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While Disney prepares to head "Into the Woods," earlier attempts at turning this Stephen Sondheim show into a movie musical wound up in the weeds

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While Disney prepares to head "Into the Woods," earlier attempts at turning this Stephen Sondheim show into a movie musical wound up in the weeds

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There's been a lot of news lately about "Into the Woods," Walt Disney Pictures' big holiday release for 2014. What with Jake Gyllenhaal & Chris Pine recently signing to play the Princes in this big screen adaptation of Steven Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical. Not to mention Emily Blunt agreeing to play the Baker's Wife, while Les Misérables star Daniel Huttlestone & Anna Kendrick have been in talks to play Jack and Cinderella, respectively.

Given that Meryl Streep has already committed to play the Witch and Johnny Depp has previously signed to play the Big Bad Wolf ... Well, it's been kind of fun watching how this new Rob Marshall project has been coming together. Week to week following which new stars have agreed to join the cast of Disney's "Into the Woods."

That said, it's important to note here that Hollywood has already taken several stabs at turning this stage musical into a movie. And while each of these early attempts at turning "Into the Woods" into a film had plenty of star power (not to mention a surprising number of Disney ties) involved, they never quite got off the ground.

The initial attempt was made back in 1994, just three years after the original production of "Into the Woods" had closed on Broadway. Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope company first optioned the film rights for this project, then hired Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (of "Parenthood " & "City Slickers " fame) to write the screenplay. Sondheim and "Into the Woods" director & librettist James Lapine were then signed to serve as consultants on this proposed motion picture.

Now where this gets interesting is that Ganz & Lowell had so enjoyed working with Penny Marshall on "A League of Their Own " that -- when they finished a first draft of their "Into the Woods" screenplay -- Lowell & Babaloo immediately slipped Penny a copy and then asked her if she might consider directing this new movie musical.

And Marshall was intrigued enough by the material that -- in October of 1994 -- she arranged an all-star reading of Ganz & Lowell's script at her home. And virtually everyone who was anyone back in 1990s Hollywood was there that day. We're talking Robin Williams reading for the Baker, Goldie Hawn as the Baker's Wife and Cher as the Witch. Wait. It gets better. Steve Martin was the Big Bad Wolf, Mayim Bialik was Red Riding Hood, Elijah Wood was Jack and Roseanne Barr was Jack's Mother.  Plus Danny DeVito as the Giant and Brendan Fraser and Kyle MacLachlan as the handsome princes.

Copyright 1992 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved

From what I've heard from a friend who was there that afternoon, it quickly became apparent that -- when you applied this much star power to all that brilliant material that Sondheim & Lapine had already created -- you had the makings of a massively entertaining motion picture. The only problem was ... How was the studio ever going to structure the budget for a movie version of "Into the Woods" (which was already going to involve elaborate sets & costumes plus tons of special effects) in a way that they could then actually afford all these stars and still eventually manage to turn a profit on this project?

American Zoetrophe could never quite find a way to make those numbers work. So in spite of the fact that they really, really, REALLY did want to turn "Into the Woods" into a movie musical, they eventually let the film rights slip away to Sony Pictures in 1995. Where it was then announced Jim Henson Productions would be adapting this stage show to the screen.

And the folks over at Henson, they had some very intriguing ideas in regards as to how to properly mount a movie version of "Into the Woods." First was to hire Rob Minkoff (i.e. the co-director of Walt Disney Pictures' hugely successful 1994 release, "The Lion King ") to helm this production. Second was to cast Billy Crystal as the Baker and Meg Ryan as the Baker's Wife. Which would have been the first time that these two had worked together since their super-popular pairing in 1989's "When Harry Met Sally ."

Copyright 1989 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved

Then -- when you factor in Jim Henson Productions' decision to hire Susan Sarandon to play the Witch in the "Into the Woods" movie -- well, you then had a relatively affordable version of this proposed motion picture that still had plenty of star power. Not to mention a great promotional hook (i.e. Crystal & Ryan back together again for the first time since "When Harry Met Sally") for this project. Sondheim & Lapine allegedly thought highly enough of this proposed production that they then agreed to craft five or six new songs for the film. So with great fanfare in the Hollywood trades, it was then announced that shooting of the movie version of "Into the Woods" would begin in the late summer of 1996. Which then got pushed back to the Spring of 1997. And after that ... nothing.

So what happened? As happens all too often in Tinsel Town, there was a management change at Sony Pictures. And the executive who had been really excited about turning "Into the Woods" into a film was replaced by another executive who wasn't all that big on movie musicals. And without this exec at Sony signing off on that proposed project's budget, "Into the Woods" never ever got greenlit. 

Which may have been -- in the end -- a good thing. For I actually own a copy of Lowell & Babaloo's adaptation of "Into the Woods." And while they obviously had to make some changes to this stage show's story in order to make that movie into something which Jim Henson Productions could produce (EX: The Three Little Pigs were inserted into the storyline so that Jim Henson's Creature Shop could then produce some elaborate animatronic versions of these characters), some of the story adjustments that Ganz & Mandel made would have not have gone over with Sondheim fans. Take -- for example -- SPOILER AHEAD having the Baker's Wife survive her fateful encounter with the giant's wife by climbing up into this enormous woman's tangled hair and then hiding there.

So in the long run, it was probably for the best that it took this long (almost two decades now) for "Into the Woods" to finally be adapted to the screen. From what I hear, the screenplay that Rob Marshall will be using was actually written by James Lapine, the man who both directed & wrote the libretto for the original Broadway show. And from what I've been told, this version of the film script is remarkably faithful to the stage show. Which means that the second half of this Holiday 2014 Walt Disney Pictures release is going to be AGAIN - SPOILER AHEAD pretty bleak.

But what do you folks think? Are you looking forward to Disney's "Into the Woods" ? More importantly, do you like that the Mouse & Rob Marshall seem to be circling back on Penny Marshall's original idea? Which was to turn this movie musical into a genuine event by loading the production up with as many stars as possible?

Your thoughts?

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  • The casting sounds great. Disney should be a good fit. Special effects could make or break it. For Sondheim's sake, I'm hoping Rob Marshall  does for "Into the Woods" what he did for "Chicago."

  • I think the SINGING could make or break it - one must be an exceptional and skilled singer to tackle most of what Sondheim writes. Sweeney Todd had almost an entire cast which could NOT sing.

  • I'm ok with the casting, all except Meryl Streep. Into The Woods has such an amazing score and the thought of listening to Meryl's thin voice try and warble its way through all of the Witch's challenging and brilliant material is just heart breaking.

  • I'm skeptical. I love this musical and I disagree with the comment that you don't need to be a skilled singer to do Sondheim. Sondheim in general, and this musical in particular, is very very challenging. I know. I've done it. Sondheim is deceptively challenging and without proper singers the nuances of the music will just be glossed over. I don't know the quality of singing of Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Jake Gyllenhall, Emily Blunt, and Johnny Depp. But all of their characters must be exceptional singers. I'm also dubious at the apparent lack of Narrator (a pivitol and highly important role in the stage play in which the actor plays another highly important role) and the dual casting of the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince, a role written to be played by the same actor, again for important literary purposes. That said, if Lapine is writing this screenplay, there must be some thought behind it. I generally don't approve of Hollywood hiring "stars" in musicals when they don't have the singing chops. I understand that you need to be able to sell the movie and casting unknown but brilliant singers (who may have unbelieveable stage presence, but won't translate to screen) would also be subjecting the project to a terrible fate; still, I'd like to see actors who can both act AND sing. Challenging? Absolutely. Doable? Certainly. I'll be interested to see how this turns out.

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