A Medium Rating

Repeat after me: A medium rating is the best you can do.

In the wake of the release of the highly anticipated Into the Woods film adaptation, the Musical Theatre community is again preparing to watch one of its sacred entities brought to life on the silver screen. On February 13th, 2015, the intimate and heartbreaking saga of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years will make the leap from the CD cases of Broadway collectors to a movie theatre near you. The Last Five Years, just like Into the Woods, holds a special place in the hearts of Musical Theatre lovers for its raw vulnerability and emotionally-charged melodies. Musical Theatre fans are fiercely protective of their material and extremely quick to expose the foibles of stage-to-screen adaptations—so if the personal conversations I’ve had and countless articles I’ve read in response to Into the Woods are any indication, I fear the battalions are arming for another siege this month.

From the Vanity Fair review to articles not-so-subtly titled “Five Ways Into the Woods Could Have Been a Whole Lot Better,” a lot of people have been saying the same thing about the movie. SPOILER ALERT (but let’s be honest, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably seen it): the verdict from the Musical Theatre community sounds like this: We hate that they cut the Baker’s Father story line. We hate that Rapunzel doesn’t die. We hate that they cut “No More.” And of course, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t completely disheartened to see those changes were made as well. As I’ve said before, Into the Woods is an integral part of my life as my first CD and my favorite musical—so I absolutely share those sentiments of disappointment.

But here’s the thing: people are having conversations about Into the Woods now. And conversations lead to curiosity; curiosity leads to Google-ing, YouTube-ing, Netflix-ing, and Amazon-ing; all of which will lead to the perfection that is the Original Broadway Cast’s gloriously-captured performances in the filmed stage production. And even if it doesn’t, film adaptations since Chicago have been drawing Musical Theatre back into a more relevant place in the landscape of popular culture, so the continuation of the trend is pretty darn great.

You’ve just got to remember to give it a medium rating.

Movies and live theatre have always had a tumultuous, semi-abusive, ultimately supportive relationship. Films like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story are considered by many to be amongst the greatest of Hollywood’s achievements in the golden age of cinema. Yet every single one of those movie musicals included plot adjustments, song deletions, and tiny moments that were so potent on stage but seemed to dissipate on screen. Broadway’s also done its fair share of looting of the Hollywood canon, especially in contemporary Musical Theatre. Who amongst us didn’t devour shows like Legally Blonde, Heathers, and Bring it On? But all of those shows sacrificed characters, plot arcs, and thematic material from their respective parent films on their journey to the stage.

So why am I in support of this continued relationship? Why am I not more protective of our material and more horrified by a hybrid lovechild like the film adaptation of Into the Woods that is indeed the more widely viewed version of the piece?

That’s right—because I give it all a medium rating.

As a stage production, Into the Woods excels because it is a shared learning experience between the archetypal characters alive on stage and the captivated audience. By transporting the audience to a safe and familiar place with the universal characters from our childhood bedtime stories, Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine expertly prep the audience to be suddenly jarred—and therefore mentally shaken – just as the giantess’s first steps begin to shake up the lives of the characters in Act Two. We are confused and scared along with them, and so we venture into the woods this time with a new perspective and, with the loss of the narrator, bravely begin to face the fears that we’ve long condemned to keep a silent vigil in our collective subconscious. It is a communal experience between actor and audience that leaves everyone changed—and many of the successful devices of the production are created to enhance that communal experience: the narrator, actors playing multiple roles, the presentational self-discovery moments. These are the heart and soul of Into the Woods—and they are unique to the medium of live theatre.

I knew going into the movie theatre that even the best film adaptation of Into the Woods wouldn’t be able to deliver the depth that all of us were hungry for simply because the medium of film wasn’t designed for the communal experience. Film is powerful for its ability to deliver seamless reality through an artistically beautiful and voyeuristic eye. Into the Woods was not made for such an honest lens—and The Last Five Years is another production whose storytelling device relies strongly on the raw and living emotions between two people in the same room and on the same stage but never on the same page. So how will it shape up in its transformation on the big screen?

Don’t worry—I hear a tiny, questioning voice in my thoughts too—but there is hope. The upcoming film adaptation of The Last Five Years boasts two Broadway veterans whose star power burns in Hollywood as brightly as on the marquees of New York. It’s also a small victory that in a remarkably crowded entertainment world, the “little show with a cult following” has reached a point in its evolution that it is about to be exposed to a mainstream audience. But at the end of the day, no matter how it turns out, The Last Five Years will still be an amazing show—it’s just also a movie.

So this Valentine’s Eve I shall be spending my evening with Anna and Jeremy and the cast of characters that make up the film world of The Last Five Years…and then I’ll probably watch YouTube clips of Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz in the original production. And I’ll see them both for what they are—a stage production and a movie—and I’ll do my best to give them both an honest medium rating.

Still—I hope to God that this movie’s good.

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