The Jim Henson Company and the Into the Woods Movie that Could've Been
The film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Broadway musical Into the Woods hits theaters tomorrow. But this star-packed version—Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, and Johnny Depp are all cast members—isn’t the first time Hollywood has attempted to bring Into the Woods to the big screen. That honor belongs to Columbia Pictures and the Jim Henson Company.
Into the Woods, a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales, premiered on Broadway in November 1987. It follows the intersecting stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, a Witch, Rapunzel, two princes, and Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk) as well as a Baker and his Wife, invented by Lapine, who desperately want a child. The characters get their happily-ever-afters, but quickly discover that what they’d wished for isn’t quite what they expected.
The show won three Tonys, but Hollywood didn’t come knocking until a few years later. In the early ‘90s, the Jim Henson Company and Storyline approached Sondheim and Lapine with a movie adaptation of the musical that would mix live actors with Henson creatures as the show's animals. The duo signed on, and Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel—who wrote City Slickers and A League of Their Own—penned the script.
Sondheim also wrote two new songs for the project, which he included in Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume in his books of collected lyrics. The first was a new opening number, “I Wish.” While the Broadway show’s first song featured the main characters singing about their wishes, the film version expanded the song to include villagers who sang of their wishes (“I wish my well was filled with beer,” “I wish my son-in-law would disappear,” “I wish my cow could go with me to school”) as they went about their business, and featured a narrator doing a voiceover.
The second new song, "Rainbows," was for the Baker and his Wife and “occurs a bit later,” Sondheim writes in Hat, “when the Baker is despairing about his inability to have children and the wife is trying to conceal her impatience with his pessimism.”
You’re always expecting rainbows
You’re always expecting rain
I used to expect a rainbow
It’s no longer worth the pain.
Can’t sit around sighing for
The dreams that won’t come true.
They’re not worth the trying for—
A few less dreams will have to do.
You can listen to Jonathan Dokuchitz and Ann-Marie Milazzo singing a demo of the song below:
Sondheim.com, a fansite dedicated to the lyricist/composer, got a peek at a version of the script in 1994, and wrote that “The story basically follows that of the show's first act, although the story unfolds in a different manner, without a narrator or a Mysterious Man”:
Several confusions of the play have been fixed. For example, Rapunzel is no longer related to the Baker, nor does she give birth to twins, so the question of why the family curse didn't affect her has been erased.
At the end of the first “act,” the Giant rises from his fall and goes on a rampage, allowing the rest of the story to unfold more-or-less as it did in Act II of the play. The intricate back stories of the Baker's father and the witch's mother have been deleted, eliminating "No More" and changing a bit of "Last Midnight." There is no "second bean," so the Baker's wife's scenes with Cinderella are fairly different. Finally, at the very end of the movie the wife reappears, having tricked the Giant into thinking she was dead.
Strangely, there has been no effort to integrate “Children Will Listen” into the action. Rather, the camera just switches to a shot of the witch singing the song against a backdrop of Rapunzel's tower, followed by a montage of the survivors going about their lives after the giant.
“Although there will certainly be more work done on the script before it becomes a film,” the site concluded, “what we've seen is certainly promising, and will definitely be entertaining, even if it's not the Into the Woods we all know and love.”
Two readings of the script were held in Los Angeles: The first included Martin Short as the Baker, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Baker's Wife, Neil Patrick Harris as Jack, Mary Steenburgen as his mother, Kathy Najimy and Janeane Garofalo as Cinderella’s stepsisters, Cynthia Gibb as Cinderella, Rob Lowe as her prince, Christine Lahti as the Witch, Daryl Hannah as Rapunzel, and Michael Jeter as the Giant. At the second, Robin Williams played the Baker and Goldie Hawn was the Wife; Cher played the Witch, and Steve Martin played the Wolf. Carrie Fisher and Bebe Neuwirth were the stepsisters, Moira Kelly played Cinderella, and Kyle MacLachlan was her prince. Brendan Fraser played Rapunzel’s prince. Elijah Wood was Jack and Roseanne Barr was his mother. The cast was rounded out by Danny DeVito playing the Giant. In 1995, Rob Minkoff, co-director of The Lion King, signed on to direct.
“It was really, really good,” Sondheim told Broadway World in 2010. “I remember thinking, ‘If a bomb drops on this house, half of Hollywood would be wiped out!’”
Sadly, it was not meant to be. The readings, Sondheim writes in Hat, were “followed shortly by one of those periodic studio shake-ups where a new platoon of executives replaces the old one, eager to throw out all projects begun before their arrival in order to demonstrate the freshness of their re-thinking.” In 1997, Variety wrote that “after it seemed to be fast-tracking the screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s multiple Tony-winning musical Into the Woods, [Columbia] has put it in turnaround”—film slang for selling the property to another studio. Though “several studios have set meetings [and] CAA’s Jon Levin hopes to steer the musical out of the woods shortly,” that version of the film was dead; Into the Woods wouldn’t be made for another 16 years—and it would feature real animals, not Jim Henson Company creations.