Rob Marshall lets a sigh of relief erupt so loud it could be heard by giants in the sky. The Into the Woods director, it soon becomes clear, is itching to get something off his chest.
He’s in a Manhattan hotel suite just over a month before his Meryl Streep-led film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved musical hits theaters. The film had just screened for critics for the first time the night before, ending more than a year of backlash, rumor-mongering, and social media debates over changes he reportedly made to the source material—controversies that, in turn, cemented Into the Woods’ status as one of the award season’s most anticipated and, among musical theatre obsessives, most feared entries.
So when I ask Marshall how the experience of shepherding this star-studded Into the Woods adaptation to the big screen compared to adapting Chicago—another cherished Broadway show that was altered greatly for film—12 years ago, when the social media firing squad and their 140-characters of ammunition didn’t exist, his demeanor becomes damned near giddy. It’s time for him to defend his movie against everyone who has judged it unfairly, prematurely, and oh-so publicly.
“Thank you for asking that question!” he grins. “This is wonderful. Really smart. Because when I did Chicago I had to make changes, make cuts from the original musical, and I heard nothing! There was nothing. We just did the work.”
Like a Jack in the Box just sprung from coiled captivity, he begins rambling excitedly.
“I was thinking of Bob Fosse when he took Cabaret and completely changed it for film,” Marshall says. He then lists all the major alterations Fosse made from the original production: cutting two major characters, Herr Schultz and Frauleine Schneider, completely; making Sally Bowles American; changing the character of Cliff to Mark and making him British; and cutting most of the material except for the songs in the club. “I can’t imagine what would’ve been going on for him if it was today with social media!”
If Marshall is a bit on the defensive, it’s a) because I put him there, asking him point blank about the controversies the film has already encountered and b) because of those said controversies—the rampant outrage in the theatre community over casting decisions; reports about cut songs and storylines; and the assumption that, because Disney is producing this Into the Woods adaptation, the darkness that permeates the source material would be missing from the film.
Into the Woods, as the film warns in its tagline, twists our favorite childhood fairy tales to arrive at a lesson: be careful what you wish for. Happily ever afters, as it happens, have consequences. Into the Woods explores what happens after Cinderella finds her prince, Little Red Riding Hood has the wolf killed, and Jack discovers a land of wealth up the beanstalk. Not to spoil much, but it turns out that once upon a time there were philandering royals, pedophilic wolves, and giants on a murderous rampage, too.
For those who have been moved by Into the Woods’ journey into the darker, more human side of fairy tales, those elements—the sex, the death, the unhappily ever afters—are the key to the musical’s lasting resonance. So at the first murmurings that some of those storylines or songs would be cut or altered, theatre fans charged at Marshall with their social-media pitchforks.
But not only does Marshall think that those naysayers jumped the gun on their anger—again, this was before the film had ever even screened—he thinks they should have had more faith in him in the first place. Not that he ever planned to engage in the controversy directly.
“My response to it was to try and stay away from it because I thought it was all conjecture—they haven’t seen the film,” he says. But then Marshall, who actually began his career choreographing a production of Into the Woods at the North Shore Music Theatre, talks about why he thinks it’s all so confusing.
“I’m from the theatre,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of Into the Woods. I made sure to have James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim involved throughout the whole process. So I was careful about it—I daresay more careful than anyone else would’ve been with the material.”
Careful, yes. Truer to the source material than anyone would’ve imagined Disney would allow, certainly. But the fact remains that things have changed. Songs were cut. Characters were altered.
“We’ve seen people who are too faithful to the original source material and it doesn’t work as a film,” he says. “And that is doing the piece a disservice.” Anyone who’s seen the Rent or The Producers movie musicals could probably attest to that.
In all fairness, too, Marshall has at the ready pretty rational reasons for almost every change he made in this adaptation. (Here is where Into the Woods obsessives will be highly interested, and people who have never seen the stage show maybe slightly confused.)
The least drastic changes, to start with, are the reimagining of “Giants in the Sky,” “I Know Things Now,” and “On the Steps of the Palace,” three of the show’s most iconic songs. “You have to say, ‘This is a film. It’s much more realistic,’” he says. “You can’t have people breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience.”
Like Fosse did with Cabaret, Marshall excised two major characters: the Narrator and the Mysterious Man. He’s not precious when talking about killing the darlings, either. The narrator? Same fourth wall problem: “Just doesn’t work.” And the Mysterious Man? “We eliminated him because we just needed to consolidate for film.”
A major sore sport for fans of the stage play will be the cutting of the Baker’s ballad “No More,” about confronting the responsibilities of fatherhood. Part of that was due to the elimination of the Mysterious Man. “When that goes, then ‘No More’ doesn’t make sense, because the line ‘No more riddles / no more jests’ doesn’t make sense, because that’s not part of the fabric of the piece anymore,” Marshall says.
But more than that, it was a pacing issue. “You have a series of ballads in a row at the end on stage: ‘No More,’ ‘No One Is Alone,’ ‘Children Will Listen.’ On film, that’s very hard to make work. I always feel on film you have to earn a ballad, because it’s a different kind of pace. So you have to really be aware.”
It’s worth pointing out, too, that many of the rumored changes that sparked much of the original controversy ended up being false reporting. The Baker’s Wife affair with Cinderella’s Prince is still there. The song that bookends the tryst, “Any Moment,” wasn’t cut. The characters’ names haven’t been changed to match up with Disney’s animated features.
But when he’s pressed about more of the changes that did happen—not killing off Rapunzel, casting Jack and Red Riding Hood so young—it’s clear that Marshall is getting a bit exasperated about talking about the comparisons. His final answer, however, might be the one that best sums up his entire approach to the musical’s adaptation, and sends a message that we might all be making much ado about nothing.
“You have to make it for the person who knows it,” Marshall says. “But you have to also make it for the person doesn’t know it. That’s very important.”
But as for those who do “know it” and who have been responding, sight unseen, to every bit of Into the Woods news with a hyper-critical eye, Marshall is still zen. “My feeling is just to be patient,” he says. “Because they’ll see the film and then they’ll understand. I think this is probably closer to the original than most musicals that work as a film are.”
And then, as Into the Woods teaches us, we’ll all live happily ever after. Or, you know, not.