When Disneyfication Goes Wrong

Not many people who only know me as an adult know this about me, but I used to be something of a drama geek.

I acted or did tech work for every production we put on during my time in high school. Even starred in a few. There were lots of kids who were more emotionally and intellectually committed to theatre than me and, without question, many more kids who were more talented than me. I did, however, possess the proper mix of ample free time, general inter-clique popularity and mild-but-annoying ego-serving ambition that I managed to overcome that lack of commitment and talent to get myself elected president of our school’s chapter of the International Thespian Society and the Drama Club.

OK, so maybe I was a bit more than something of a drama geek. Don’t look at me that way. Not everything you did in high school was cool either.

My high school was, on occasion, a challenging environment in which do theater. It was southern West Virginia, after all, and there are a lot of Baptists down there. Our drama teacher and the director of most of our plays was a wonderful woman and a devout Christian. While she seemed to lean toward the liberal end of the religious world, she put her foot down a few times. Most memorably in nixing the idea of us doing “Grease” because it was … questionable. The biggest problem wasn’t the language and innuendo, she said, but that “in the end, rather than turning Danny into a better person, Sandy abandons her morals to be more like him.” Oh well. 

That aside, I enjoyed almost every production we mounted back in those days. The best was certainly the last one in which I participated. It was our senior year musical: Steven Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” I played the narrator who, unlike the narrator in most stories, gets his own song and, in a lovely post-modern twist, gets killed in the second act when the characters turn on him. It’s a pretty spiffy play with a ton of great songs. I highly recommend it to even those who aren’t normally fans of musicals, as it’s absolutely hilarious, deliciously subversive and possesses no small amount of edge.

Or it did. Now it’s being turned into a movie and, as is the case with most movie musicals, the motion picture will, unless it utterly bombs, eventually come to be thought of as the definitive product by virtue of more eyes having seen it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “My Fair Lady” holds up really damn well as a film. But in the case of “Into the Woods” I think it might very well be. That’s because Disney is producing it and they appear to be cutting the balls right the hell off of the thing.

According to this New Yorker article, Disney made a few changes. Sondheim himself explains:

“You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the baker’s wife,” he said.

The teachers gasped, but Sondheim shrugged. “You know, if I were a Disney executive I would probably say the same thing,” he said.

A teacher asked what would happen to the song “Any Moment” if the baker’s wife remained chaste. “Don’t say the song is cut.”

“The song is cut.”

Sondheim added: “Disney said, ‘we don’t want Rapunzel to die,’ so we replotted it. I won’t tell you what happens, but we wrote a new song to cover it.“

I find this disgusting, but my disgust at this isn’t about my nostalgia for the original or your typical “the play was better than the movie” sort of thing. I realize that compromises often must be made when one adapts one form of art into another. You have to make choices and you have to make cuts. This cut, however, eviscerates the entire message of "Into the Woods.”

The message, as put by my high school music teacher and the musical director of all of our productions when I shared the article with her on Facebook last night: 

It is all about consequences and decisions … Making this more appropriate for younger performers takes out the heart of the show and eliminates the idea that actions and consequences matter. We do not do enough to teach consequences for the actions and decisions we choose. This is a perfect story for that.

In essence: in trying to sanitize “Into the Woods,” Disney has actually removed its core moral message. It has decided that it doesn’t have the courage, faith and stomach for risk possessed by a little Baptist lady in Southern West Virginia who clutched her pearls when she thought of Olivia Newton-John in leather pants.

I don’t know what Disney plans on doing with the Baker’s Wife, the Prince and Rapunzel. Maybe the new plot points will be wildly entertaining. But in failing to put them through the very human trials and tribulations the original play does, they are, perversely, likely to render the story into something which is far less morally and ethically instructive than the one Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine originally told.

This week my daughter is taking an introduction-to-acting class put on by the Columbus Children’s Theatre. She’s a lot like me – kind of a ham and kind of a geek – so she’s really enjoying it. Right now this is just something different to pass the time this summer, but I could see her getting into drama as she gets older. She’s also done something else recently: totally abandoned those kid-oriented sitcoms produced by the Disney Channel that she used to watch all of the time. I didn’t tell her to, she just doesn’t care for them anymore.

As a parent, I couldn’t be happier that she’s choosing the godless and libertine culture of the theatre over the wholesome and family-friendly world of Disney. It’s far safer and morally instructive for her that way.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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