Various Artists: ‘Into the Woods’ Track-by-Track Album Review

We’re in the midst of the big holiday release season for movies, which includes the star-studded (Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp and others) Into the Woods. A number of comments suggest fear and trembling amongst theater-going aficionados. After all, this is a Hollywood remake of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical and it’s a Disney production to boot. Personally, I think it looks to be amazing, but we’ll see when it’s out. (If you’re a purest, see the Bernadette Peters et al. Broadway version from 1991 which is still available on Amazon Instant, It’s well done but the video quality is mixed.) What I can say now is that the soundtrack is fabulous. The surprises, at least for me, are how well Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine can sing. At least with Ms. Kendrick, we had a “heads up” in “Cups” from Pitch Perfect. We have no such hint at vocal talent from Ms. Blunt and Mr. Pine (he sounds very different from “Someday Came Today”). Mr. Corden has shown his singing chops in a number of places but most especially singing “Pray” alongside Gary Barlow while Johnny Depp’s been in a group and Sweeney Toddand Meryl Streep has sung many times beyond Mama Mia.

The Prologue of the musical opens, apropos, with the Narrator enfolding us in his world with the opener “Once Upon a Time.”  We are drawn deeper into the musical, magical world of beloved fairy tales with each characters’ “I Wish”. They start their story with a common desire for change from their current hardships. Red-Riding Hood wishes for food for her Grandma (and herself), Jack wishes for a way to support his family while keeping his cow, Cinderella wishes to go to the festival and to find the love she lacks in her family, and the Baker and his Wife wish for a child. The wishes create the theme for the musical. In this same Prologue, details of their problems emerge even as the Witch gives the back-story that leads the Baker and his Wife on tasks that would harvest items from each the main characters. It is the tasks the Baker and his Wife undergo which tie the disparate stories together under this theme of wishing for change.  Going into the woods initiates these changes, but not always receiving the change they wished for. So the Prologue lays the foundations to all else. The timing, the vocals, and the music are woven together to create a beautiful world. The way in which the actors interleave singing and speaking avoid the typical artifice associated with musicals. Some highlights of the densely packed Prologue are the description we hear of the Cinderella’s step-family: “All three were beautiful of face, but black and vile of heart” and what’s fondly known as the Witches’ Rap: “He was robbing me, / Raving me, / Rooting through my rutabaga, / Raiding my arugula and / Ripping up my rampion / (My champion! My favorite!) / I should have laid a spell on him / Right there, / Could have changed him into stone/Or a dog or a chair…”

Cinderella at the Grave” allows us to know the gravity of their lives, their sadness is palpable; it also allows us to hear just how well Anna Kendrick sings. We move from that into Johnny Depp’s very creepy “Hello Little Girl,” rendered even creepier as Red sings about what she’s “learned” in “I Know Things Now.” She hasn’t learned quite what she thinks. I agree with the ever insightful Joanne Robinson , in her 10 Things I Learned While Obsessively Listening to the New Into the Woods Soundtrack”, that while Mr. Depp’s interchange with young Ms. Crawford is fabulous, it doesn’t quite mesh with the feel of the rest of the musical.

We return to Ms. Kendrick receiving motherly advice from Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife in “He’s a Very Nice Prince” as Cinderella shares her encounter with the Prince. The voices gracefully play off of each other until that moment when the Baker’s Wife’s greed for her own goals sees the objects of her tasks before her. The overwhelming lust of her desire is displayed in her near screaming as she as she grasps for that which will bring her heart’s desire: a baby.

Daniel Huttlestone’s voice immediately recalls images of his Gavroche role in Les Mis; the music even seems to slip away from Sondheim’s rhythms to those of Lloyd-Weber. Fortunately, this is brief. “Giants in the Sky” sings out our fears even while encouraging us to suck up and move on.

The comedic highlight of the musical is a toss-up between “Agony” and “Any Moment,” both of which involve Chris Pine. He and the other prince, Billy Magnussen sing of their purported agony of their self-absorbed “sacrifice.” Their singing and comedic timing is spot on.

We move from comedy to one of the more upbeat and touching songs, “It Takes Two” showing the growth and change that takes place in the woods. We really have an opportunity to see James Corden as a full-on leading man and good singer; Emily Blunt has been the leading lady many times but not singing like this. It’s nearly a perfect musical moment.

Meryl Streep brings out all of the hurt, pain and pathos embedded in “Stay with Me.” Not only does it demonstrate our need for others but also that tendency to want to own a relationship – a grasping, jealous and ugly desire that the other be just as we desire, not a genuine person. I’ve previously reviewedOn the Steps of the Palace,” so I’ll just add here that it fits in perfectly within the whole soundtrack.

The humor of “Careful, My Toe” partly lies with our having made similarly clueless choices for some perceived goal. That and those nasty step-sisters get theirs. We see the sad side of a similar theme in “Witch’s Lament;” in which the very relationship desired is lost because of pursuing a narrow vision of it at all costs. All of this focused planning is supplanted by a “What happens in the Woods stays in the Woods” mentality in “Any Moment” where the Prince puts the moves on the Baker’s wife. Chris Pine and Emily Blunt create another superb moment here, which is carried forward in Ms. Blunt’s reflections on what she’s just done in “Moments in the Woods.”

Moral reflections continue in “Your Fault” where everyone passes the blame. The Witch, of course, puts her finger on the pulse of this finger-pointing:  “Told a little lie, Stole a little gold, / Broke a little vow, / Did you? / Had to get your Prince, / Has to get your cow, / Have to get your wish.” They are, all of them, willing to set their morals aside to get what they want. So the Witch pushes the point as she works to appease the Giant by giving Jack to him as the sacrificial lamb. The other’s won’t hear of it. The Witch then pushes them: “No, of course what really matters / Is the blame, / Somebody to blame. / Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy, / Placing the blame, / If that’s the aim, / Give me the blame- /Just give me the boy. / [THE OTHERS] No! / [WITCH ] No? / You’re so nice. / You’re not good, / You’re not bad, / You’re just nice. /  I’m not good,“  So, she sees herself as the one that doesn’t fit.

With all of their inherent faults, we are moved by “No One is Alone.” It is not only beautifully sung, but beautifully acted. Ms. Kendrick, Mr. Corben et al perform, well, pitch perfect. This continues in the culmination of the soundtrack in the finales (parts 1 & 2). We see it all come full circle as we’re reminded: “Careful the things you say, / Children will listen. / Careful the things you do, / Children will see. / And learn.”

This is a brilliant musical with smart lyrics and perfectly matched music. It is not a musical you’ll come away from singing the songs for days. It isn’t characterized by catchy tunes but it is characterized by music, lyrics and story that fit together to create an amazing whole. While I didn’t review the Deluxe version, what I would have to say on it simply an extension of this review. I recommend it for your listening pleasure. It adds much of the story through instrumental music, as well as some vocal songs.