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.

Mother isn’t here now.

Wrong things, right things

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.

Does Race Exist in the World of RENT?

Conversation between Hale Masaki and Mady Johnston

Mady: I guess we’ll start with what Rent is trying to represent: diverse perspectives. It has all these different characters going through very real experiences. I find it hard to talk about Rent starting out because I feel like it’s supposed to be taken in all at once.

Hale: I’m reading Angels in America by Tony Kushner in another class and I bring it up because it’s also a story about gay men living with aids and the severity of the aids epidemic. When reading this, Rent seemed really watered down in comparison.

M: I see what you are saying. I mean, the only time the hardship of aids is brought up is with Angel’s death. It’s a hardship in life too, not just in death 

H: Yeah, if they are trying to represent diverse perspectives within economic crises too, where did all their money come from to do the things they are doing?

M: Well, Joane is a lawyer but I’m not sure if she’s necessarily providing. Also, Roger just picked up his life and went to Santa Fe? No one in economic distress could actually do that.

H: What’s up with that cow udder shit?

M: I don’t know. Modernist art and mooing?
Idina Menzel as Maureen in RENT (2005)

M: I mean I think part of the goal with the diversity in the casting is that you can’t talk about the aids epidemic without talking about the black community. Because of the higher presence of aids in that community and how it caused an increase in racism and homophobia.

H: How come none of that is in the script then? It can’t be a casual representation without recognizing that race affects life. Only a white person can say race isn’t an important part of life.

M: What do you think about Mimi, Ben, or Joanne? How would that character change if it were played by a white person?

H: If race isn’t talked about, you are just effectively white. For instance, in video games where they give you this whole range of skin colors but don’t include the actual experience of race and ethnicity, it’s all effectively white.

M: Yeah, like Rent decided to be diverse for the purpose of being diverse and not for the purpose of showing the struggles of those people. Rent doesn’t really show homophobia or racism, just the idea of being a starving artist.

H: Nobody gets to be their race, they are all white.

M: They all have the same cookie-cutter struggles. You could change anyone’s race and it wouldn’t change the plot. So it kind of misses the mark of representation.

H: Also, it’s very convenient that Benny is black. Like a rich white landlord is an unprofitable look for them.

M: And that would be more truthful.

H: The movie is also mostly the original Broadway cast.

M: The two main characters are white men, they’re the center of the plot. And the fact that this is the og cast means this is Jonathan Larson’s intent and they wanted to keep it that way. Which is important because he died right before the first showing of rent. It’s also why La Vie Boheme is performed the way it is. They had decided to perform the show by just sitting at three tables, singing it through, but when La Vie Boheme hit, they couldn’t contain themselves and they performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be. So La Vie Boheme is usually performed with three tables pushed together.

H: So it’s stiff in some ways because they want to keep Jonathan Larson’s idea.

M: Yeah, like how West Side Story changed, but they didn’t change all the bad parts. Not erasing history, but this is for multiple reasons.

H: Moving to La Vie Boheme though, Mark is the most racialized person in Rent as a Jewish man, but he’s also the white main character.

M: Yeah they even include the Mourner’s Kaddish in La Vie Boheme. References to Jewish culture throughout are almost the only references to any culture at all.

H: At “Being an us for once instead of them” they show an interracial couple. They just kind of throw them in there.

M: It’s everything all at once again: gay, interracial, aids, drugs…not really representing in any way, just showing.

H: Besides race, you can’t tell who those background people are. They are essentially white.

M: I feel like when they say, “rice and beans and cheese” and then “huevos rancheros” they are just trying to fit Spanish culture into there also.

H: The whole musical is “look! we all like the same white guys!”

M: They say homo sapiens after bisexual and trisexual as in we are all human but we all also a little gay, which slay, but there is difficulty with being gay. They’re trying to show unity but…their experiences are actually different.

H: So the answer is no: race does not exist in the world of Rent.

M: Yeah, but everyone knows how to tango!

Funny Frustration

By Mady Johnston

Funny Girl’s “I’m The Greatest Star” is one of the most iconic numbers within the musical. It’s the recognizable “pip with pizazz” and Fanny Brice’s “I am” song, setting the basis for how the audience interprets her character’s decisions. However, the themes brought up in “I’m The Greatest Star” are far from centered in Fanny’s decision-making. The song sets up the frustration that many viewers have reported when finishing Funny Girl in that Fanny seems to stray so far from her “I am.” Well, I have news about that frustration…that’s show biz, kid!

In other words, Fanny Brice’s glam in this song contrasts with the real-life struggles she faces. The plot of Funny Girl refuses to hide the misogyny that not only is a large part of Fanny’s story, but also the time period.

What’s she even talking about

In order to understand Fanny’s perspective, we have to understand what she’s saying in
“I’m The Greatest Star.” For this interpretation, I’ll be referencing specifically the 2018 adaptation, directed by Robert Delamere and performed on West End. The production presents the song after Fanny’s rejection from the stage and becomes bundled with the emotions she feels from not being given a shot. What’s unique about this song is that she’s singing about her woes but she’s unashamed at the same time. She’s singing of all the great things about herself: all the things she could offer to an audience that are “six expressions” more than anyone else. What’s more, Fanny is acutely aware that she doesn’t fit what Ziegfeld and others would consider an “American Beauty Rose.” She’s proud of her Jewish heritage, her home, and her looks.

I feel this overwhelming sense of joy as a Jewish New Yorker when I hear Fanny Brice proudly sing of her “American Beauty Nose.”
John Springer Collection/Getty Images | Side profile of Barbara Streisand

Despite what the world says about her outwardness, her culture, or her character, she is dead set in her belief that she’ll make it. To prove it even more, Sheridan Smith, the actress who plays Fanny in this adaptation, stays sitting on the ground for more than half of the song, but remains exaggerated in expression hilariously, exemplifying her great ability to perform. “I’m The Greatest Star” isn’t some sad lament where Fanny sings about how many times she’s failed. Instead, she sings about all the ways she can succeed. Additionally, the song is not a “performance within a performance,” meaning that this behind-the-scenes moment between her and Eddie shows her true self and her true wishes. Her “I am” song is powerfully positive despite all odds.

Sheridan Smith and Joshua Lay in Funny Girl (2018) | “I’m The Greatest Star”

Oh no! It all went wrong!

So where does her power go? Well, it left with the money that she sent to Nicky Arnstein. Only joking (stick around for the jokes). In discussion with people who’ve watched this musical with me, they all seem to have the same shtick: that Fanny shouldn’t have left her dream of performing–and therefore “losing herself”–for a guy. But consider the real-life Fanny Brice. While Funny Girl is a loose biography, it still is set in the 1900s, and regretfully, life was disappointing for women back then. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room when it came to what a woman could do during those times.

Meme by yours truly

Mrs. Strakosh, played by Myra Sands, even ranks marriage over Fanny’s successful career, often talking about her daughter who is married in comparison to Fanny, or asking about Nick rather than the shows. What happened to Fanny was a product of intense love, of course, but it also was, unfortunately, a product of the time. Fanny blaming herself for pushing Nick and not letting him make money himself exemplified the mass misogyny that existed back then. Fanny had more money than Nick, and when she attempted to save him from bankruptcy, he felt emasculated by her success.

Brice loved performing–her “I am” song was the greatest 😉 –but she loved feeling like other women more. She constantly mentions how Nick made her feel “beautiful.” However, in “I’m The Greatest Star” it seems like she already feels beautiful, so let’s not forget that. But her self-view changed to what others considered normal. Her self-view became what she thought fancy people in ruffled shirts viewed as beautiful, which was “typical” Ziegfeld girls and wives with children. She no longer fit in her self-view. She loses herself because of her environment. She mentions her jokes and her faces in “I’m The Greatest Star,” acting extravagantly as the form of comedy she produces, but she wants people “to laugh with her, not at her.” This meant to be a part of the majority, and give in to what the modern eye might see as frustrating.

Finding yourself again

Great news! Fanny and Nick do, in fact, get divorced. So where does this “I am” song land now? Right back at the center like we thought it was meant to be! We get about five minutes of validation towards the end of the production when Nick leaves Fanny, and Fanny looks at herself in the mirror. She quotes her “I am” song. Knowing all the things Fanny went through as well as keeping in mind the time period, this ending unravels the return of empowerment within Fanny. This empowerment is not only women’s empowerment but also just plain old self-empowerment. Looking at yourself in a mirror and saying “Hello, Gorgeous!” is what the modern day would call “daily affirmations.” But her forgetting to do her daily affirmations is not what got us to this conclusion. Despite all the casual misogyny she experienced and the letdown of a lifetime, she still achieved the dreams she set out in “I’m the Greatest Star.” However, she went back to holding that aspiration at the highest value when the finale hits (she says beforehand she would have left performing if Nick told her to). With the reference to “I’m the Greatest Star” at the center of this finale, Fanny communicates to the audience some rendition of “I am despite what is.” The audience follows the story of Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein for quite some time are pulled back into the modern world suddenly. Fanny Brice can be whoever she wants to be without a man. Fanny Brice had more money than Nicky Arnstein that she made on her own. These are all things that in the modern age are relatively normal, but back then were almost offensive. Audiences leave the musical being proud of Fanny though because she returns to her progressive nature. She returns to grappling with her role in society when it comes to gender and sexuality but lands upon forming that outside of the status quo once again.

“I’m The Greatest Star” differs from common “I am” songs because it is not a basis for how we view the character, but rather a reference point for how Fanny Brice changed. Success throws Fanny into a different world, far from Brooklyn and her small fan group of family. She definitely changed moving forward, but her past didn’t. I leave you with this thought- love is difficult, but you find yourself again and again and again, with or without it.