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Anna Kendrick goes ‘Into the Woods’

“This is beloved material . . . you’d better not screw it up,” says Anna Kendrick, about her role in “Into the Woods.”WILL OLIVER/epa

NEW YORK — Attention, rabid devotees of “Into the Woods”: Anna Kendrick gets it. Really she does. The actress has known Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy-tale musical mashup since the days of video cassettes.

She was only 10 or so, growing up in Portland, Maine, when she first watched Bernadette Peters and the rest of the original Broadway cast in the PBS recording. Little Red Riding Hood became her dream role.

Director Rob Marshall cast her as Cinderella instead in his star-studded Disney adaptation of the musical, which hits movie theaters on Christmas Day. Kendrick, 29, is well aware that many fans are nervous about the care the company has taken of the show.

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“This is beloved material,” she said late one afternoon in November. Serious and thoughtful, she was ensconced in a chilly upper room at the Waldorf Astoria, looking primly perfect except for the white hotel bathrobe draped across her lap for warmth. “It’s high art, and you’d better not screw it up.”

It’s also a sprawling piece with several intersecting story lines. At its center are the Baker (James Corden), the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), and the Witch (Meryl Streep), who’s cursed the couple to remain childless. To lift the spell, they set off in search of the several strange items she demands.

In the woods, they run across Cinderella; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of beanstalk fame; and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). Also wandering among the trees are the Stepmother (Christine Baranski), Jack’s Mother (Tracey Ullman), and, in a cameo, the hungry Wolf (Johnny Depp). Imprisoned high above is the Witch’s daughter, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). The traditional happily-ever-after ending comes in the middle; in Act 2, things get darker.

Marshall, an Oscar nominee for directing “Chicago” (2002), another stage musical transferred to the screen, said the delicacy of adapting “Into the Woods” made it important to have Sondheim and Lapine involved in the film. Lapine, who wrote the musical’s book and has directed the show each time it’s been on Broadway, penned the screenplay. Sondheim — who at 84, with his Pulitzer Prize and his herd of Tony and Grammy awards, is the closest thing musical theater has to a god — was on hand to tweak as needed.

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So the composer-lyricist had an insider’s cred when he set off a kerfuffle back in June. A New Yorker magazine piece quoted him saying that the song “Any Moment” had been cut from the movie (it hasn’t been), that Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) does not sleep with the Baker’s Wife, and that Rapunzel does not die. Sondheim issued a denial , blaming the reporter. On the matter of the Prince and the Baker’s Wife, he used squishy language to walk back his quoted statement (yes, he said, there is still a “dalliance”); on the matter of Rapunzel, he was mum.

It all just fed the rumor mill. Marshall, who experienced no similar scrutiny from fans in the run-up to “Chicago” or “Nine” (2009), his film adaptation of the Arthur Kopit-Maury Yeston musical, said social media had made it much easier for misinformation to spread.

“People think things are cut and gone and changed, that we’ve excised the second act. The things you hear are sort of unbelievable,” said the director, 54, who was a Broadway choreographer and director long before he ventured into movies. “It was really important to maintain the integrity of the piece and hold on to every bit of it that we could that would work for film. That was my goal.”

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Even so, some things are cut and gone and changed. The character of the Narrator doesn’t appear in the movie, though some of his lines remain. Lapine built a new frame for the screenplay, so that the Baker is the one telling the story this time. The Mysterious Man has been eliminated as well, and with him the song that Marshall said was the hardest to let go of: “No More,” that character’s poignant duet with the Baker.

About all of it, Lapine said, he and Sondheim are just fine. “We don’t care!” protested the screenwriter, 65. In fact, he added, he’d have “taken many more liberties with the material” if Marshall hadn’t been there to stop him. “Steve and I are not nearly as proprietary as other people are of it.”

It was only this fall, he said, that he even got an inkling of that depth of fan feeling, when he and Sondheim accepted an invitation to take part in an “Into the Woods” event in Costa Mesa, Calif. Part panel discussion, part performance, it featured lead actors from the show’s original 1987 production.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella in “Into the Woods.” Peter Mountain

“I’m thinking, who the heck, at a 3,000-seat theater, is going to come to this? It sold out in five minutes,” Lapine said. “When we walked on the stage, it was chilling. I had no idea that some people were so vigilant about their love of this show. They knew every word backward and forward, and they were hootin’ and hollerin’ like they were at a Stones concert or something.”

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Kendrick (“Up in the Air”) was a toddler when “Into the Woods” premiered, but she made her own Broadway debut at 12, in “High Society,” a screen-to-stage Cole Porter musical, and got a Tony nomination for it. When she auditioned, a few years later, to play Little Red Riding Hood in the 2002 Broadway revival of “Into the Woods,” “she came in second,” Lapine said.

When Kendrick heard about the movie, she got her hopes up again, but Marshall wanted an adolescent as Little Red Riding Hood. Kendrick’s agent informed her she’d be auditioning for Cinderella.

“That was sort of terrifying to me,” the actress recalled. “Cinderella is so vulnerable and open and soft and forgiving. And I’m really none of those things. I’m much more like Little Red: sort of hard and grumpy and awkward.”

At her audition, Marshall told her he sensed another quality.

“He saw vulnerability in me,” she said. “I was like, ‘It is incredible to me that you see that, because I try really hard to just be very, like, closed off in most situations.’ I try hard to seem strong, I guess. I try hard to be stoic.”

Kendrick with Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. Peter Mountain

Soon, maybe, she’s going to try hard not to be musical. With “Into the Woods,” a film adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” and the sequel to her 2012 a cappella movie “Pitch Perfect” all lined up for release, Kendrick knows she’s in danger of getting pigeonholed.

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“You don’t want to be the person who can’t go an entire film without breaking into song,” she said. “It’s not really a sustainable career path.” But she’s found the roles too tempting to pass up.

In “Into the Woods,” Cinderella has one big solo number, “On the Steps of the Palace,” which happens to be a song Sondheim reworked for the movie. Cinderella is no longer singing directly to the audience, as she does onstage, describing something she’s just done; now she’s thinking through her dilemma and arriving at a solution in the present.

That’s kind of how it was when Kendrick was recording the song, though it was Sondheim who was doing the problem solving, figuring out how to make his new lyrics do what they needed to do. He was “very sweet, very supportive,” and “so not precious about” making changes, Kendrick said. But still, Sondheim is Sondheim.

“I wanted to have that moment where I was really present and just enjoying the fact that Sondheim was rewriting his work, coming in and out of the recording booth to hand me lyrics,” she said. “But mostly I was just terrified.”

Related coverage:

- Musicals that didn’t hit a sour note on the big screen

- John Krasinski joins Emily Blunt at ‘Into the Woods’ premiere

- In Toronto, what they’re talking about at the festival

- An emotionally satisfying experience in Toronto


Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.