Record-breaking 'Into the Woods' is a surprise hit

'Into the Woods,' with a record opening and a hot-selling soundtrack, finds broad appeal

"Into the Woods" has fast become a record-breaking, box-office hit musical with three Golden Globe nominations, a hot-selling soundtrack and kudos from audiences, critics and even fans of the original Broadway show.

For a popular but complicated Stephen Sondheim musical that had nowhere near the widespread appeal of such shows as "Les Misérables" or "The Phantom of the Opera," the breakout success of the film is something of a surprise. The film is managing the difficult feat of appealing to the younger "Frozen" audience as well as older fans of Broadway musicals.

It's the sort of best-case scenario that has surprised even the unflappable director and movie musical veteran Rob Marshall, who said Saturday, "I'm knocking on everything I can find, everything that even looks like wood."

The film opened on Christmas Day with the best box office debut of a Broadway-inspired movie musical, earning $31 million the first weekend, breaking the 2008 record set by "Mamma Mia!" and proving once again the broad appeal of the genre and Marshall's mastery of it. By last weekend the film had more than $91 million in ticket sales, with enthusiasm for the film clearly continuing for a second week.

By way of comparison, 2012's "Les Misérables" took in nearly $149 million at the domestic box office while 2008's "Mamma Mia!" brought in more than $144 million.

"Into the Woods" may owe some of its success to the girlish fervor generated by Disney's other two twisted fairy tales — "Frozen" and last summer's "Maleficent." But composer-lyricist Sondheim's complex themes have drawn a much wider demographic than those two films did — most viewers are ages 20 to 50, skewing only slightly toward women, said "Into the Woods" co-producer Marc Platt.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack is ranked fourth on the iTunes charts and 19th on Billboard magazine's top 20.

Walt Disney Studio's president of motion picture production Sean Bailey credits fans of the Broadway musical for driving much of the film's buzz.

"The amount of evangelizing these people did once they realized we'd created a beautiful version — I think we got a force multiplier."

"Into the Woods" was a successful stage musical first, boasting two Broadway runs, two in London and infinite middle and high school productions since it opened in 1987. "Into the Woods" also fits neatly into Disney's overall "reimagining" of the fairy tales that made the studio famous.

"Its afterlife has been exponential," said Platt. "Then you add on top of that Disney launching a contemporary telling of fairy tales.... You also get an exponential brand. One plus one equals three."

Marshall, who directed the best picture winner "Chicago" in 2002, was drawn to the story's poignancy, and his adaptation stays true to the original with a few tweaks, a subtle visual homage to 9/11 and smart casting, including Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife and Anna Kendrick as Cinderella — both of whom can actually sing.

"Underneath the joy and humor of the piece, there's something very profound about parents and children, the consequences of wishes," he said.

Back in 2011, when Marshall was pitching the project, Disney executives were understandably careful about taking a risk on Sondheim, whose material can be sophisticated and somewhat dark — not to mention difficult to sing.

"Stephen Sondheim is calculus for actors," said Platt. "The words are witty and brilliant and profound but complicated.... [Disney executives] were rightfully strong that the budget had to be a certain number — a relatively low number — and the cast had to be big."

The film seems to herald a comeback of sorts for Marshall. After reviving the movie musical with "Chicago," which earned $306 million worldwide and six Oscars, Marshall faltered with his next two films, the 2005 drama "Memoirs of a Geisha" and the 2009 musical "Nine."

Like "Into the Woods," "Nine" was also an ambitious, star-studded Broadway musical adaptation. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as a Federico Fellini-type director opposite Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard. It even earned four Oscar nominations.

But unlike "Into the Woods," the source material for "Nine" was an autobiographical avant-garde film — Fellini's "81/2 " — that had been adapted as a Broadway musical, that Marshall was attempting to bring back to the screen. As a musical. Along the way, the effort became far too meta. Then it was struck by tragedy.

"Sadly you were evolving a script that was coming along very nicely and [screenwriter] Anthony Minghella died in the process," said Platt, who co-produced both "Nine" and "Into the Woods." "I think we knew the script needed more work, but we didn't want to touch it."

And surprisingly, the Weinstein Co.'s $80-million budget turned out to be too much of a good thing. By comparison, Disney granted "Into the Woods" a budget of about $50 million.

"There are lessons learned about cost," said Platt. "We made that movie for more money than we wanted to because it was a different time in the business and coming off 'Chicago' and having success."

With "Into the Woods," Marshall chose a passion project, one that spoke deeply to him about the fragility inherent in contemporary life. Still, the director can't pinpoint exactly what has made this film a hit.

"I look at some movies that sometimes are put together for the wrong reasons … to appeal to this quadrant and that quadrant," he said. "It turns into what I call a blender movie. You mix it all into a blender and it turns into mush.... If I've learned anything over the years, it's to do something you feel really connected to you in your gut, that you believe in no matter how it does [commercially]. That's all you can do as an artist."

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