My children didn't have much of a choice about becoming musical theater geeks. Show-tunes were pretty much the only thing I played around the house, with Stephen Sondheim far and away the most popular composer and lyricist.
As a result, my 15-year old , 11-year old, and almost-8-year old regularly pepper their conversations with such Into the Woods truisms as "Nice is different than good," "What's important is the blame, somebody to blame," and the reality of "Life is often so unpleasant, you must know that as a peasant." (They also know my perennial birthday wish is the equally Sondheim inspired, "I wish my house were not a mess, I wish my son were not a fool, I wish a lot of things.")
They've seen my old VHS tape of the original production starring Bernadette Peters as it was recorded in 1989 and broadcast on PBS in 1991. We took them to watch the Public Theater's version live outdoors in Central Park starring Donna Murphy in 2012, and the cast recording has been their bedtime listening staple since they were in diapers. (You haven't lived till you've heard a preschooler dramatically warble, "I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right.")
Image: Walt Disney Studios
Because they're so familiar with the story and the lyrics, I had no qualms about taking my three to see Disney's Christmas Day, big-budget release of this Sondheim classic. But is Into the Woods appropriate for children who might be experiencing it for the first time?
It absolutely is.
Naturally, every parent knows what their own child's sensitivities and patience levels are (the movie runs two hours and four minutes, with close to a half-hour of previews beforehand). But Into the Woods is certainly no more frightening than the average kiddie adventure tale, live action or animated. (My daughter, for instance, was more frightened by Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.)
For parents familiar with the show, be advised that Disney has actually lightened it up quite a bit. Far fewer characters die than in the stage production, with all of the remaining deaths more implied than shown. The same goes for the Baker's Wife and Cinderella's Prince's "moment" in the woods.
Johnny Depp plays the lecherous wolf who comes upon Little Red Riding Hood and sings a song full of sexually charged, double-entendres before sneaking into Grandma's house, donning her clothes, and partaking in the well-known, "My what big (facial features) you have," exchange.
Depp chooses to play this role the same way he has chosen to play every role he's undertaken this century, in a manner so bizarre and off-putting that you have no idea what he's trying to convey. On the stage, Little Red Riding Hood is usually portrayed by an adult woman, so the scene is all sexual subtext. In the movie, she is an actual little girl (Broadway's Annie, no less!), thoroughly oblivious to his implications.
Her innocent state transfers to the audience where, even though my 15-year old snorted, "He's such an obvious pedophile," the younger two piped up, "What's a pedophile?" prompting my husband to snap at the teen that he should think more before he speaks.
So now that you know you can take your kids Into the Woods, the questions remains, should you?
That depends. If you're a musical theater purist, you might want your children's introduction to include the entire score. Several key songs are cut, including "No More," and "Maybe They're Magic," along with huge chunks of "Children Will Listen," the reprise of "Agony" and much of "I Wish."
On the other hand, you can think of the movie as those Abridged Classics at Barnes & Noble. A way to introduce kids to the story in a friendlier and more palatable manner.
Not only is the score simpler, but the humor is much broader. Chris Pine, as the aforementioned Cinderella's Prince, spent two Star Trek movies walking the fine line between invoking the spirit of William Shatner without parodying him. Here, he goes full, late-career Shatner, zooming past camp and settling firmly in cartoon territory - to great effect.
Meryl Streep may not have the vocal chops of Peters or Murphy, but just as she did in Mama Mia, where she managed to act the hell of out of pop trifles like ABBA's "Winner Takes It All" and "Slipping Through My Fingers," here, she does equal justice to the far superior material, especially another mother/daughter song of regret and loss, "Stay With Me." (Though, for the record, also like Peters and Murphy, she really can't rap.)
Finally, the highlight for me, and it may be for kids in the audience, as well, was Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, performing "There Are Giants in the Sky." Like Little Red Riding Hood, on stage, Jack is usually played by an adult. Those actors do their best to convey innocence, excitement, and burgeoning self-discovery. This Jack comes by it naturally. His rendition is truly that of an overwhelmed, impressionable boy, not a young man trying desperately to act like one.
Huttlestone does, however, have a rather thick English accent (so does his mother, and the Baker and his wife; but, strangely, no one else in their kingdom). My oldest son blurted out, "He's as hard to understand as Gavroche in Les Mis!" Same kid.
Personally, I would recommend Into the Woods to every parent for the same reason I would recommend reading your kids books you think they might be too young for. Yes, the language is certainly more complicated than the lyrics to "Let It Go" (not knocking either "Let It Go" or "Frozen," they're both terrific, but geared at a different audience). The intertwined plots are also more complicated, deliberately taking familiar fairy-tales and asking, "What could happen post-Happily Ever After?"
That's a great question, guaranteed to get your kids' imaginations spinning - and maybe even the two of you talking. Every few minutes, Into the Woods posits philosophical and ethical queries to which there are no right or wrong answers. Just more questions. Different kinds. (Which is actually the lyric to one of the cut songs.)
So, I say, go Into the Woods and have no fear, as no one should. (Yes, that's another lyric. I told you I was a musical-theater geek.)
- Alina Adams
More from entertainment