Back ‘Into the Woods’ for librettist James Lapine, with new feeling

James Lapine finds that spelling things out on film can be a good thing.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Ten steps back “Into the Woods”:

1. December 2010. Rob Marshall phones: “Do you want to do a film version of ‘Into the Woods’?” Really? The 27-year-old musical I wrote with Stephen Sondheim is finally ready for a close-up? I timidly respond: “Yes! And any chance I could do the adaptation?” Much to my amazement, he says yes. Sometimes good news is hard to absorb. I hang up the phone and go back to playing FreeCell.

2. I was a youngish man entering fatherhood when we wrote “Woods,” a patchwork of classic fairy tales with an original tale sewn in. I had dedicated my libretto to my baby daughter. Now I approach this material from a very different vantage point. Sondheim agrees to come into the process after we have a first draft to show him. Rob urges me to let my imagination run free. Unlike on the stage, we can now see Cinderella at the ball and go up the beanstalk with Jack to the Giant’s Kingdom. Of course, the two-act stage structure has to be jettisoned and the film version shorter. Naively, I assume this will be a piece of cake.

3. Gee, this material is very intricately plotted. Who wrote this? There’s not a lot of slack here. Pull out one thread and the unraveling begins. For example, we agree to cut the Narrator character, so I have to find another way to fill in the storytelling gaps. Rob is from the theater and, not surprisingly, a wonderful collaborator. The writing pours forth.


4. And forth. Hmm, the script is too long. Painfully, scenes and songs are thrown out. The first 20 minutes of the play’s Act 2, eliminated. OK, that works nicely. Two characters, eliminated. Less nice, but we’re better for it. Mustn’t be precious. Rob reminds me, not every song has to be illustrated. We decide to make some changes, which require fiddling with the lyrics. You don’t fiddle with a Sondheim lyric.

5. January 2012. We show Sondheim the first draft and I’m nervous. Steve and I have worked side-by-side on every show we have written; and here I’ve been off in a room with Rob Marshall for months tampering with our creation. It’s like I’ve been cheating on my wife. He knows in advance that some of his songs and reprises are gone. We hold our breath for his reaction. As always, he is the consummate professional. He shares his thoughts and we are excited to hear them. He also willingly agrees to rewrite some of the lyrics.

6. July 2012. Enter the Giant. We submit the first draft to Disney and there are notes. Duh. Oh, the budget is not as big as Rob hoped? You mean we don’t get to see the Giant’s kingdom or Cinderella’s ball after all? OK, maybe it’s more fun for an audience to envision these places. I am also asked to “spell things out” more and I hate to spell things out. (That’s a playwright thing.) We have to consolidate locations and make even more script cuts. I am worrying that I no longer can see the woods for the trees. Rob remains calm as he navigates the shifting waters. In October, he mounts a reading. The studio folks attend. So helpful and thrilling for all of us to actually hear the screenplay together.

7. March 2013. Another draft is finished. More studio notes. I am beginning to understand the art of adaptation; the balancing act of honoring the source material without being a slave to it. Rob takes off for London to begin preproduction. I stay behind, write yet one more revision, then return to FreeCell.

8. August 2013. One last go-round on the script via conference call. Rob is too consumed with the prep to discuss the final details, so the producer Marc Platt takes over, and he is an excellent diplomat. Steve and I go through everything that is still in question. We win some points. We compromise on others. And we let go of those things that now seem less important. This process turns out to be more emotional than I expected. We’re letting our baby go out into the world all over again. And, like for any pair of parents, it hurts to let go. We should write a show about this. Oh wait, we just did and now they are making a movie of it.

9. May 2013. I am sitting in a theater and watching the first cut and am having an out-of-body experience. I can’t even remember what is and isn’t in the movie anymore. Wait, did they change that line? Whoa, that scene plays better than I could have imagined. I don’t mind the “spelled out” bits, and how great is this cast? My wife and my daughter, who is now 28, sit beside me. They’re laughing. They’re crying. My head is swirling.

10. When I was embarking on “Woods” I was chatting with a friend as her young daughter was having dinner. Actually, more like playing with her dinner, most of which was going everywhere but in her mouth. I casually asked my pal if teaching her kid table manners was going to be important for her. She looked at me: “James, I just hope I can teach this kid the difference between right and wrong.” That resonated with me when I wrote our show and comes back to me now. How well have I taught my child and what world have I — have all of us — left behind for our children? When Rob Marshall approached us about making the film, he said he felt it was time to retell this story. Of course he was right. A good fairy tale speaks to us at each stage of our lives. I watched the movie again. I began to forget that I wrote it and started to hear even more clearly at this stage of my life what “Into the Woods” has to say.