For what may well be her last film at Cinema 1544, the soon-to-be-departing Jalina chose something we haven’t seen before – a stage production of a Broadway play.  Specifically, she chose Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale-inspired Into The Woods, as directed by James Lapine in 1991 for the PBS series American Playhouse.  This production featured the original Broadway cast (with one very minor exception) as well as the original stage director – the only differences from the original Broadway prodcution were evidently a few staging changes done for filming.  It appears that it was actually cut from three live performances, and there may have been a few pickup shots, but, you know, it’s basically watching a stage play.  And we’d never done that before.

A bun in every oven but one

The story follows two novel characters – a Baker and his wife – who have been inserted amidst no fewer than six crossed-over fairy tales (though two are only lightly touched upon).  The first act of the play follows the Baker and his wife, who hope to have a child but cannot due to a witch’s curse, in their pursuit to procure four talismanic items for the witch while four other well-known fairy tales play out.  You might notice that the numbers of items and fairy tales match up.

My, what a large…codpiece…you’re……missing

That’s by design, you see.  The Bakers must retrieve a cape as red as blood (belonging to Little Red Riding Hood), a cow as white as milk (belonging to Jack of beanstalk fame), a slipper as pure as gold (Cinderella’s, from the Grimm version where there are three nights of balls and nothing un-pumpkins at midnight), and hair as yellow as corn (Rapunzel’s).

Have fun storming the castle!

The twist here (at least for those who know the fairy tale – not raising my own hand, mind you) is that the witch who has cursed the Baker to be childless is also the witch who has stolen Rapunzel, who is the firstborn child of (dun-dun-DUNN!) the Baker’s absent parents.  Evidently, the firstborn punishment of the garden-thieves wasn’t enough for the witch, so she cursed their next child to be barren.  But now, having been cursed herself with ugliness, she is willing to reverse the curse on the Baker if he can collect the items she needs to undo her own curse.

So, while a pair of brother Princes woo Cinderella and Rapunzel and Jack causes a giant to fall from the sky to his death, the Baker and his wife eventually collect the items, the witch becomes beautiful again, the Baker is relieved of his dysfunction, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Until Act Two.

A shame you did it all at twenty-six

Yes, Act Two is all about how fairy tale characters, as humans, can’t stand prosperity.  The Baker and his wife are worn out by their infant child, Cinderella is bored living at the castle, Rapunzel has PTSD from being locked in a tower her entire life, the two princes have fallen for Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in some order, and…oh, the Giant’s Widow has come to wreak her revenge upon her husband’s murderer.

The first victim is the play’s narrator, offered up as weregild to the Giantess, though as he wasn’t responsible it doesn’t actually appease her.  Jack’s mother, Rapunzel, and the Baker’s Wife (recently seduced by Cinderella’s prince) follow in death in short order.

The witch, who had advocated the surrendering of Jack, suddenly disappears forever (because…reasons?) and together the Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Red slay the Giantess and sing some modern moral about being careful what you tell the children.  And They All Lived Cynically Ever After.

I’ll be honest, this was a bit of a tough one because I didn’t really love the libretto.  I’m not necessarily a musical guy anyway, and Sondheim has a strong tendency towards conversational counterpoint that isn’t really my thing.  The brother Princes actually had some fun moments, but in general I didn’t find the melodies memorable.  The story weaves together the four stories with the forced mechanism of the talismen, and the whole thing ends with an entire act of very self-conscious smug irony.  The performances were universally very good, and that’s got to count for something, but try as one might, a stage production is not a film, and cannot hope to deliver on the visual aspects we all hope for from the movies.  It’s a different thing altogether, and it basically succeeds or fails on the strength of the libretto – which, as I said, didn’t really grab me.  I actually would be interested in giving the 2014 Disney film adaptation a chance to see what they were able to do with the source material, but this one is probably in my rearview mirror for the duration.