney could allow neither the knowing asides and implied sexuality, nor the grim reversals of the original. Bob Grimm (presumably no relation to the famous Brothers of the same name), for example, concludes his rejection of the film by suggesting that “a director with a more twisted vision, and a studio with a little more balls, could’ve given us something more suitable to Sondheim and Lapine.”

While the grimness of the musical’s second act is largely retained, a great deal of the subtext, and thus the musical’s thematic core, has been removed. For me, however, this is due less to the dictates of a studio that needs to produce a film for a specific audience than to a problem inherent in the translation from stage to screen – the problem of presence.

As Terry Teachout argues, many of the film musicals produced during the “golden age” of the genre “were written specifically for the screen rather than being adapted from Broadway shows,” and when an adaptation was undertaken the source material was rewritten. The problem, Teachout suggests, is that the improbability of certain “stage-specific” conventions, particularly characters who suddenly “sing and dance in everyday situations,” which are readily accepted by theatre audiences, are “unsuited to the somewhat more” realistic medium of film. The improbability of breaking into song is legitimized on stage by the performers who, in being “physically present in the theatre,” can be accepted as “real,” allowing the musical to sidestep the need for a “realistic plot” by appealing to a “presentational” mode. This mode does not deny its status as entertainment, and often acknowledges the presence of the audience through techniques like direct address and frontal staging, techniques that early narrative cinema gradually abandoned in favour of creating story worlds closed off from their audiences.

Setting aside the theoretical slipperiness of claims to film’s realism, to suggest that audiences are unwilling to accept the improbabilities of song and dance in a naturalistically realized setting forgets the fact that our familiarity with the genre leads us to expect, and therefore accept, those conventions before seeing any musical. The improbabilities of the musical, on stage or screen, are legitimized by the fact of being a musical, and not by the physical presence or non-presence of the actors.

The presence of the actors on stage raises an entirely different problem for film adaptations of established musicals than simply allowing for a certain degree of unreality. It is what else the presentational mode allows that Marshall struggles with.

Film has developed a number of devices to suggest simultaneity, the most commonly used of which is cross-cutting. By alternating between lines of action a film can easily shift between spaces so that the audience can witness events happening at the same time. The race to the rescue is the classic example: cutting back and forth between the damsel in distress and the hero coming to her aid. Because stage musicals are more bound to a single location, the depiction of simultaneity is slightly more difficult. To depict multiple events happening at the same time, those events must be staged in the same space even if they occur in drastically different places. The American Playhouse production of Into the Woods, however, suggests that this seeming incompatibility of different places in the same space need not be a difficulty at all by allowing its storylines to progress on stage at the same time. Much of the first act is staged in a triptych, with Cinderella’s and the Baker’s storylines occupying opposite sides of the stage, separated by Jack and his mother in the center, an onstage narrator directing our attention as the action shifts from one area to another. This co-presence helps to highlight the parallels and correspondences drawn between the stories – correspondences the audience is then conditioned to look for when the staging changes – as well as giving the sense that the characters all live in the same world.

In cutting from one story to the next, however, this sense of cohesion is largely lost in Marshall’s film. Aside from a very pointed long shot in which the characters from the various storylines are shown entering and then taking diverging paths through the woods, those storylines seem to be connected by little more than contiguity, separate incidences taking place in separate parts of the wood. This effect is only reinforced when the company engages in a group number, especially the titular “Into the Woods” which, since it is depicted using cross-cutting, seems to isolate the characters in their own spaces rather than allowing them to enter, exit, and co-habit the same space. When these individuals join together to sing the same piece of music it seems forced, a convention adopted from the source material and not the natural drawing together of characters embarking on similar experiences.

This is not to suggest, of course, that Marshall should have faithfully adapted the musical’s staging, but rather that the sense of space created by the presence of the company on the stage and the sense of space created by cross-cutting are in no way analogous, and that this remains a formal problem that has yet to be satisfactorily solved in film adaptations of Broadway musicals. (For another example, see “One Day More” in Les Misérables which, on stage, derives a great deal of its power from the presence of the entire company in the same space, and therefore loses some of its power when rendered via cross-cutting.)

The problem of presence is due, at least in part, to Hollywood film’s tendency to shy away from presentational conventions. The physical narrators, direct address, and asides to the audience that have a place on stage seem to have no place on screen. To acknowledge the presence of the audience is to acknowledge the artifice of the world on screen, therefore destroying any possibility of fully engaging in that world. The screen world and the audience are in two different spaces that must remain radically separate. The original musical’s narrator has therefore been abandoned, and, as a result, so has most of the action involving the character the narrator doubles for, the Baker’s father, along with his final number “No more” which serves to tie together the thematic strands drawn by the correspondences and parallels between characters and their stories carefully established throughout the story.

Disney’s influence may indeed have led to a downplaying of the original musical’s playful innuendo, but the film adaptation suffers from a much more complex formal problem than just the need to render its source material PG.

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