Category: Into the Woods

Into the Woods Movie Cast — Meryl Streep

By Jay Greenspan

The reappraisal of Merrill Streep that’s occurred over the last month or so has been fascinating. It seems to have started with A.O. Scott, who wrote the following in his review of August: Osage County.

“Another way to think of “August: Osage County,” which was directed by John Wells and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, is as a thespian cage match. Within a circumscribed space, a bunch of unquestionably talented performers is assembled with no instructions other than to top one another… It goes without saying that nobody can beat Ms. Streep at this game. Remember Amy Adams in “Julie and Julia”? Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”? Anyone at all in “The Iron Lady”? Of course not. Here Ms. Streep smokes, rants, bites her fingers, slurs her speech and spews obscenities with the gusto of a tornado laying waste to a small town.”

Suddenly, Meryl Streep was, above all, a ruthless scene stealer, someone more interested in capturing attention than in embodying a character or exploring the subtleties of a scene. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed everywhere — at my in-laws, on Grantland. It’s the new generally accepted take on Streep. It’s as if Scott managed to say something we all recognized but never quite understood.

But before we just accept this indictment, let’s look at the examples Scott lays out. In “Julie and Julia” Streep never shared the screen with Adams. And her scenes with Stanley Tucci were tender and heartfelt. She can’t be faulted for the anemic writing put in Adam’s mouth. In “The Devil Wears Prada” her character was enormous — her job was so be larger than life — bigger, more dominant in every way than Hathaway’s character. It’s worth remembering here that Emily Blunt came across as the far more charismatic than Hathaway in that movie. Do we really want to fault her for being outsized in a move with the title “The Iron Lady?”

Finally there’s “August: Osage County.” This is Tracy Letts we’re talking about. His performances don’t exactly call for subtlety.

Streep takes big roles and plays them big. There’s nothing wrong with that. In some of the recent romantic comedies she played well with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, without any detectable desire to treat performance as a bloodsport. So let’s get off the Streep-as-upstager tract and move on. She’s a great actress — always has been.

That said, this is a Sondheim blog, and I’m chiefly concerned with examining her fitness for the role of the Witch in the upcoming movie of Into the Woods. Let’s start with this hopeful thought: she can sing a bit.

Obviously, these clips don’t showcase a musical theater voice, and there don’t appear to be any examples of Streep attempting that style, which is a little worrisome.

But for most of the first act, the Witch’s songs are half-sung, half-spoken. I have no doubt that Streep can sell a song such as Witch’s Rap, performed with great theatricality by Bethany Moore in the video below.

I can easily image a landscape in which Streep kills this song and gives an overall performance that delivers menace and comedy in interesting proportions.

The real concern comes in the second act. Take a moment to re-listen to “Lament,” as sung by Bernadette Peters.

When done well — when in the hands of a performer of Peter’s ability — the song captures a truth that all parents face: you do what you can, but often it’s for naught. You’re children are gorgeous and wondrous, but can be confounding and saddening. There’s a lot unpack in those lyrics, and it can’t be done fully if the voice isn’t transcendently beautiful. I don’t believe this is within Streep’s ability.

Will she play nicely with others and put in a good performance? Absolutely. Will she fully express all that’s expressible with this character? I seriously doubt it.

Reevaluating Anna Kendrick

By Jay Greenspan

In a previous post I suggested that Anna Kendrick’s singing talents were a little weak for the part of Cinderella. In light of more recent evidence, I think I need to reconsider.

Sure, she’s not the world’s greatest singer, but whatever. She’s amazing. She’ll make it work.

(Note: I married the hottest girl in my improv class, so this video may bias my normally sound judgement.)

Into the Woods Movie Cast — Anna Kendrick

By Jay Greenspan

The second half of Into the Woods is, in some ways, a messy affair. As the curtain rises we’re given expository dialogue that feels a little clunky. The rollicking pace of the first act becomes a bit of a grind as new plot elements are introduced and the characters confront the questions Sondheim and Lapine want us to consider: Do we really want what we wish for? And what if we get it?

But I’m not complaining. Whatever momentary clunkiness we endure is well, well worth. The payoff: songs so beautiful that their sentiments alone can make me a little weepy…

Mother cannot guide you
Now you’re on your own
Only me beside you
Still, you’re not alone
No one is alone, truly
No one is alone

And when sung by a Cinderella with a soaring voice, the result is deeply moving.

Earlier in the play, Cinderella is alternately comic and sad. But here, at the end, her songs — her voice — bring us to the play’s touching, hopeful conclusion. Note the gorgeous violin at 3:16 over the lyrics…

Hard to see the light now
Just don’t let it go
Things will come out right now
We can make it so
Someone is on your side
You are note alone

Only a great singer can make Cinderella the role it was intended to be. A mediocre actress with a great voice could make it work, but the converse would be a real problem.

This brings us to the subject of this post: Anna Kendrick. She’s a terrific actress who brings charm and presence and intelligence to every role she takes. She was fantastic in Up in the Air and 50/50. I look forward to seeing her in movies for years. But to consider her fitness for the role of Cinderella, we need to examine what we know of her vocal abilities.

Her cover of a folky faux-traditional was good. And her turn as an a singer in an a capella group was fine. But when sharing the stage with a true musical theater talent, the results were not good.

Kendrick’s voice lacks depth, and her ability to nail notes that complete a harmony is fleeting. She tries hard, she clearly loves to sing, but she lacks the training and background that would make the most of the role.

But Kendrick is not lacking in talent, and her voice is a long, long way from terrible. There are moments in her Kennedy Center performance that were quite good.

So there’s reason for hope. From what I’ve seen, she’d have a tough time pulling off the Cinderella role in a Broadway setting, where tonal accuracy and depth are required for hours at time, eight shows a week. But for a movie, she and the producers/directors may be able to pull it off. If they spend enough time in the recording studio, they should be able to cull together versions of the key songs that do justice to the part and the play.

If they manage this, the rest of Kendrick’s talents — her onscreen likability, her beauty, her comic timing — could make this a signature performance for Kendrick. Given her massive popularity ( she has more than 4 Million Twitter followers), a good performance here could bring Sondheim’s work to an entirely new and very young audience. And that would be a great thing.

Into the Woods Movie Cast — Emily Blunt

By Jay Greenspan

I was surprised when I heard that Rob Marshall was making a film of Into the Woods. I listen to the cast recording of the original broadway cast as frequently as anything, and I’ve become very attached to these renditions of some of Sondheim’s best songs. I’m a little nervous. Marshall, I think, did a great job on Chicago, but that material was far more straight-forward and better made for the movie-star cast that seems to be required in filmed musicals. Chicago is sexy, and Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifa, and even Renee Zellweger can do sexy.

But can the A-list cast that Marshall has assembled give credible interpretations of the characters while delivering worthy renditions of these funny and moving songs? We’ll see. In this post and a few that will follow, I’ll dive into a few of the characters and discuss how likely we are to get a good performance from the actress playing the role. I’ll start with Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife.

Emily Bunt is great. She’s clearly smart and has a beauty and emotive capacity that few others possess. I have little doubt that she’ll have a compelling take on the most complex character in the play/movie. My concern is her sining. The below clip has what appears to be the only on-screen singing she’s done (her singing starts at 0:46).

Not bad. In fact, pretty good. But then there’s…

I can listen to Joanna Gleason sing “… Don’t forget it for a moment, though” on continuous loop pretty much forever.

So we can’t really expect Emily Blunt to bring the same vocal chops to the role, and that might be particularly noticeable when the character has her turn at Children Will Listen.

But while I have concerns, I think this is going to go really well. I expect Blunt to take the assignment seriously and make the role her own. These songs have enormous depth, and a really good actress with a decent voice should do just fine. I love this role, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in it.