Star-studded cast reflects on challenge of adapting Sondheim

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — "Into the Woods, who knows what may be lurking on the journey?" goes a lyric from the beloved 1987 Stephen Sondheim musical. It also sums up the fears many ardent Sondheim fans had when they learned a movie version was coming.

Who knew, indeed, what dangers might be lurking on the journey from stage to screen? Would movie actors be up to the musical demands? Would a Disney film aimed at families be faithful to the original, including the decidedly darker themes that emerge in the second half?

Members of the star-studded cast say they were certainly aware of the expectations.

"People would say, 'Oh, you're doing 'Into the Woods'?" says Chris Pine, who plays Prince Charming. "And then they'd get very quiet. And very serious. And then my heart would start to beat a bit faster."

The musical wittily mashes up a number of fairy tales — "Jack and the Beanstalk," ''Cinderella," ''Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel" — and adds characters of its own, namely a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), who desperately want a baby but are cursed to be childless by a vengeful witch (Meryl Streep) with her own agenda.

Blunt's part as the baker's wife has brought her a Golden Globe nod, along with cast mate Streep. She says she found the project "challenging and daunting and intimidating."

"But at the same time, it's material that you can delve into and explore in a very profound way," Blunt says. "So it's what you want as an actor." (James Lapine, who wrote the musical's book, also wrote the screenplay.)

Blunt was dealing with a number of firsts: She was singing for the first time in a film, and was also pregnant with her first child. "I found it very transporting, being pregnant (while filming)," Blunt says. "It IS such a magical thing, and so to play someone who's just desperately yearning for this — and that's why she does such morally questionable things — helped me understand her actions in a big way."

Unlike Blunt, many of the actors chosen by director Rob Marshall had serious musical theater experience — like Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), who was already singing on Broadway at age 12.

"This is one of those great shows where not only do you want to do it, you want to do every role," says Kendrick. "I want to be Little Red, I want to be Jack, I want to play the baker, I want to play the witch — and that just shows you how compelling every single character is."

Kendrick says she was nervous taking on Sondheim, but "what was really encouraging was the degree to which every cast member, top to bottom, had anxiety about that. That actually made me feel really good. There was an evening that Meryl, Christine (Baranski) and Tracey (Ullman), just in their off time at dinner, were saying, 'OK, how do we make sure that we honor this piece?' And I wish I could show theater fans this conversation."

Kendrick is not your typical fairytale Cinderella — she's brainy and thoughtful and not exactly sure Prince Charming is all he's cracked up to be. Even though he looks like, well, Chris Pine.

"She's very modern and sort of neurotic," Kendrick says. "She rejects love that is just not good enough. It's better than the situation she was in before, but she's brave enough to say, no, I still deserve better."

Don't expect Prince Charming to truly understand this. "I was raised to be charming, not sincere," he says in one of the film's funniest lines.

Pine was one of the few in the cast who wasn't familiar with the musical beforehand.

"Thankfully I was not aware of what I was getting into," he quips. But he reports having a blast — especially doing the hilarious song "Agony," in which he and fellow prince Billy Magnussen (who plays Rapunzel's squeeze) engage in a silly battle of testosterone-fueled one-upsmanship.

"He was in leather pants and I was in velvet pants and we're ripping our shirts off in a waterfall — yeah, it was fun!" says Pine. "What I love about my character is that he's fully aware of being watched. He's like the selfie incarnate."

Director Marshall, an Oscar nominee for "Chicago," says it wasn't too hard to attract such a high-powered cast — once he had his first performer onboard.

"I cast Meryl Streep first, and that sets the bar very high, and it was very easy to attract people (after that)," he says. "I really wanted to make sure that you felt for these people. Because they are fairy-tale characters, you could imagine they'd be played very two-dimensionally. But I think they're played by fully realized people with great depth."

That really comes home with the baker, played by Corden, the Tony-winning British actor and soon-to-be CBS talk-show host. His character gets the child he so ardently wishes for — but loses something very precious, too.

"There are so many messages," Corden says of the film. "To be careful what you wish for, that sometimes the very thing you want is not the thing that you need. But ultimately I think the overwhelming message of the film is that no one is alone. And I think that's a really positive message to leave the cinema with."