The Success of “Into the Woods” Heartens the Movie Musical

The Success of “Into the Woods” Heartens the Movie Musical
Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in Richard LaGravenese's upcoming "The Last Five Years."
(Courtesy O+M)

The box-office may have been tepid for the movie musicals “Jersey Boys” and “Annie,” but the worldwide grosses of $171 million for Disney’s “Into the Woods” demonstrates that there is life yet in a genre that just a few decades ago was widely viewed as moribund.

The success of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine-Rob Marshall movie — its opening weekend tally of $31 million was the highest for any film musical in history — will no doubt hasten a green light for those projects which have been in the development pipeline and augur well for those set for release in 2015.   

 

“The Last Five Years,” the Richard LaGravanese adaptation of the Jason Robert Brown off-Broadway musical, is the next to test the viability of the movie musical. The bittersweet romance, being released on Friday, February 13, stars Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”) and Anna Kendrick (“Into the Woods”) and charts the volatile marriage between Cathy, a struggling stage actress and Jamie, an ambitious young novelist.  The film, like the stage version, is essentially a two-hander and follows the play’s unusual construct: Cathy’s story is told in reverse chronological order, beginning at the end of the failed marriage while Jamie’s version of events is told chronologically from the first blush of romance. The two strands meet when the couple takes a rowboat ride in Central Park and Jamie proposes in what is easily the show’s highlight: a soaring duet on “The Next Ten Minutes,” one of the most beautiful and romantic songs ever written. And while Kendrick has established herself as a film presence since her breakthrough in 2009’s “Up in the Air,” the discovery here is Jeremy Jordan, who is charismatic and appealing in a role that is not entirely sympathetic.

On another end of the spectrum are two films, “Lucky Stiff” and “London Road,” both of which have to do with death — not the usual subject matter of musicals, Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” notwithstanding. “Lucky Stiff” is a light-hearted farce which songwriters Lynne Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty first adapted into a 1988 off-Broadway musical from the 1983 novel “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” It was the first collaboration for the team that would go on to write “Ragtime” and “Rocky,” among many other shows. Ahrens has now written the screenplay for the film musical, which has been directed by Christopher Ashley, a stage veteran (“Memphis”). The comic mayhem is unloosed when an English shoe salesman is informed that an uncle he has never met has left him six million dollars, but only on the condition that he takes his corpse on an lavish vacation to Monte Carlo. Dominic Marsh, Nikki M. James, and Jason Alexander are among the cast of the film, which is slated for a release some time this year.

Reviewing the film, which was screened at festivals in Montreal and Mill Valley, California, Variety called it “a breathlessly silly farce….Results are equal parts diverting and strained, most likely to please the same niche audiences who have given the material a modest stage shelf life for the last  quarter century.”

More offbeat, if not grimly serious, is “London Road,” the highly acclaimed British musical that had its world premiere at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2011 and went on to win a numerous awards. The film is about a series of murders that occurred in and around the title thoroughfare in the rural town of Ipswich, England from 2006 to 2008, until the killer, Steve Wright, was finally apprehended. The residents, including sex workers, drive the narrative — neither the killer nor the victims are ever seen — as a community tries to cope with the terror and the invasion of the media. The score includes such song titles as “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous,” “It’s a Wicked Bloody World,” and “The Verdict.” The creative team for the film is the same as that of the stage musical: songs by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork and direction by Rufus Norris. Included in the cast are Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, and Linzi Hateley, who made her Broadway debut in “Carrie—the Musical,” the infamous 1988 flop based on the 1976 Brian DePalma thriller about a young teen with telekinetic powers. The film will be released this year, and included among the distributors is The National Theatre, a first for the latter which is headed by director Norris.