Before you read this, Sondheim fans, hide the fragile items near your computer or smartphone, because you’re going to want to throw something.
In a recent New Yorker story, Stephen Sondheim spoke with a group of high school theater teachers who have produced the legendary composer/lyricist’s provocative musicals in spite of school administrators’ protests about the show’s often-adult themes and shared some unsurprising but disappointing details about his upcoming film project.
When Kevin Gallagher, a teacher who is mulling a production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”–which Disney is turning into a Rob Marshall-helmed adaptation for the Christmas season starring Meryl Streep and Johnnie Depp–shared with the composer his school’s worries about the sexualized interactions between Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Sondheim replied, “Well, you’ll be happy to know that Disney had the same objections.”
Alert! Do not read below if you don’t want to know any spoilers about Disney’s adaptation.
“You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed,” Sondheim went on, “and the prince does not sleep with the [Baker’s Wife]. You know, if I were a Disney executive I probably would say the same thing.”
Kudos to Sondheim for being so zen about it. But for those of us who love “Into the Woods” and the heart-wrenching emotional realness of its second act, this is a real blow. Also cut, apparently, is “Any Moment,” the see-ya-never farewell between Cindarella’s Prince and the Baker’s Wife after their adulterous tryst. Sondheim says that he and co-writer James Lapine fought to keep the song in, but they eventually relented. And wrote another song to cover the gap. That’s news.
Of school censorship, Sondheim told the teachers, “You have to explain to [students] that censorship is part of our puritanical ethics, and it’s something that they’re going to have to deal with. There has to be a point at which you don’t compromise anymore, but that may mean that you won’t get anyone to sell your painting or perform your musical. You have to deal with reality.”
He’s right, of course. As another one of Sondheim’s most brilliant songs, “Putting It Together” from “Sunday in the Park with George” puts it, making art is a lot about paying for it: “Lining up the funds but in addition / Lining up a prominent commission, / Otherwise your perfect composition / Isn’t going to get much exhibition.”
Sondheim fans are ecstatic about seeing a musical adaptation of “Into the Woods.” Since it’s coming from Disney, we know it’s not going to be as dark as Sondheim and Lapine’s original. We know that, but we’re still not happy about it. As “Into the Woods” makes ever so clear, the human condition is, at heart, one in which we constantly yearn for more than we have.
Musical lovers–we have an exhaustive appraisal of all the upcoming movie musicals. And anyone who loves Sondheim should track down–on various platforms–the deliriously fun James Lapine HBO doc “Six by Sondheim.”