We wondered in 1970 when we sat breathlessly as we watched Sondheim's landmark musical Company on Broadway. Some called it the first "concept musical," which it was. But others saw it as a fractured précis on marriage and many were turned off by it.
We wondered again in 1971 when his grand opus, Follies dazzled Broadway but still only succeeded in achieving cult status.
Things looked better when A Little Night Music arrived in 1973. The musical that gave the world Send In The Clowns proved to be a solid crowd pleaser but a later movie version of this hit failed miserably.
The same thing happened again in 1979 with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, a grisly tale of revenge and murder. It ran for more than a year on Broadway but the 2007 film adaptation was no great shakes at the box office.
Sondheim's work has been called an acquired taste. His music challenges audiences and forces them to listen, to pay attention, to think. This often requires requires some closer inspection and even reflection. What you find at 60 is different from what you see at 30. Call it pentimento. So, these musicals have not only endured but have flourished again and again as they are interpreted and reinterpreted, examined and re-examined.
But they never quite seemed to achieve mass-market status.
And the process of adapting these shows to the screen has been fraught with peril precisely because such complex material resists framing. As Sondheim himself has observed: Movies are photographs; the stage is larger than life." And, if nothing else Sondheim is a creature of the stage. To him, music is inherently theatrical. It's based on character and story and drama. That's the way he hears it. That's the way he writes it. And yes, it's bigger than life. That's why we go to the theater in the first place.
Could anyone possibly understand this and transform a Sondheim musical to the screen without trivializing it or turning it into nothing more than a star-vehicle (at one extreme) or making a mere film of the theatrical production (at the other)?
Finally, we have an answer to that question.
Now, more than six decades after Sondheim first started writing musicals the answer is "Yes!" and the person's name is Rob Marshall. Finally, Rob Marshall has come along and transformed one of the best Sondheim musicals ever (1987's Into The Woods) into one of the best movie musicals ever and one of the best pictures of the year.
But let's give credit where it's due. Marshall basically reinvented the movie musical when he gave us the blockbuster Best Picture of 2002, Chicago.
Marshall has proved that he knows how to make a movie musical for the 21st century.
But Into The Woods is a mammoth undertaking -- a retelling of Grimm's Fairly Tales with Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel all thrown together in one story as you've never seen them before. That requires not just talent but financial heft.
Fortunately, Marshall's been backed by the big bucks of Disney which resisted the temptation to load this fantastical story with too much fantasy and too much high tech.
The result is that Into The Woods, the movie is surprisingly faithful to Into The Woods, the stage musical (which we saw with the original cast on Broadway) as it manages to naturally morph onto the Big Screen with both daring and aplomb.
This film preserves intimacy where needed without compromising grandeur. It telegraphs a powerful message without destroying the essential story. It soars musically with alternate dashes of wit and danger without becoming a dark opera.
Yes, we would have preferred Bernadette Peters as the witch, a role she originated on stage. But Meryl Streep does a fine job, as always. And the rest of the cast is first-rate as well with particular accolades to James Corden, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Chris Pine, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone.
Of course we're sorry that one of our favorite songs (Running Away) has been dropped but other music has been added. And one can quibble with the shows preachy nouveau family message in the final moments.
But, all in all this is a magical film with wondrous music and a mesmerizing journey -- a journey all about life, discovery, fear, temptation, longing, loving, growing and letting go.
And it works for nearly all ages because it takes elements of timeless tales and turns them into an exciting story that you will never forget.
Don't miss it!