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'Annie,' 'Into the Woods' movies put new spin on Broadway hits

Meryl Streep as The Witch in

Meryl Streep as The Witch in "Into the Woods." Streep is nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her role in the film. Photo Credit: AP / Peter Mountain

One is brand new, the other's true blue. One has a famous street urchin zipping around Manhattan on a bike and in a real helicopter. The other has a witch with a curse and a fairy-tale prince on a real horse.

In other words, "Annie" (opening next Friday) and "Into the Woods" (opening Dec. 25) -- the two big holiday movies for kids and their grown-ups -- could hardly be more different. Yes, both are adaptations of hit Broadway musicals. Both have all-star casts not previously celebrated for their singing and dancing. Both stories are timeless, in their fashion, and each has a rabid fan base that will consider any changes as sacrilege.

"Annie," based very loosely on the much-loved 1977 musical (and 1982 movie) about a spunky little orphaned redhead in the 1930s, has been updated with new musical arrangements, with three new songs by pop-star Sia and with Quvenzhané Wallis as a spunky black foster child. She lives with other kids in the apartment of meanie Miss Hannigan, played by Cameron Diaz as a raucous failed rock singer.

Instead of Daddy Warbucks, Annie's wealthy savior is the billionaire head of a cellphone company, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, with Rose Byrne as his vice president and Bobby Cannavale as the unscrupulous campaign manager of his mayoral run.

On the other side of the family-entertainment spectrum is "Into the Woods." It is based with remarkable fidelity, despite some cuts, on the 1987 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine witty and disturbing fairy-tale mashup that puts Cinderella, Beanstalk Jack and Little Red Riding Hood into the same forest with the show's invented couple, the Baker and his Wife.

 

WITCH AS HELICOPTER MOM

Meryl Streep is the witch with her own virtuosically polysyllabic Sondheim rap and special reasons for keeping Rapunzel in a tower. "She loves her child and wants to protect her from the bad things in the world," joked Streep at a recent press session in Manhattan. She took voice lessons for three months to do justice to Sondheim and what she considers a great piece of American theater history. "She just takes it to extremes."

The cast also includes Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Christine Baranski as her evil stepmother, Tracey Ullman as Jack's mum, Emily Blunt and James Corden as Mr. and Ms. Baker, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as two dashing and goofy princes and, oh yes, Johnny Depp as the omnivorous Wolf.

With this many brand names and a vengeful giant crushing the countryside, the film, in the nicest possible way, suggests one of those star-packed apocalypse movies from the '70s, where towering infernos burned, but not before everyone gets a big scene.

"Omigod," said Lapine, laughing with recognition when he recognizes the genre. "It is one of those apocalypse movies."

It is rare that the writer of the musical is hired for the screenplay. But when Lapine heard Disney was going to make the movie, he asked director Rob Marshall if "I could just write the first draft... Disney said we had to make it PG and two hours.... It was so much harder than I ever thought it was going to be."

Marshall, the former theater director whose successful movie version of "Chicago" changed Hollywood's opinion of Broadway adaptations, made almost all the actors audition. "He said, 'I want actors who can kind of sing,'" says Blunt, who remembers her fear of singing in front of people. "And then we sang with a 65-piece orchestra! With Stephen Sondheim in the next room!" Sondheim's longtime music director, Paul Gemignani, also was there to guarantee the musicality.

The ensemble feeling was forged during six weeks in a rehearsal room. "It was like we were a touring company," marvels Corden, the British theater actor-comedian about to host a late-night TV show here. "It just happened to have Meryl Streep in it."

Unlike "Into the Woods," which was Marshall's idea, this new "Annie" was born after producers including Jay Z, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith bought the rights. Will Gluck, who directed the movies "Friends With Benefits" and "Easy A," was approached by Sony Pictures. "I knew that if I were going to do 'Annie,'" he said, "I would have to do it this way."

 

AN UNTRADITIONAL 'ANNIE'

Gluck not only directs the new version but he's also an executive producer, wrote the screenplay and some lyrics. He says he knew he didn't want to do a "traditional musical." The movie begins in a classroom with the familiar white, redheaded Annie, then switches focus to a little black girl in the room.

"I wanted to alert the audience that loves the old 'Annie' that we are aware this doesn't exist in a bubble. ... There are, like, 35 references to the old movie."

The film, not the Broadway show, is clearly his frame of reference, and he intentionally cast kids who don't have a Broadway belt.

Although Thomas Meehan, the show's original book writer, and lyricist Martin Charnin have not had much to do with the movie, most of the iconic songs -- including "Tomorrow," "It's a Hard-Knock Life," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" and "Maybe" -- are still very much here.

Many of the arrangements are new, however, with the complex polyrhythms of the New York streets. Gluck wants it to be contemporary, but says he feels "very responsible" to composer Charles Strouse, who came to the set several times. "I feel very responsible to his music."

The casting of Wallis, now 11, happened after she became an instant star -- and the youngest-ever Oscar nominee -- with "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

She had not sung in public before, but now is the singing, dancing, acting center of a huge musical. Still, she is very much a kid. When asked what she would like most to do in the world, she said "adopt a thousand puppies."

Diaz, too, never sang in public but said she needs to tackle fears "before they terrify me." She said she doesn't think about filling the shoes of other famous Miss Hannigans because "This is a whole new film." The responsibility is helping make an "Annie" for a new generation, she said. "This will probably be the only 'Annie' they are going to know."

For all the wild contrasts between this "Annie" and "Into the Woods," and between this "Annie" and previous ones, these are still fairy-tales, still messages that parents grew up loving, even performing at school. As Gluck puts it, "This is a different iteration, but it's still going to be your 'Annie.' It's a story told a thousand times over a thousand years, that someone tries to find a place in their life."

Or, as we learn in the woods, be careful what you wish for, yes, but also how you get it.

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