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Rob Marshall Stays in Tune

Variety honors helmer in Creative Impact Directing category

rob-marshall
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If you’re going to make a musical in Hollywood, Rob Marshall is sure to be at the top of your director wish list.

He almost single-handedly reintroduced the tuner as a mainstream commercial genre with his 2002 Oscar winner “Chicago,” and his list of accolades includes a DGA Award for that film, an Emmy for choreographing the 1999 telepic “Annie” (which also landed him a director nom) and now Variety’s Creative Impact in Directing Award, which he receives Jan. 4 in Palm Springs.

Marshall’s latest project, “Into the Woods,” finally brings Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 Tony-winning fairy tale mashup to the bigscreen after two decades of false starts. Which raises the question: Even after recent B.O. successes like “Mamma Mia” and “Les Miserables,” why aren’t more musicals being made?

“They’re fragile. When they don’t work, they really don’t work,” Marshall says. “It’s such a hard thing. Film musicals will always be a hybrid of film and theater. The theatricality will always be there. With ‘Into the Woods,’ we wanted to make sure it felt like an organic piece, so that it feels appropriate that people are singing. That’s always a challenge.

“It’s even hard to read the script of a musical. Whenever a song starts, people tend to turn the next page and not read it. But with Sondheim, all the character work and the storytelling is in the song itself.”

Marshall acknowledges the genre is in a better place now than it was in the early 1990s, when the screen adaptation of “Woods” was first proposed under very different circumstances.

“There are more musicals being made, and I’m grateful that this is happening,” Marshall says, though he admits to longing for a bygone era. “I was always so jealous of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM in the golden days, when they would bring in composers, music arrangers, choreographers, everyone to create a musical. It was a well-oiled machine. Now every musical is a one-off. I’m putting together a mini-Arthur Freed unit each time out.”

At a November post-screening Q&A at the DGA Theater in New York, Marshall called “Woods” “a fairy tale for the post-9/11 generation.” All the delays the adaptation endured may have been worth it, because now feels like just the right moment for a cinematic rendering of Sondheim’s witty and wise ruminations on wishes dreamed, achieved, shattered and reassembled. “This might be the time to tell people there is hope.”