Review: “Into the Woods”

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Since people are already asking me what I thought, here you go:

Cast:

  • Meryl Streep was lackluster.  Her opening rap lacked the big theatricality that number demands (much like the energy-sapped Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett.)  “Stay With Me” was better, and “Last Midnight” was actually pretty good.  Who could have done better?  My top choice would be Joanna Gleason, but Donna Murphy would do in a pinch.
  • Anna Kendrick was OK, but a few too many contemporary/AI-style scoops, and not enough real understanding of the lyrics and characterization in her songs.
  • James Corden was very good as the Baker as was Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife.  It’s a shame that Rob Marshall staged “It Takes Two” in such a goofy way.
  • The Princes were good!  “Agony” was funny, but could have been SO much funner with better direction.
  • Little Red Riding Hood was OK, but just over the line of being too Aspbergersy.
  • The role of the Wolf was completely wasted on Johnny Depp.  If they really needed him to get the film made, I suppose this how he could do the least harm, but hasn’t he destroyed Sondheim’s music enough?  “Hello Little Girl” is such a Ravelian blues masterpiece, and was a big missed opportunity.  Plus, his costume should have been wolfier.  He basically came off as a child molester, which I know is the point, isn’t art about disguising such things?
  • I’m not going to complain about Christine Baranski being in anything, but I would have preferred a Brit in her role (paging Joanna Lumley!) and in most of the others as well.
  • I could have sworn the giant was Matthew Crawley’s mother from Downton, but it turns out it was that woman from The History Boys.
  • Jack was good.  I thought it was really cute how he couldn’t say his ‘R’s.  Tracey Ullmann was a surprisingly good choice for Jacks’ mother.

Direction:

  • Everyone said that this is really a movie, but I’m not sure that I agree.  I thought the staging of the musical numbers was very theatery and generally weak, with a few exceptions, notably the duet of “No One is Alone” which I found very effective (and filmic).
  • There were way too many tight shots, especially at beginning, and many scenes were blocked in such a way that I couldn’t tell what was going on.
  • I did NOT like the ending, which was rendered too maudlin without the return of the bubbly score.  Yes, I know that it was in the credits, but sorry, that doesn’t count, and it sucked.  And I hated Cinderella’s final “I wish”.

Music

  • The score itself is, of course, a miracle and one of the great artistic masterpieces of all time.  Sondheim is like Beethoven for me, in that the most satisfying way to engage with his music is to read the score; no staging/filming/presentation could ever come close to the genius he put on the page.
  • I had no problem with the lack of the narrator and “No More”.  It’s a great song, but I’m willing to sacrifice it for the movie.
  • The key changes bothered me, especially when they occurred mid-song.
  • The additional music score added for the movie was pretty weak, certainly when compared to the Glory of Sondheim.
  • Did everyone catch that Easter Egg of “The Night Waltzes” from A Little Night Music being played at the ball?
  • Some tempi (especially the Witch’s numbers and “Your Fault”) were too slow.  I think they could have been just a notch faster and we still would have understood the words.
  • The orchestrations sounded true to the original overall, and of course Jonathan Tunick always fits Sondheim like a glove.  But I wonder what his name in the credits really means.  Did he actually do anything for the movie, or did he just hand over his original score sheets and let these people do their stuff?

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At the very least, I think we can be safe in our knowledge of what Daniel Bhattacharya’s contribution amounted to amounted to.

Overall, it was good, but not great, and certainly the best of the Sondheim film adaptations.  There were so many missed opportunities, and plenty of ways that they could have presented the music and lyrics in a way that would have elicited their inherent humor, charm and poignancy to greater effect.  I’d give it a solid B – definitely worth seeing, but do yourself a favor and listen to the Original London Cast recording.

Oh, and p.s. I was crying from start to finish just thinking about how tight the motivic construction of the score is.

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Yours, mine and ours

I’m returning to the theatah this week, in rehearsals for a production of West Side Story at the Carnegie in Covington, KY.  With this privilege comes the burden of having to endure that peculiar linguistic habit of stage folk: the rabid overuse of possessive adjectives.  His lights, her set, your orchestra.  That last one (along with his actors) I find particularly galling, because it rings of slave days.  Also: her set?  She bought and paid for all that wood and paint?  I know she put a lot of work into building it, work which was paid for by the theatrical organization, which properly speaking owns the finished product.

Theater People: Use Articles!  The!  It’s what makes our language so great – an all-purpose, genderless definitive that needs no declension or agreement!  Or even better: how about “our”?  No need to be so territorial – it’s a community here!

Speaking of musicals, as improbable as it sounds, I heard this song on the radio yesterday.  It’s by Burt Bacharach, whose music has always elicited a genuine physical revulsion in me.  This particular song contains what might be the worst melody ever written, and the movie, Lost Horizon, was a huge flop.  In a world laden with injustice, it’s nice to know that something so totally deserving of failure fell flat on its face.

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Reboot

A little over a year ago, I wrote the theme music for Cincinnati Edition, a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati’s NPR affiliate.  Here’s what it sounded like:

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Now, I know what you’re thinking: it’s perfect.  It’s got a gripping intro, a hummable tune, and what’s more, it totally flatters that half-jazz, NPR style.  Plus, the performances are excellent.

What then, was I to do when the radio station asked me a couple weeks ago to reboot it for their new host/format?  How was I to improve on perfection?

Basically I just turned a bunch of really excellent musicians loose on it.  Here’s what we came up with:

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Now that’s sure to get those Cincinnatians up out of their chairs at 1:00 pm on weekday afternoons!

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Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’ocean”

is the theme song to the late ’80’s animated TV version of Winnie the Pooh.

Am I right?

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Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs

My friend Will got me hooked on the DIDA podcasts in a bad way last month, and since then I’ve listened to everyone from Artur Rubinstein to Joanna Lumley (’87 and ’07) to Kingsley Amis to Vivienne Westwood.  My favorites so far include: Gÿorgÿ Ligeti ’82, Sondheim ’80, and Imogen Holst ’72, but there is something in there for everyone.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, given what I think of their music.  Grace Bumbry‘s accent was Next Level crazy.

Because you can listen to archived episodes through the decades, you can track a (somewhat disappointing) cultural evolution.  Initially, the program was focused on classical musicians, stage actors, and poets.  Even the film stars chose all-classical selections (witness Lauren Bacall, who didn’t really seem to understand a word of what she was saying.)  Received Pronunciation was de rigeur, and Roy Plomley, the founding host, stressed the playful, imaginative side of the game.

Jimmy Stewart was one of the earliest guests I’ve found to take a mostly non-classical approach.  During Sue Lawley’s reign in the ’90s, the interviews took on a more confrontational tack, and the musical selections trended decidedly more towards pop, to the point where now, hardly anyone chooses a classical selection.  The proportion of film/TV stars and politicians invited to the show began to outweigh that of the classical artists.  People stopped disguising their regional accents.

The fun of listening to DID is, of course, concocting one’s own set of selections and responses.  Here are mine:

Questions

Could you take care of yourself on the island? Reasonably well.
Could you set up a shelter?  Yes.
Cultivate? Sure.  Fish? I caught an eel once.
Could you endure loneliness?  As long as I stayed busy.
Could you rig up a shift or a raft?  Perhaps
Would you try to escape?  No.

Discs

1. Bach, Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux

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The profoundest and most philosophical music I know.  The fact that it is written for a solo instrument would give it a particular resonance on the island.  There are many fine recordings, but Grumiaux’s is a sentimental favorite.

2. Lyle Lovett, Pontiac

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Reminds me of my childhood (my parents were both big fans) and would give me something to sing along to.

3. Beethoven, Late Quartets, performed by the Fine Arts Quartet

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There’s plenty to console, perplex and mesmerize in this music.  I would prefer the recording by the Fine Arts Quartet, but it’s not on Spotify, so the link above is for the Budapest’s recording.

4. Kurt Weill, The Seven Deadly Sins, performed by Marianne Faithfull

This is another recording that’s not on Spotify (or YouTube), but none other will do.  MF’s rendition of “The Pirate Jenny” is on the same disc, so I included it above.  More singalong fodder, beautiful orchestration and great nostalgia value.

5. Sondheim, Into the WoodsOriginal London Cast

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Life would be hard without this.  I linked to the Original Broadway Cast under duress, since the OLC isn’t on Spotify.

6. Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, London Symphony/Abbado

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Obvs.

7. Schnittke, Symphony No. 8, Russian State Symphony/Polyansky

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This transcendental masterpiece is paired with Schnittke’s totally irreverent score to “The Census List”.  The two compliment each other incredibly well.

8. Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wiener Philharmoniker/Solti

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I’m not as familiar with the entirety of the Ring Cycle as I’d like to be, though my adoration of Wagner’s music increases with each passing year.  Gaining familiarity would give me plenty to do on the island.

Book (in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare)

If it were allowed, I’d take the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare; if not, I’d take  the entirety of A Song of Ice and Fire, as long as the 6th and 7th novels were airdropped to me when they’ve been finished.

Luxury: Piano

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