Mom’s the Word

by Madelyn Johnston
An Into The Woods Analysis

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim is a fantastical musical that combines many different fairytales- Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Giant Bean Stalk– and forces them down the dark rabbit hole of the woods. This song cycle, as most Sondheim musicals are, flourishes in the characters’ selfishnesses. The musical includes themes of growth, parenting, and morality. It’s a commentary on human action and reaction, but mostly it’s a commentary on Sondheim’s life. As such, this musical bases its cultural relevance on the common pain as well as flaws within society.

“…most fairy tales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong—which is to say, almost everything that can—arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions.”

Time Magazine

Stephen Sondheim was born to Etta Janet and Herbert Sondheim. Herbert left Sondheim at an early age. Etta became psychologically abusive, forcing her anger at Herbert onto Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim said, “”When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time.” Additionally, she once wrote Sondheim a letter saying that the only regret she ever had was giving birth to him. Sondheim remained estranged from his mother for 20 years until her death in 1992.

With this in mind, there is a degree to which the characters in Into the Woods are Sondheim’s mother, which is why all mothers within the story either leave or die (the latter being the more common). While making each character relate to his personal life narrative, we are forced to question the actions of characters and their morality in it. Are there any good characters at all?

To catch you up, I have made a list of how every mother left in Into the Woods (based off of the 2014 movie adaptation). So it goes without saying: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

  • The Baker’s mother died, causing his father to leave
  • Cinderella’s mother was dead from the beginning, but just to be sure she’s really super dead, the giant steps on her grave, killing her magical spirit.
  • The Witch’s mother is dead or gone; she’s the one that curses the Witch for losing the beans by making her ugly
  • Little Red Riding Hood’s (LRRH) mother AND grandmother are killed during the giant’s initial attack. Even the wolf who pretended to be a grandmother is dead smh.
  • Jack’s mom is killed after being pushed by the steward.
  • Cinderella’s stepmother just dips out.
  • The Baker’s wife, after having a quick affair with the prince, falls off a cliff.
  • The Witch, who stole Rapunzel as a child and thus became her mother (adoptive would probably not be the term, it’s giving ‘kidnapping’), dies from evil spirits, it seems.
  • Unclear if the giant had children. Signs point to no. In any case, she’s dead for sure.

Oh sorry. Wrong musical.

This is from Beetlejuice: the musical, The Musical, The Musical!

Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods

from the song “Any Moment”

The musical starts with the repeated line “I wish,” which is heavily referenced throughout the plot. Every character gets their wish, but the characters, as well as the viewers, are faced to confront the consequences of wishes. It replaces the theme of hope with an aura of selfishness. Within that, the characters are forced to deal with their anger and grief within the woods, where morality is often set aside. All their emotions build up in the song “Your Fault” in which the music swirls in a dark minor key. The song not only gives the viewers a recap of the consequences the wishes gave rise to but also allows the viewers to see the common result of anger: blame. The song is repetitive because, in the face of rage, there seems to be no clear solution thus moving the song cycle into the next sequence of “Last Midnight,” the Witch’s final song.

In “Last Midnight,” the Witch sheds light on the fact that the characters, blinded by their wishes, did possibly wrong things to get what they wanted. She says, “Had to get your wish—Doesn’t matter how—Anyway, it doesn’t matter now.” She, throughout the story, is representing moral ambivalence, thus becoming intertwined with the moral ambivalence of the woods. It all bursts to a conclusion with this song where she is explaining that blame doesn’t matter anymore or anyhow. Despite that fundamental truth, the “world” as the Witch calls them will be greedy. This is shown in the blocking as the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, is throwing the beans around, on the ground. Despite everything, the other characters scramble around her to catch the beans.

“I’m leaving you my last curse: I’m leaving you alone.”

The Witch in “Last Midnight”

The Witch takes the moral apathy of the woods with her, turning into a tar pit, one with the woods. The characters are not only forced to face their actions but also how alone they are. In doing so, they are also forced to analyze their relationship with their mothers (we’re back at the mothers!). This analysis blossoms in the song “No One is Alone.”

LRRH repeats the line “Mother said straight ahead not to delay or be misled,” but now she has no mother to guide her morality.

[CINDERELLA]
Mother isn’t here now.

[BAKER]
Wrong things, right things

[CINDERELLA]
Who knows what she’d say?

Sondheim points out that mothers aren’t always right and that despite the fact that they aren’t there, the characters and the viewers are not alone. They then go on to point out that everyone makes mistakes- mothers, fathers (like Sondheim’s family). The Baker and Cinderella say they are, “Holding to their own…Thinking they’re alone.” This may be in reference to Sondheim’s mom only caring for herself after she was left ‘alone’ by Sondheim’s father. In the greater context of the musical, it calls upon the societal ideal of oneness and that one should put themselves first despite everything else. It’s this thinking they’re alone that allows for selfishness and its consequences because there are other people in any context. No one is alone.

Witches can be right

Giants can be good

You decide what’s right

You decide what’s good

Baker and Cinderella in “No One is Alone”

Not only are the characters forced to confront their own morality, but the viewers get to decide finally what throughout the story was right or wrong, as we suspended our disbelief, because of the fantastical nature of the story and the way of the woods, up until this point. Not making a choice between the right and wrong, as Cinderella mentions in “On the Steps of the Palace” and the Baker’s wife mentions in “Moments in the Woods,” is no longer an option. What in our own lives is good? What in society is good? What in our own lives is wrong? What in society is wrong? It becomes about an individual’s responsibility to society in making morally just decisions, but also a responsibility to learn from others’ mistakes as well as our own.

It’s the way that each fairytale is meant to teach a moral. Sondheim took that very literally.

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