Into the Woods had a powerhouse cast and a gorgeous sound. But there's still something missing in this musical: the death of a certain character. And it nearly kills the movie. Spoilers ahead.
I'm a movie musical realist. Colm Wilkinson can't play every iteration of Les Miserables' Jean Valjean forever (although he should) and sometimes Rent the movie happens. So when news dropped that Into The Woods would be adapted to the big screen with the blessing and help of musical co-creators Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, I was cautiously optimistic about the end result.
And in spite of some super upsetting (mostly untrue) news and an out-of-place Big Bad Wolf, the end result was actually pretty close to a success. In our earlier review I praised the cast, Streep's fantastic work and the masterful way Into The Woods recreated that all -consuming, theater sound. But days later, there's still one nagging problem that haunts me. Rapunzel lives? No fucking way.
Now is the time where I stick a playbill up my own ass and rant about the change that gutted the whole film.
Rapunzel's happy ending drains out all the murky, real world themes about aging, adolescence, growing old and obsolete that Into the Woods worked so hard to build. In the original stage musical, Rapunzel's mother (the Witch) banishes her to the desert. There she gives birth to the Prince's twins, alone. Eventually, the blinded Prince finds her; she heals him with her tears, and they reunite. But the damage is already done, and Rapunzel's journey has driven her insane. Back in the enchanted kingdom, her madness sends her screaming and weeping through the woods, where she's eventually trampled to death by the Giant. And this all happens right in front of her mother.
In the film, theres's no madness, no babies, and most importantly no death. The Prince and Rapunzel ride off on a white horse and right into their happy ending. Sure, it's a big "screw you" to the Witch, but it's certainly not on par with witnessing your daughter's death.
Not killing Rapunzel also changes the entire point of the crushing song that comes right after this scene, "Witch's Lament." The first half of the song (sung to the same melody as "Stay With Me") is cut.
"Now you know whats out there in the world. No one can prepare for the world. Even I. How could I who loved you as you were. How could I have shielded you from her. Or them."
It's both heartbreaking and chilling. The Witch isn't necessarily upset with her past decision to imprison her daughter. The Witch is struggling with her grief and her own stubbornness. She's not singing about how she should have been a better Mother; she's singing about how she tried to protect the one she loved the most and failed.
Cue the second half of the song (which is the only part that the film keeps):
"No matter what you say, Children won't listen. No matter what you know, children refuse to learn. Guide them along the way, still they won't listen. Children can only grow. From something you love. To something you lose…"
This is where the movie loses me. In the Disney version, Rapunzel was right not to listen. In fact, she's better off for not listening to her Mother. When Meryl Streep is singing, " No matter what you say, children won't listen," you're left thinking, Good.
In the play, it's infinitely more complicated, because the Witch believes she's right. If Rapunzel had listened to her mother, she would still be alive. And in turn, the Witch being right turns the "Lament" into a powerful ballad of delusion and grief.
Had the Witch not locked her daughter away, banished and blinded her Prince, Rapunzel probably wouldn't have suffered such trauma and wound up running under the feet of a giant in the first place. But in her eyes, she was protecting her daughter and when her daughter disobeyed her, she died. It's complicated and hard. But it's supposed to be hard. No, we're not going to blind our children's significant others if we don't like them, but we may get caught up doing what we think is right for those that we love. And we could be wrong. Dead wrong. This is why this musical is so great, because it forces you to dissect the uncomfortable realities of parenthood.
Cutting the death of Rapunzel cuts out the dimension of the song and the complex themes the Into the Woods stage play forces you to consider. "Lament" is now slightly more of a one-dimensional villain song rather than one which makes you think about the difficulty of being a parent. And it doesn't stop there. Unfortunately, this edit impacts so many other important lyrics that pop up later on.
For example, in the Witch's swan song, " Last Midnight," the Witch attacks the other cast members for their inability to make a decision and their need to pass the blame. She accuses them of the biggest crime of all: being "nice."
"You're so nice. You're not good. You're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right. I'm the Witch. You're the world. I'm the hitch. I'm what no one believes, I'm the Witch."
And this stings, because well, she was right (to a point). Her accusatory tone about their ambivalence works because she's the only person actively parenting (for better or worse). Up until then, the Baker couldn't even hold his own child. Keeping Rapunzel alive is committing the very crime of being "just nice," and this play is smarter than that. What's worse, in the end the cast agrees with with the Witch in "No One Is Alone," singing, "Witches can be right." But in the movie version, she's not really right about anything.
It just feels like it was too hard. Or too scary. Or maybe Disney was afraid killing the main character from Tangled while her mother loses her mind and sings "squish" and "boom splat" at the surviving characters. That's dark.
Buzzfeed asked Lapine that very question. But his response was nope.
Let's talk about Rapunzel, who doesn't die in the film. There was also early backlash about that. I assume the choice to keep her alive had something to do with the fact that she's a Disney Princess?
JL: Oh, no. There was a lot of discussion about the body count and how many people were dying in the second act. There was just a compromise, frankly, in not having her die. It wasn't like I thought she had to die, as long as "Children Won't Listen" would resonate. And I thought, Yeah, it wouldn't matter, dramatologically. She's less damaged in the film version than she is in the stage version. So I guess that was a compromise, yeah.
In another interview with Variety, James Lapine revealed that he and Sondheim wrote and shot a whole new song just for Streep titled, "She'll Be Back." It was allegedly sung right after Rapunzel leaves. And perhaps maybe that could have helped, but I'm not sure.
Overall, the film version of Into the Woods felt like it simply cast off whatever was too difficult to carry thematically. Maybe that's why the great ballad "No More" was nixed as well (and that sucks, because you know James Corden would have sung the hell out of that tune). I'm not asking for a line-for-line remake. It's understandable why "Agony (Reprise)" was cut (even though the first "Agony" yielded a spectacular performance by both Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen); it would have been more of the same.
I'm just sad to see the major themes of the play get downgraded into something simplistic. Because it's the hard questions and grey area values that keep Into The Woods timeless.