Battle Royale: Into the Woods

PBS v. Disney, Peters v. Streep, Gleason v. Blunt. We’ve all been clamouring for it. Which performance of Into the Woods songs is the best? I’m comparing the PBS American Playhouse version, which included most of the original Broadway cast and aired on PBS in 1991, with the 2014 film adaptation. The PBS version is a filmed stage production, in front of an audience. The 2014 film was produced by Walt Disney Pictures, and directed by Rob Marshall, a Broadway choreographer turned film director (he directed Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, among other things). 10 rounds. No holds barred. Eternal bragging rights on the line. Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuumble!

Round One: “Act I Prologue: Into the Woods”

If we’re talking staging, the movie version takes this, although the stage production is impressive given the limitations of a stage set. But of course we’re not only talking about staging. Here, we must consider every word of this fantastic introduction to the musical, and unfortunately, Meryl Streep hams her way through a good portion of the movie version, and it’s a little hard to listen to.

The Winner: PBS American Playhouse Version

Favourite Lyric: “We’ve no time to sit and dither/While her withers wither with her” – Jack’s Mother

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Round Two: “The Spell is on My House (Reprise)”

The play in this song between The Baker and The Baker’s Wife is just outstanding. The whole section where The Baker says, “the spell is on my house”, and The Baker’s Wife steps on it to say, “the spell is on our house”, and then he corrects himself is one of the greatest musical expressions of a marriage. Both sets of characters (as played by Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien in the PBS version, and then Emily Blunt and James Corden in the film) do the song and the moment a great service with their performances.

The Winner: It’s a tie. Both of these are great.

Favourite Lyric: “The ends justify the beans”- The Baker’s Wife. This line should be absolutely groan-inducing, but it just isn’t, because Sondheim has earned the right to make a terrible Machiavellian beans pun. This line isn’t in the movie version, and I can see why, but I still love it.

 

Round Three: “I Know Things Now”

This is a very tight race—Danielle Ferland’s version as it pcr_lauren_BR_ITW_nicedifferentthangoodwas originated on Broadway (and performed in the PBS version) is top-notch. The actor’s age at the time of production makes the innuendo about learning about what boys want from girls less creepy than in the movie version. That creepiness is not the fault of Lilla Crawford, who likewise nails the song in the movie version, but here we are.

The Winner: PBS American Playhouse Version

Favourite Lyric: “Although scary is exciting/Nice is different than good” – Little Red Riding Hood

 

Round Four: “Agony”

This song is a battle between two dolts, and both pairs of princes deliver the song with panache. In this case, though, the staging must be considered because of the sheer power of the overwrought setting of being atop a waterfall.

The Winner: 2014 Movie Version (although Chris Pine’s princely hair is the real winner)

Favourite Lyric: “You know nothing of madness/Till you’re climbing her hair”- Rapunzel’s Prince

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Round Five: “It Takes Two”

Continuing the exploration of the relationship between The Baker and The Baker’s Wife, “It Takes Two” is an appropriate follow-up to “The Spell is on My House”. The Baker grows in his wife’s estimation as she acknowledges his contribution to their team while he sees the same in her. There is a line of dialogue where he realizes, “Perhaps it will take two of us to have this baby,” a completely on-the-nose joke that shows where the relationship is at. Between the two performances, I give the edge to Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien because their relationship feels more worn-in by this point in the production.

The Winner: PBS American Playhouse Version

Favourite Lyric: “We want four/We had none/We’ve got three/We need one/It takes two” – The Baker and The Baker’s Wife

 

Round Six: “On the Steps of the Palace”

Cinderella realizes, in this song, that choosing to do nothing is still a choice. It’s one of those lessons that takes a good long time to sink in, and it has always resonated with me. This is a favourite song of mine, and I give the edge to Anna Kendrick’s version over Kim Crosby. Crosby’s performance is crisp (in the best, Sondheim-y way), but I feel the weight of Kendrick’s realization more fully.

The Winner: 2014 Movie Version

Favourite Lyric: “This is more than just malice/Better stop and take stock/While you’re standing here stuck/On the steps of the palace” – Cinderella

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Round Seven: “Any Moment/Moments in the Woods”

The swooning woman at the hands of the charming prince is a cliché that this musical, which deals specifically in clichés, takes on in this song. The amount of charm the prince has is so, so important in making this song work, and Chris Pine just kills this one. Emily Blunt and Joanna Gleason go toe-to-toe in their parts of this pair of songs, but Pine’s earnestness gives the film the ever-so-slight edge.

The Winner: 2014 Movie Version

Favourite Lyric: “Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’/When you’re back to ‘or’/Makes the ‘or’ mean more/Than it did before” – The Baker’s Wife

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Round Eight: “Your Fault/Last Midnight”

pcr_lauren_BR_ITW_shouldersBernadette Peters vs. Meryl Streep in a singing competition? WHO TO CHOOSE??? Of course Peters is taking this one. I will say in Streep’s defense that she manages to imbue the song with a hearty dose of distaste for the people around her, which I appreciate. Her singing may be pedestrian compared to the great Peters, but she does give it a shot, which is more than can be said of most mortals. Just watch the whole thing here if you find yourself doubting my verdict. Peters’ witch is all about ‘dem shoulders.

The Winner: PBS American Playhouse Version, Duh.

Favourite Lyric: “You’re so nice/You’re not good/You’re not bad/You’re just nice/I’m not good/I’m not nice/I’m just right.” SLAY, Queen.

 

Round Nine: “No One is Alone”

This is another feat of songwriting. The message is not just “you aren’t alone, muffin,” but also, “you can’t act like an idiot, because other people exist”. It’s a beautiful stand against selfishness, and an important moment for both Cinderella and The Baker. While Anna Kendrick and James Corden do a fine job with the song, I tend toward Kim Crosby and Chip Zien’s version, just because they seem more parent-y, which is kind of the whole thing here.

The Winner: PBS American Playhouse Version

Favourite Lyric: “People make mistakes/Holding to their own/Thinking they’re alone” – Cinderella and The Baker

 

Round Ten: “Children Will Listen”

The rousing finale does what all great finales attempt to do—wrap up the story, state your business, and conclude the music that’s been coursing through this production. Both the movie version and the stage version accomplish these goals, because Mr. Sondheim gets it.

The Winner: It’s a tie. Meryl, I feel bad about the pedestrian comment before, so this one’s a tie. You’re welcome.

Favourite Lyric: “You can’t just act/You have to listen/You can’t just act/You have to think” – Company

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Final Score:

PBS American Playhouse Version: 5

2014 Movie Version: 3

Ties: 2

 

While the PBS American Playhouse version takes this Battle Royale on points alone, I also want to award an extra symbolic point to the movie version for having Christine Baranski in it, who rules. It’s not enough to overtake the tour de force that is Bernadette Peters, but I acknowledge the fine effort put forth by Blunt and company. If I were you, I would just watch both versions. Maybe tonight.

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