Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there was a man who loved to make sweet music. This man, who went by the name of Stephen, trained for years under a great lyricist. He worked hard to master his craft, and became known for his musical plays. These plays were filled with life’s complexities, tending to portray life as challenging, morally ambiguous, and, above all, difficult. For years, he captured various nuances of life, portraying what he saw, learned, or understood about life without giving into sentimentality.
Years into his career, he met James Lapine, with whom he created a musical which that became one of his most well-known, Into the Woods. Based in the fairy tales used to teach children morality, Stephen’s new musical would wonder what happens to us if we reach our pinnacle? What happens when we grow up? Life is never a singular sustained high note. There are trials and tribulations to come after the ending.
Over the course of three hours, Stephen would build familiar fairy tales into their happily ever after, then gleefully stomp around letting them try to figure their way through adulthood. He would retell the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel, as well as adding in his own overarching story of a Baker whose bloodline has been cursed by a witch for his father’s misdeeds. They’d all succeed until life would come crashing down. As a metaphor for growing up, or even a metaphor for devastation, the second act of Into the Woods would teach children that happily ever after isn’t a realistic ideal. Life doesn’t stop on your high note. There is always more to come until you die, and you need to remember the moral consequences of your life will carry on after you think you’ve found your pinnacle.
This musical would be richly received by an adoring public. The musical would be performed by high schools and pro-am productions around the land. Because of the fairy tale origins, little kids wanted to be in it, and starred in neutered editions which chopped off the adult lessons, and all of the second act, ending on the happily ever after. These productions would run in a more kid-friendly 60-80 minutes, but they never told the full story.
Time passed. The productions of Into the Woods would continue, especially the shortened versions. The musical would work its way into the higher echelons of musical critique, especially by those who saw the full version as a teenager when they were learning how to navigate their way through life. But, a specter in the shape of a mouse was lurking around the corner.
Eons ago, there was a mouse named Disney. He started off small enough, but started gorging on children’s tales, digesting them to make the tales softer and more easily palatable for the people who followed him. He gained a significant following of kids, and kids of kids, and kids of kids of kids. Soon, he was large enough to rule an entire land of children. Disney had softened the morality of the original fairy tales to make sure even the teeniest of the teeny would be able to enjoy them. The tales became softer and softer until people could just have mindlessly enjoy them.
When Disney saw Into the Woods, he knew that he would have to put an end to this. “A musical that explored real life? Nonsense!,” cried Disney. “People should not be thinking about adult morality while watching fairy tales. We must put a stop to this!”
Soon, Disney started putting production on eating Into the Woods, but found it tougher to conquer than other fairy tales, particularly because the creators were still alive at the time. Into the Woods was not free for eating, and would come with many rules for digestion. But, the sheer size of Disney, with all his accumulated gold, was able to buy Into the Woods for a late winter supper.
To digest Into the Woods, Disney’s first goal was to shred the second act. One of the rules, however, was that the second act must be retained in some form. Disney argued, “But, Into the Woods is too long for most people.” Still, Stephen and Lapine were adamant, “To delete the second act would be to destroy Into the Woods.” As a compromise, Disney and Lapine worked together to destroy the plotting and pacing and make it a faster finale that makes no sense. After all, everybody wants to see the build-up to Happily Ever After, but few want to see the onset of reality, right?
Still, Into the Woods wasn’t bad enough to entirely destroy its accumulated reputation. Disney employed Rob Marshall to help with the adapting. Rob Marshall, who had made his name on a success of Chicago, had been coming off the known flop Nine, where he had sewer waste as his source material, and his input couldn’t have saved it if he was good. Rob Marshall, known for his set-based staginess, was chosen to direct a musical outdoors. And, his main choice was to never let his characters explore the outside world. They’re constantly kept in small confined sets of woods representing the closets in which Disney would prefer to keep his followers.
Intent on utter destruction of a beloved musical, Disney employed non-singers in roles few consider easy to sing. Keys would change, notes would be dropped, pacing slowed, and the musical would become utterly dull for these non-singers with reedy voices. Just to hide his intents, Disney would even hire famed players, like Meryl the Greatest Actress in the Land, even though they had reedy singing voices. Disney and Marshall would misdirect children and then blame the children playing the roles. Not to make it too obvious, they would let the occasional good actress play on. Emily Blunt would rise above the travesty for reasons that shall not be spoiled here.
Disney knew that a film version would eventually become the definitive version of the musical, especially a Disney film version. We’re left with a severely misdirected and miscast musical where the much beloved second act has been neutered and only two show-stopping songs survive. Disney made sure the first act, the act that Disney was interested in, survived in tact, but Disney was going to destroy the second half of the movie. Important songs cut, pacing destroyed, payoffs left on the cutting room floor, plots left unhinged, the second act of Into the Woods is a travesty acted upon musical theater.
Upon seeing the final cut of the film, Stephen cried out in despair, “They’ve utterly destroyed my work!” But, Disney threatened to destroy Stephen. Having to choose between life and death, Stephen recanted, exclaiming “No, I guess it’s good. Please don’t kill me, Disney,” knowing in his heart that he was lying.
And, so, the stage productions of Into the Woods must survive its Frankenmonster cinematic counterpart in order to achieve an audience. Maybe, in time, people will forget about this cinematic travesty and come back to the musical. Time will tell.