Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Sondheim’

Into the Woods: The Woods Can Be a Wonderful Place—Movie

December 29, 2014

Into the Woods” is a joyous, albeit dark, journey into the combined worlds of Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine and the Brothers Grimm. Directed by Rob Marshall, with screenplay by Lapine, based on the musical by Sondheim and Lapine, “Into the Woods” grabs you in the very first scene and never lets go.

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Through song we’re quickly introduced to a variety of familiar fairy-tale characters with some unfulfilled dreams, chief among them—the Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Christine Baranski), Jack and his Mother (Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman) and most especially, the Witch (Meryl Streep). Yes, the Witch has unfulfilled dreams, too…dreams that only the Baker and his Wife can make happen. And why would they help the Witch? Well, as she explains, to reverse the curse they didn’t know was placed upon them…a curse that makes it impossible for them to have children. Helping the Witch puts the Baker and his Wife in contact with virtually every other character in the musical. The plot seems simple and direct, but that is not necessarily the case. As the Witch reminds them…and us…be careful what you wish for.

What helps makes “Into the Woods” so successful is that every single actor can actually act and sing. Each actor makes you believe in his or her character and is perfectly cast.

The supporting cast…and the word, supporting, is used loosely… is just phenomenal. As the Wolf, Johnny Depp is sublime. He is everything you’d want in a wolf…sly, sneaky, lithe and sexy…even with those ears and whiskers. What’s more, his voice suits his character to a tee. Depp has limited amount of screen time, but he makes the most of every single second. As the object of his “affection,” Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Hood is terrific. She conveys just the right amount of spunkiness. Crawford may be young and little, but this girl can sing…she’s a precocious belter and is fabulous. Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman as Jack and his Mother make the perfect team. Huttlestone is impishly cute with a great voice and his character’s “love affair” with his cow seems very believable. Tracey Ullman has a shockingly melodic voice. In a supporting role, we don’t see a lot of her, but she is fun to watch when she’s on the screen. Fans of “The Bold and Beautiful’s” Mackenzie Mauzy knew she could sing and as Rapunzel she doesn’t disappoint, making a beautiful and belligerent Rapunzel. Cinderella’s Stepmother, Christine Baranski, is hysterically mean. She can sing with the best of them and her role just seems meant for her.

Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as his brother and Rapunzel’s Prince have to be singled out for special praise, especially Pine. They are both fabulous and together are just hysterical. When they sing, “Agony,” you’ll be in anything but. Pine is the year’s comedic find. He has a bit more dialogue than Magnussen and as the slightly dim, but oh so charming prince, he just continues to astound, he is that good.

Then there are the leads…to say they are all amazing is putting it mildly. As the Baker, James Corden is so very lovable you can’t help but root for him. He might not be leading man handsome, but he is a terrific actor and with his wonderful voice, he makes you fall in love with him. His scenes with the young characters, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, are very charismatic and his work with Blunt and Streep is especially good. Emily Blunt is extremely endearing as the Baker’s Wife. She has a delightful voice and her scenes with Corden and Pine are terrific in very different ways. Anna Kendrick gives us a very plucky Cinderella, one with a huge heart, but fierce in spirit at the same time. Her singing is amazing and she is just all-around magnificent. Finally there is Meryl Streep as the Witch. To say she is astounding and perfect in every way is an understatement. Many of us knew Streep could sing, but we’ve never heard her sing the way she does in ‘Into the Woods.” Ferocious and soft when she needs to be, she just nails it. The beauty of Streep is that her part is meant to be huge and she plays that just right without overwhelming her cast-mates. The other actors more than hold their own with her which makes the movie a well-rounded affair.

The musical takes full advantage of the screen, using special effects where it’s called for and not a bit more. The effects help the film, but never overtake it. As brilliant as “Into the Woods’” cast is, the movie would be nothing without the breathtakingly beautiful and lyrically fun songs of Stephen Sondheim. Abetted by James Lapine’s marvelous screenplay, the astute direction of Rob Marshall and the most wonderful of costumes by Colleen Atwood, “Into the Woods” is a feast for the ears and eyes.

Sometimes it’s more than ok to go into the woods. This is one of those times. Run, don’t walk.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Elaine Stritch—Shoot Me: A True Treasure—Documentary

March 17, 2014

Elaine Stritch—what an utterly fascinating, talented force of nature she is. Frankly, I want to be her when I finally grow up. If you love the performing arts and its artists, then the documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” is a must see for an inside, no-holds barred, vanity-free look at this hard-working performer.ela-poster-v2

Director Chiemi Karasawa appears to have been given unfettered access to Stritch, whether it is in rehearsal for “30 Rock,” preparation for one of her one-woman shows, or even a stint in the hospital. It’s a decidedly unglamorous view, but one in which you come away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the woman and what it means to be a “Broadway Baby.”

The documentary opens with one of Stritch’s regular walks on the Manhattan streets and the first of her many quips, “I wish I could f**king drive. Then I’d really be a menace.” Thankfully she doesn’t drive, because not being able to watch her navigate the NYC landscape with her hulk-like stride, dressed in her fur coat, hat, black stockings and shirt, would deprive New Yorkers of quite the sight. How she has managed not to get hit by a car is a mystery and blessing in and of itself, but somehow she hasn’t. It’s wonderful to watch NYC natives and tourists stop her to say “hello” and just chat in general, and you can see that she derives a great deal of pleasure from it as well.

As the documentary notes, Stritch has many film and television credits to her name and certainly has guest-starred in many television shows, even winning Emmys along the way, but she is best known for her work on Broadway…as either part of an ensemble or for her one-woman shows.  “Shoot Me” takes us behind the scenes as she prepares what is probably her last show, “Elaine Stritch: Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time.” Stritch is no Bernadette Peters, but in her own way she is the perfect person to sing his music.  When she sings…belts is more like it… she tells a story and makes the song her own. Poignant and funny, her rendition of “I Feel Pretty” gives new meaning to the song. The only problem…her memory is failing and she’s not always able to remember the lyrics. Watching her work with her longtime musical director, Rob Bowman, melts your heart…he is so patient with her. And when she forgets the words in concert, it matters not. She’s such a performer that she makes it work.

Alec Baldwin, who played her son on “30 Rock,” is one of the film’s producers, and in interviews, their love for one another is evident. When he’s late to rehearsal she starts calling him Joan Crawford. It’s probably only something Stritch could get away with. Among many, there are other conversations with John Turturro, Nathan Lane,  Cherry Jones, Tina Fey and most poignantly, James Gandolfini, to whom the film is dedicated. All simply admire and adore her.

Stritch is a recovering alcoholic. She makes no excuses, saying she just enjoys drinking. Now she has one drink a day and says that if she was on a desert island and could have just one item, it would be a stocked bar. She’s also diabetic and is constantly monitoring herself. The most dramatic part of the documentary is when we see her experience a hypoglycemic attack and watch her being taken to the hospital.

Residing for years in NYC’s Carlyle Hotel, Stritch was 86 when filming the documentary began. At that time she was contemplating a move back to her Detroit hometown where her family resides, and taking life a little easier.  After completion of the film, as her eyesight worsened and her memory continued to fail, she did make the transition.

But somehow it seems wrong to say she’s done with NYC and all that it’s meant to her. As the documentary and Stritch point out, she’s faced debilitating diabetes, alcoholism and dare one say it, old age, and “she’s still here.” Praise the Lord.

4 nuggets out of 4

Six by Sondheim: More, Please—Documentary

December 15, 2013

Do you love Broadway musicals? Maybe you enjoy writing. Perhaps you just relish being around smart people. If you fall into any of these categories, “Six by Sondheim” should leap to the top of your viewing list.Six by Sondheim

This terrific new documentary from HBO Documentaries features extensive interviews with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as well as performances of his six of his songs. Directed by James Lapine, a collaborator on many Sondheim projects, with Autumn DeWilde and Todd Haynes as film segment directors, “Six by Sondheim” is itself a work of art.

Luckily for us Sondheim has given an endless number of interviews throughout the years with a variety of interviewers ranging from television host Mike Douglas to a young Diane Sawyer to Larry King and David Frost. Sondheim loves to talk about the craft of writing and what fascinating talk it is. He explains what makes a good song for him…how he works…how the rhythms of the song work with the actor. He provides information you probably never once thought about, but coming from him it’s like learning how  magic happens.  What makes this documentary so entertaining aside from the subject is how the interviews are put together. We see Sondheim discussing the same topics from decade to decade, interviews overlapping so seamlessly that it looks as if he is talking about “West Side Story” as a clean-shaven 25-year-old and then, in full-beard, continuing that same conversation 30 years later. The editing is simply masterful.

In a series of some very poignant interviews, Sondheim talks a great deal about his childhood and the influence of composer Oscar Hammerstein II in his life, both as father figure and mentor. He notes that it was Hammerstein who encouraged him to take the lyricist jobs that came his way early in his career as a way of getting his foot in the door and for the learning experience. And that is how the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy came to be. But in 1962, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and never looked back. His days as a lyricist only were over

Although the HBO documentary provides a lot of Sondheim music, “Six by Sondheim” focuses on six songs which were written during different periods in his life: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music; “I’m Still Here” from Follies; “Being Alive” from Company; and “Sunday”  from Sunday in the Park with George. Some songs are newly performed in full for the documentary such as “Clowns” by Audra McDonald and “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker. Others are clips from shows such as Sunday. We get a full-on new staging of “Opening Doors” performed by America Ferrara, Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan, joined by Broadway veterans Jackie Hoffman and Laura Osnes with a cameo by Sondheim himself. We watch a very young Larry Kert belting out “Something’s Coming.” And what might be the most interesting performance shown is the documentary  film clip about the recording of the original Broadway cast album of Company with Dean Jones’ performance of “Being Alive.” Who knew this Disney star could sing like that?

At 83 Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down. He still has new projects. He still loves what he does and thankfully he still enjoys teaching and talking about his craft. “Six by Sondheim” reawakened my love for Sondheim music as well as the man.  I am more than ready to sign up for Sondheim University.

“Six by Sondheim” is available on HBO on Demand. Go to http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/six-by-sondheim# for more information.

4 nuggets out of 4


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