Monday, December 29, 2014

Good Job, Disney!

Translating Stage to Screen

Background: For over thirty years it has been my privilege and pleasure to direct over eighty stage musicals for community groups and high schools, so I have seen and heard a lot of shows, many of them numerous times. Being in a theater watching and listening to live performers has a special magic for both performers and audience. It’s true of live theater of any kind, but music enhances theater. It heightens emotions, increases perceptions and sometimes sweeps us away if it is performed well. As a director I tend to hold my breath through each performance, and it thrills me when the audience leaves smiling. Even more when they are smiling because they saw a satisfying production, and wiping their eyes at the same time because they’ve been moved by the story and by our performance.

I am not a big fan of most films that are adaptations of stage musicals. Oklahoma! was OK (sorry, pun intended). It has been years since I actually watched the film and there must be a reason for that. I really, really, really hated Carousel. Hollywood outdid itself in wrenching a stage musical I love (partly for very personal reasons) into a B movie; leaving out some of the best parts, miscasting the film – I could go on and on about this one. Fiddler on the Roof was not bad, but it seemed to me it dragged terribly. The stage production is very long, the movie seemed interminable.

I liked 1776, but the powers that be were wise enough to use the same team that had made the show a success on Broadway – director, writer, and producer – and many of the original cast members for the film. I love 1776 and loved directing it. The Broadway cast was brilliant and that brilliance translated well to the film version. There were very few changes (some cuts were restored for the most recent DVD). There was very little filler.

Of more recent films, I found Sweeney Todd very disappointing. Some of Sondheim’s best writing for ensemble was completely eliminated – it seemed to be a movie about two very fine actors attempting (and failing) to sing a very difficult, wonderful score. Maybe more than disappointing. I will never watch it again. Tim Burton made me laugh, finally, with all the gore. It became ludicrous. I don’t know, maybe that’s what he was after.

Disney, with Sondheim’s guidance, absolutely nailed Into the Woods. Another great Sondheim show, another show I love, another show I loved directing. The musical numbers that were omitted made sense; the first act finale isn’t needed when there’s no intermission and I liked the way the film continued the story rather than stopping and re-starting. One of my favorite songs in the show (“No More”) was cut but that also made sense in the context of a film and keeping the flow of the story.

The cast was exceptional, and it seemed to me they were all very much aware how much an ensemble piece Into the Woods has to be. My opinion is that the film is a good show for kids as the musical may not be – some of the edges have been smoothed. In the stage play it’s pretty evident that Cinderella’s Prince and the Baker’s Wife have a tryst (good word). In the movie, it can be taken as a “moment” (maybe a little kissing?) but what actually happened is left to the imagination of the audience. There’s no blood, though we understand people die.

No doubt there are those who will object to the changes, but it makes the movie much more accessible to a larger audience. I think it's great that so many people will have the opportunity to see this wonderful musical. Not everybody can afford a ticket to a Broadway show (have you checked the prices recently?!). Not everybody can get to New York to see a show, or even is near a venue for a tour. And those tickets are not cheap either. I saw the film at a matinee at the local Cinemark for $5.75.

Even though they are fairy tale characters, the characters aren’t gorgeous and perfect (well, except for the two Princes – but they have to be). They come across as real people and we care about them. The special effects are excellent and the music is performed expertly, enhanced by a new orchestration. To a purist some of the music may seem a little slow, but again, for an audience that’s unfamiliar with Sondheim and his wonderful texts, I think it was a good choice. Every word is clearly understandable. “The Last Midnight” is extremely well staged. “Agony” was the highlight of the film for me; I can’t imagine how it could possibly have been better.

Give yourself a real treat, go see this film. Even better, take a ten-year-old – but explain the premise first. There’s something beyond “happily ever after” and actions have consequences. And take tissues. “No One Is Alone” always makes me cry.