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This Season, Broadway Hits The Big Screen — Twice


If you were planning on catching the new Seth Rogen movie "The Interview" after unwrapping your presents on Christmas Day, you better make new plans. Sony cancelled the release. But there are a bunch of other exciting holiday movies out this season, especially if you're a fan of musicals. There's a new take on the '70s Broadway hit "Annie."


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTORS: (Singing) It's a hard knock life for us. It's a hard knock life for us.

RATH: And a Disney version of Stephen Sondheim's "Into The Woods."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Into the woods to find this home, of getting through the journey.

RATH: NPR arts critic Bob Mondello and pop-culture blogger Linda Holmes are here to talk about those films. Welcome to you both.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hey, good to be here.


RATH: I've got to be clear at the outset here. With, I think, four exceptions, I hate musicals.

MONDELLO: With four exceptions? (Laughter).

RATH: Yeah. I'm actually - "Into The Woods" is one of them...


RATH: ...Luckily enough.


HOLMES: I'm so curious now.

MONDELLO: Yeah, what are the other ones?

RATH: "Singing In The Rain," "Sound Of Music," the "South Park" movie and...



HOLMES: This is an eclectic - I don't know, man. That's quite a collection.

MONDELLO: That and "South Park," I'm impressed.

RATH: But this is not about analyzing me and my strangeness.

HOLMES: It is now.

RATH: These are important, significant cultural products.

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, "Into The Woods" is a very, very well-regarded Stephen Sondheim fairy tale adaptation that has a very well-known television production from 1991. And "Annie," of course, was a big Broadway hit and has had a couple of film adaptations.

RATH: There's a lot of fun in "Into The Woods" with having adults play the parts of kids because a lot of adult themes come up in that musical in a great way. But in the film, they actually have kids playing the kids roles.

HOLMES: Well, the people who played these roles - particularly Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from "Jack and the Beanstalk" on Broadway in particular - were not exactly adults. They were kind of older teenagers...


HOLMES: ...Than these kids. And these are kind of younger teenagers who play even younger. But the difference is they are substantially younger seeming, and it changes both of those stories a little bit to make those kids so much younger.

MONDELLO: Well, especially the number with Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, which...


MONDELLO: ...On stage, there's a sexual undercurrent - actually, it's barely an undercurrent...

HOLMES: Right.

MONDELLO: It's pretty much in the forefront. In the film, it comes across quite differently because - I don't know - she's maybe 13?


MONDELLO: She's a young child. And so the context of the number changes.


LILLA CRAWFORD: (Singing) (As Red Riding Hood) Mother said not to stray, so I suppose a small delay. Granny might like a fresh bouquet. Goodbye, Mr. Wolf.

JOHNNY DEPP: (As The Wolf) Goodbye little girl - and hello.

HOLMES: I love that number in the show. And that number in the movie is a little creepy to me.

MONDELLO: Well, Johnny Depp is playing...


MONDELLO: ...The surface of it. He's playing very much the sexual stuff that's in it.

HOLMES: Right, everything that would be subtext is text.


RATH: (Laughter) So is this a fundamental problem then because we're talking about adapting musicals to the screen? Could this have been done better, or is it just something that you can't quite get into a movie experience?

HOLMES: Well, you know, fans of musicals have a long history of being horrified by changes that are made to them when they're translated to film. I think Bob would back me up on that.

MONDELLO: Yeah, for sure.

HOLMES: There is a history of taking out things that are considered too dark for movie audiences. And one of the results of that is when you only see the movie versions of musicals, you wind up with a very sanitized version of what Broadway is. So I think actually "Into The Woods" does less of that than many other productions have. But it's Disney doing Sondheim, which is a shift in tone.

MONDELLO: I think in a lot of respects, it works better than you might think it would simply because you start from the advantage of it's a fantasy story. And so it does sort of make sense that people are singing on screen. You don't object to it in the way that you would in a more realistic context.

RATH: Now, the other big musical out for the holidays does not have the benefit of being set in the world of fantasy - is of course "Annie," the little orphan girl. But we've had some major changes from the stage productions in terms of the casting.

MONDELLO: It's cast with Quvenzhane Wallis, who is the star of "Beasts Of The Southern Wild." She's an African-American, and the character like Daddy Warbucks, who is now called Will...

HOLMES: Will Stacks.

MONDELLO: He's now a phone executive who is running for mayor of New York.


JAMIE FOXX: (As Will Stacks) What are you talking about? Get back here.

QUVENZHANE WALLIS: (As Annie) It's OK. I'm good at this part. I've had a lot of practice getting kicked out of places.

MONDELLO: And it's placed in a relatively real-seeming New York City.

HOLMES: Right. It was a show in 1980 about the Depression. And now it's a movie in 2014 about 2014.

MONDELLO: You have to come up with different reasons for people to burst into song because it's a little strange on the streets of New York. And they play the music a little differently in the movie. Some of the songs are done in the style of voiceovers kind of so that it feels like you're in a music video as opposed to the cast is running around the streets of New York singing, so that's one difference. And then another is that they have written a bunch of new songs, including one that Linda said to me the other day sounds like it's trying to be "Let It Go" from "Frozen." It's called "Opportunity."


WALLIS: (As Annie) My dream's becoming real tonight. So look at me in this opportunity, witnessing my moment, you see.

RATH: So I don't think this one is going to convert me.


RATH: But for people who love musicals, though, you know - Linda, you loved the original "Annie." How did you feel about it?

HOLMES: I did enjoy it. When I was able to get out of my own head enough to not miss what I knew, I enjoyed a lot of things about it. And I think kids now might too.

MONDELLO: Yeah, and I have to say that I was relieved not to hear the song "Tomorrow" 15 times the way that you do in the original. I think musicals have been making an interesting sort of comeback for the last few years. There's a move here to find ways to make musicals make sense in post-"Singing In The Rain," right? And I think these films are both taking interesting approaches to that problem.

RATH: That's NPR arts critic Bob Mondello, along with Linda Holmes, editor of NPR's pop-culture blog Monkey See. Thanks, both of you. That was fun.

MONDELLO: It was fun.

HOLMES: Thank you.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) When I'm stuck with a day that's gray and lonely, I just stick up my chin and grin and say... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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