The Internet has been buzzing with talk of the upcoming Into the Woods movie plot changes, and a lot of people are angry. Originally reported in The New Yorker, a recent master class run by Stephen Sondheim has revealed several plot changes for the movie, including the likely elimination of the song “Any Moment,” which, for the uninformed, contains the seduction of the Baker’s Wife by Cinderella’s Prince. While on the surface it may seem that this erasure is simply Disney’s removal of something “scandalous,” those who are familiar with the show understand that there are major plot points and character motivations that lie within this musical number. Further, Sondheim revealed that Rapunzel’s death is also eliminated from the movie version, which, as noted by many, is the driving force behind the powerful “Witch’s Lament.”
We all get it — it’s Disney, so there won’t be any bodice-ripping scenes between Chris Pine and Emily Blunt — but why take away such central elements from the plot? Fans of the show are all wondering how this is going to change the overarching darkness. What are we going to be left with?
To the point, if you strip Into the Woods of opportunities for these seemingly fantastical characters to reveal their humanity, you may be left with two-dimensional cookie-cutter stereotypes.
For example, after his brief affair with the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella’s Prince reveals to the jilted Cinderella that, despite his love for her, there is a part of him “that always needs more.” It is literally one of the only moments in the entire musical where we can see through his over-the-top pompous arrogance to this very human quality. Rapunzel’s death triggers a chain reaction in the Witch — one that doesn’t just lead to “Witch’s Lament” but also plays a huge role in “Last Midnight,” her climactic and emotional show-stopping number. The entire events surrounding the Witch in Act Two reveal the complex layers in her personality, and Rapunzel’s death is the catalyst for all of it. Without these scenes, where will these character transformations come from?
Reinventing “classics” is something that is not foreign to both the theatre and film world. Directors and producers are always looking for new avenues for old stories. Regardless of whether this particular issue is one of reinvention or censorship is almost moot because the key is this: attempting a different take on an older work is only successful when those behind it understand why it was successful in the first place. Without that concrete understanding of the original work’s importance, its centralized themes, its character development, there’s just no way that significant changes can be in service of the story.
Theatre folk are up in arms about these particular changes, not just because scenes have been cut out, and not because we’re “purists,” but because we understand the value of character development, motivation, and storytelling. First and foremost, the job of any director is to tell a story. When a show is censored or reimagined so drastically that it becomes a different story altogether, one must ask, what is the point of remounting it at all? Why not just create something new and own it as such? In this instance, the “giant” in the room is obviously the marketing aspect — Disney is a business, after all, and the people behind this film are likely to be more interested in its opening weekend box office proceeds than whether or not Cinderella’s Prince gets a moment to reveal his humanity. But who is going to speak for the stories that get lost in this process?
Those of us who strive to be successful artists, directors, writers, actors — we have an obligation to the stories and characters we create. There’s a certain responsibility we have when taking on a production; it is our job to not lose sight of the work’s central themes, its purpose. It is our job not to get caught up in our own self-serving ideas, but rather make choices that enhance the characters and the story. It is arguably extremely exciting when a beloved play or film gets redone, because it gives those characters another chance to live on screen or on stage. But there is an inevitable disappointment when the focus of those remakes clearly becomes something other than storytelling. Whether it’s an entirely reimagined version of a play that is now designed for shock value, or a lightened-up family friendly version of a musical aimed for profit, if a remake is straying so far from the path, it may never find its way back. In the case of musical theatre, you can’t strip a show of its heart and expect it to come back to life.