“You wish to have the curse - reversed?”
INTO THE WOODS
Rob Marshall . 2014
The most patient director in Hollywood has to be Rob Marshall, the former Broadway choreographer…
From their stage openings (not always on Broadway) to his screen versions, he had to wait 22 years to make Disney’s Annie on TV in 1999 (his directing debut)… 25 years from the 1975 Great White Way premiere to his Oscar-winning Chicago in 2002 (time aplenty for a stage revival in 1996)… Making Nine in 2009 (the musical version of Fellini 8i½) took 36 years from Maury Yeston’s BMI class project-cum-theatre workshop version in 1973… and finally, a mere 16 years from its San Diego beginnings in 1986, to this Disneyfied version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s post-modernist (post 9/11 !) crack at Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel … starring everyone from Meryl Streep to Johnny Depp…
There had been more stars.
Back in the 1990s, the first idea was another Rob - Minkoff - helming a version with Columbia and, more importantly, Jim Henson’s Muppeteers creating Jack's cow, Milky White, plus - maybe - Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan for the childless Baker and his wife… and Susan Sarandon as The Witch. And little De Vito as her Giant. Cheeky. And… nothing!
Next, there were the read-throughs… First, at the home of another Marshall - Penny - with Robin Williams and Goldie Hawn as the couple cursed by Cher’s Witch. Then, to help persuade Disney to fund the project, a three-day workshop and full words, lyrics and music runthrough in New York in October 2012…. after zilch for a full decade until the enormous box-office triumph of Marshall’s Chicago - six Oscars including Best Picture - got money men keen on filmusicals..
Marshall was already talking turkey with Sondheim about filming… something. Follies, maybe, or before the old firm of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp got their hands on it, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. “No,” said Sondheim, “I think Into the Woods is for you.” Instead, he took over Memoirs of a Geisha from Spielberg, Nine (from Fellini!) and the film he’d never waited for because he never expected it, Johnny Depp’s fourth outing as Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. That made Chicago look small - $1b to $300m - and Hollywood was Marshall’s oyster. And this was the pearl.
Disney prez Sean Bailey liked what he saw and agreed - as long as everyone agreed to pay-cuts within a bargain-basement budget of a mere $50m, or a third of Maleficent and Oz the Great and Powerful
But who was going into the woods…
Only a few made it from the Manhattan table to the UK set of Marshall’s fourth filmusical: Christine Baranski (Cinderella's Stepmother), Tammy Blanchard (Florinda), James Corden (The Baker) and Anna Kendrick (Cinderella),
The Baker . Before being written out of the film version and absorbed into The Baker (by the author of the Broadway hit, himself, James Lapine), the Narrator role was discussed with Michael Caine, John Cleese, Michael Gambon, David Garrison, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Christopher Plummer, Alan Rickman, Geoffrey Rush. Even Julie Andrews and Angela Lansbury - they were, after all, Disney and Sondheim pets. For just The Baker, Andrew Rannells, the young Broadway star from Nebraska, was in the mix with Matthew Broderick, Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp, Colin Firth, Neil Patrick Harris, John C Reilly - plus Denis O’Hare, the Tony award winner from New York’s 2012 Shakespeare in the Park production. (O’Hare was also in Sondheim’s Assassins, 2004). Marshall finally voted for James Corden, from the Manhattan reading.
“After the workshop, Rob found me packing up my rucksack,” recalled Corden young. “I wasn’t born yesterday. I knew there were other people circling for the part. But Rob made his way through people and came over and said: ‘I promise you, if we make this film, you’re coming with us’.”
This was Part One of two ginormous career/life changing breaks for the young Brit from High (yes!) Wycombe. He next inherited Craig Ferguson’s CBS Late Late Show - talk about others circling for the job! He could have filled the talk-show for months with all the stars seen for the film (as we shall learn) from Julie Andrews, Cher and John Cleese to Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer and Catherine Zeta-Jones!
The Baker’s Wife . As the Baker and his wife lacked proper names, Emily Blunt and Corden used to call them Marjorie and Geoff. Young Broadway star Nina Arianda and Tina Fey also read. Marshall explained Blunt’s likeability won through. “You really have to love her so when she’s gone [very sudden death] it should feel like a kick in the gut.”
The Witch . Marshall considered three of his previous stars: Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman from Nine and Catherine Zeta-Jones, an Oscar-winner for Chicago. Plus Idina Menzel (the Broadway and Hollywood Rent star), Donna Murphy (double Tony winner and veteran of Sondheim's Passion, who was bewitched in 2012), Michelle Pfeiffer, Miranda Richardson, Sissy Spacek, Kate Winslet. And… Michael McGrath. (Which takes some explaining… in The Baker’s Father and The Steward below).
Honestly, deeply, madly, truly, for Marshall
it was always going to be Meryl.
Except Streep had issued a “no witch” ultimatum! “When I turned 40, I got three witch offers in one year. And no other offers. Three offers to play a witch, but no love-interest things, no woman-scientist-adventurists, no ‘I’m out saving the world,’ no nothing. Just witches. I thought, ‘God, there's got to be another way’.” She relented because this time it was Sondheim - at Yale she had been in the original production of his The Frogs.
Jack . Broadway’s Canadian Taylor Trensch (24) read the beanstalker before it went to the decade younger Daniel Huttlestone - his second filmusical after Les Misérables, 2012. In the days of Marvel superheroes and the coming Star Wars renaissance, few could make such a claim - much less at age 14.
Jack’s Mom . In the mix (with Kathy Bates and Allison Janney), Tracey Ullman won her third fairy tale movie musical, following Once Upon a Mattress the 2005 musicalised Princess and the Pea and Latrine in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Cinderella . “Maybe I could be Jack instead?” said Emma Stone while planning to be Sally Bowles in Broadway’s revived Cabaret, She felt she did not have the vocal range for the film. Anna Kendrick won from MacKenzie Mauzy - who became Rapunzel when Marshall was impressed by just one line of her original Cinders’ test tape.
Cinderella’s Mother . Christine Baranski beat Victoria Clark to Cinders’ Step-ma. Baranski was part of Marshall’s Chicago smash and had co-starred with Merlyl Streep in Mama Mia.
Cinderella’s Prince . Patrick Wilson read for it. Jake Gyllenhaal won it - but couldn’t shoot Nightcrawler in LA and Woods in the UK at the same time. Enter: Chris Pine…. With the winning honesty: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere. ”
Rapunzel . Laura Osnes, Tony-nominated Broadway star of Grease, South Pacific and a certain Sondheim by Sondheim had read it but Mackenzie Mauzy played what is, actually, The Baker’s sister. Or in this variation of the fairy tale themes, anyway!
Rapunzel’s Prince . Broadway’s Cheyenne Jackson lost out to Billy Magnussen in succeeding Chris Pine as Rapunzel's Prince when Pine was switched to Cinderella’s Prince
Red Riding Hood . Casey Whyland had read in 2012 and lost to Sophia Grace Brownlee, the Internet’s latest kid singer sensation. Yet a mite too young at ten have Johnny Depp’s Wolf singing “Hello, Little Girl” to her - “Look at that flesh, pink and plump...” Her folks wisely pulled her out after a week’s rehearsals. Enter: Lilla Crawford, aged 12. Broadway’s most recent Annie had Skyped a test to Marshall and was booked on the next available flight for London.
Granny . Tony award winner Victoria Clark read two other roles - at the Manhattan table. However, the production wound up at the UK’s Shepperton studios and so, Granny went to a more local veteran. Annette Crosbie,
The Giant . Victoria Clark, again - this time losing to Frances de la Tour, aka Harry Potter’s Madame Olympe Maxim, aka, the headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy.
The Wolf . Penny Marshall wanted Alan Cumming, Ivan Hernandez or Steve Martin for The Wolf in 2012. Charging $1m and not his usual $20m, Johnny Depp based his five minute cameo on the slick-talking, Zoot-suited Tex Avery wolf from the 1940s cartoons. This was not only Depp’s second musical but his second Sondheim musical, after Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Lucinda . Megan Hilty, the Marilyn Monroesque star of TV’s Smash, 2012-2013, read. However, at Shepperton, this was Lucy Punch’s fourth step-sisterly apparition.
The Baker’s Father . Michael McGrath first read The Mysterious Man (aka, the Baker’s dad), a character disappearing into La Streep’s Witch in James Lapine’ respun scenario. .
The Steward . Back in 2012, McGrath had also read for The Steward played , back in the good old UK, by Richard Glover
This page would have been impossble without Seth Abramovitch’s rich reportage (The Hollywood Reporter, Decemer 29, 2014).
And the casting experts at IMDB. Many thanks, guys!i