Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Dance Party: The Or Means More Than It Did Before

Stephen Sondheim turned 85 this week, coinciding with the DVD release of Into The Woods, which is the most successful of his stage-to-screen musicals. Naturally, a Dance Party is in order!
I didn't have a single problem with this cast, all of whom did their own singing, and quite creditably too.
Sweeney Todd made money and
raised eyebrows: could Sondheim
musicals become hit films?
When the Sweeney Todd film was released several years ago, I lamented the fate of Sondheim fans (or"Sondheimites," pardon the double entendre) who are always disappointed in our hero's screen adaptations.  Go here for that report. But Sweeney ended up making money, earning legitimate critical raves to boot, and Into The Woods has done even better.  The release has grossed just shy of $200 million, worldwide, and the video release will surely increase that number exponentially.  Sondheim can celebrate his 85th birthday with a legitimate film hit.
This week's Dance Party showcases the work of Meryl Streep, who previously appeared on the Dance Party in one of the more bizarre entries in the series, go here for that oddity. Her portrayal of The Witch earned another Oscar nod. Cynics were all over that, but one need only see her scenes with her adopted daughter to admit that she was doing award-worthy work. This was not Margaret Hamilton's witch.
The Into the Woods adaptation is an excellent one, and only Sondheim Poops complained.  By necessity, certain aspects of the original had to be "adjusted" (read CUT), but even purists had to have been pleased.  The songs excised were, with a few exceptions, reprises (though Sondheim reprises are never mere rehashes of previous songs, they stand alone).  Most of the missing music served to update the theatre audience on the passage of time and the progress of the characters's various journeys.  They were not necessary in the film.  
I wish the reprise of "Agony" might have been filmed for a DVD extra, as the original was one of the highlights of the film. No one knew Chris Pine could sing, but the bigger surprise was Billy Magnussen, a surfer dude turned soap star (he spent several years on As The World Turns) whose previous claim to fame was stripping to his skivvies as boytoy Spike in Broadway's Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike.  He won a Tony nomination for his work in his underwear, and has a major film career brewing.  
Tom Aldredge played the Baker's Father in the original. I
wrote a bit about him when he died. The theme of absent
parents was much stronger in the stage play than the film, a
theme which always resonates with me. But it had to go.

I felt the loss of the ballad "No More" most heavily, but have to admit that, here again, it simply was not needed. It's a raw and wonderful duet between the Baker and the father who deserted him as a child, and is probably my favorite song in the show.  But the Baker's Father was a minor character in the film, and the exclusion of his subplot was probably a wise, if painful, decision.
I suppose there are always complaints to be heard, in this case, regarding both Johnny Depp and Lilla Crawford. Depp received the usual snark regarding his eccentric choices; I rather enjoyed his portrayal of the Wolf.  Unbelievably, there were those who actually complained that the two younger roles, Jack and Little Red, were being played by children. Are they kidding? On stage, we might suspend our disbelief and allow 20-somethings to portray pre-teens, but on film, that would be ridiculous.  Crawford in particular handled the intricacies of her role quite well.  She has substantial stage cred, having played Annie in the most recent Broadway revival.
The success of Into the Woods, following that of Sweeney Todd several years ago, has awakened interest in translating Sondheim to film.  Our birthday boy has revealed that someone who shall remain nameless is tackling his Pulitzer prize winner Sunday in the Park with George for film. Considering it took decades to get Into the Woods into the theaters, no need to hold our breaths. 
"The Send In The Clowns Musical"
was the only way they could think
to promote this disastrous Sondheim
film adaptation. It was more than 30
years before anyone tried another.

I myself wish Steve's most cinematic work, Follies, would make its way to the big screen;  it really belongs there.  And boy I wish one of those TV networks planning live presentations of Broadway musicals would take a long look at A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum;  before Robin Williams died, I wrote a piece about how suitable the show would be for such a treatment, and I even cast the thing with TV-friendly stars.
Zero Mostel. Phil Silvers.
Jack Gilford. Buster Keaton.
What could go wrong?

Ah well, maybe one day. For now, enjoy this week's Dance Party, in which Streep has been betrayed by her daughter, who must now pay the price.  Happy Birthday, Steve, and congratulations.