Intothe 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.”
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.
Witchescan 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.
It was time. I tightened my belt, sheathed my sword, and sweatily clutched the handle as I entered through the backstage door and into the wings of Weiss Auditorium. I hadn’t dealt with nerves like these in a long time. I kept trying to imagine that I was running out of the locker room like Ray Lewis in Baltimore circa 2001, but I just couldn’t quite get there. Despite performing in countless plays throughout my childhood, nothing had prepared me for opening night of my first musical.
Despite these feelings of nervousness, when it came time for me to enter, I didn’t shakily stumble onto the stage; I gallivanted. That’s what I had to do. Not because I was an actor. Because I was a prince. Prince’s don’t get nervous – or perhaps, after watching the trials and tribulations of Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s prince, one might venture that they do. Whatever the anxiety levels of princes may be, as soon as I opened my mouth for the first time to begin to sing “Agony,” I was floating.
I was suddenly a passenger, whimsically being whisked through the melodious tones and intense feelings inherent in the music of Stephen Sondheim. Thus began a love affair that has been going strong for the last six years – one need only look to my Spotify wrapped to understand the commitment I have made to the “Into The Woods Original Broadway Cast Recording.” Since the conclusion of my high school production of Into The Woods, the continuation of the undying love between myself of this musical has mainly consisted of humming, a few reprisals now and then, and dreaming of the old days. But right here, right now, that all changes.
My dearest readers, I exit my prolonged hiatus from critically engaging with this musical by diving head-first into the story that I’ve held for so long in my heart, except this time, with even brighter lights, a much bigger budget, and James Corden singing – how fun! Without further adieu, I give you… my second act!
After my viewing of the film version of Into the Woods (2014), I grabbed an ice pack and threw it on my noggin for a hot minute, as I had just been hit over the head by themes and ideas that my ninth grade brain didn’t quite grasp. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that this was not a surface musical from the moment I picked up the script. I sobbed endlessly on the last night of our run, as our wonderful witch sang, “Children Will Listen.” “No More” – a tune inexplicably cut from the film – is a song that will tug at my heartstrings until the day I die.
The question that I found myself seeking to ask in my viewing, though, was: “what makes this musical, seemingly completely removed from real life, relevant today?” There is not one specific moment to point to, or one character that pulls everything together in this show. That’s the beauty of an ensemble musical. You can truly look at each scene and find something new about a character that you don’t know much about. However, there are some concrete things I was drawn to as I viewed this film, so allow me to guide you.
The construction of Into The Woods is very unique in itself. It’s an amalgamation of many fairytales from places and cultures across the Europe. In this fact, the show already takes on a unique sense of cultural relevance, as it serves as a bridge between storytelling cultures from all over the place. The reason for this may not be as deep as you think, as a fascinating article on the conception of the musical reveals that Sondheim decided to amalgamate these many characters because he thought it was simply impossible to start a fairy tale from scratch while trying to create the quest story that he had for so long wanted to conceive.
Despite the reasoning, the result is what’s important here. An amalgamation of different folktales and stories working in harmony gives this musical more meaning before the curtains even rise: there is something innately beautiful about being able to combine different people’s stories and fuse it into a bigger cohesive story? Isn’t that, in a way, what life itself is about? Cheesy, I know. But true. Very true.
From the jump this show shoots down the notion of universality: these characters are certainly not the same. They do not share the same privileges, the same financial security, and the same concerns. This musical thrives in the fact that these characters are so clearly different. There’s also a notion of hybridity in these characters. Sure – this is not as clear as it is in the analysis of some characters in West Side Story or Into The Heights, but the hybridity in these characters mainly lies in the fact that they have these set and preconceived identities associated with their fairytale. The characters never shed these identities throughout the movie – Cinderella is still Cinderella to us when the credits role. Undoubtedly, though, they take on new identities as the film continues. For example, Cinderella is not just an abused stepdaughter who eventually meets her prince, but an individual heavily grieving over her mother and someone who continues to experience problems after meeting “her prince.”
Ah, Social Class
Finally! We can dive deeper into “Agony!” The number features Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they commiserate about women that they cannot yet achieve. (I think it’s pretty clear who these women are, considering the names of the characters.) Anyhow, it’s a funny sight, especially when juxtaposed to what other characters in the musical are going through: two well-off and good looking princes being over-dramatic about the pain they feel because it’s officially been one day since they selected a girl they want and they don’t have her yet. I mean, seriously? You’re upset because there are no doors on your maiden’s tower? The baker and baker’s wife may never be able to have a child! Rapunzel doesn’t know what grass feels like! But please, regale us of your pain in what is (may I biasedly say, the best number of the musical.)
This is worth watching yourself before any more discussion from me, so let’s take a brief intermission and give this one a watch. Wait! Go grab some popcorn first. I don’t want you to feel like you’re watching this clip as an assignment. Watch it with the true movie-goer experience in mind. Leave the analysis for later. Anyway, enjoy!
I love Chris Pine. I just absolutely love the guy. What a ham! You see why I had you watch that? Delightful, right? More than that, it’s important to watch these princes in action to truly understand what this number is trying to say. If you were to simply listen to the soundtrack, half the meaning of “Agony” would be lost. So much of this song is in the choreography.
One of the best moments of this song is when Cinderella’s Prince rips his shirt open as he WRITHES in pain (I hope the sarcasm is detectable) and then Rapunzel’s Prince, looking to fit in, hesitantly rips his shirts as well (1:26). A similar moment occurs just a few seconds later, as Rapunzel’s Prince opens his mouth to sing of his pain again, but then is forced to look to his right and cede to his brother, as he has already continued singing (1:37). The two also take part in ridiculous displays of thrusting themselves back on rocks in pain, bumping into one another as they try to prove who is in more lovesick, and even kick the flowing stream water on one another as this number continues. Pine and Magnussen also absolutely nail the facial expressions, as they manage to render themselves as two puppy dogs, who know absolutely nothing about the world yet. I think this is exactly why my director decided to cast two ninth graders as the princes: you need to be able to portray a high level of naiveté in the role.
The main way through which characters construct cultural identity in this musical is through social class. Into The Woods shows us extreme examples of both the poor and the rich, and displays the way in which their wealth or lack thereof it has shaped them. The reason I chose to focus on “Agony” lies in the pure privilege of this number. While Little Red is dealing with a wolf that wants to eat her, and Jack and his mother are trying to sell their cow to put food on the table, the princes have time to assemble in this beautiful clearing in the woods and lament about a problem that is not a problem at all. Although abstracted by the fairy tale-ness of it all, this societal contradiction exists everywhere. “That’s a first world problem,” is certainly becoming a hackneyed phrase, but it’s true. How often do you hear someone complaining about something that you think they have no means complaining about? How often do you think you complain about something that someone else internally scoffs at? It’s all about perspective, I suppose, and these princes certainly don’t have it.
This is all made worse by the fact that the princes will get these women – and not be fully satisfied! The more you have, the less you can enjoy, I guess. The people who really deserve to catch a break, like the baker and his wife – don’t get so happy of an ending. The rich get richer.
The Good ol’ Fam
There shouldn’t be a dry eye left in the house after this one. There really shouldn’t. Into The Woods finds its most powerful cultural relevance through its musings on family. It differs heavily from a musical like Fiddler On The Roof, which focuses on the traditions and customs of a specific familial structure. Sondheim went much more broad in his statements on family, and I’d be surprised if anybody could walk out of the show and not found something that they can relate to. Between the Baker and his wife and their quest to have a child, the witch and her obsession with protecting and hiding Rapunzel, the struggle between Jack and his mother, Cinderella’s mourning of her mother, the Baker’s unresolved relationship with his father, the Baker grappling with the new responsibility of having a son, and the Baker’s eventual raising of Jack and Little Red. “No One is Alone/Children Will Listen” is one of the most gut-wrenching numbers of the entire musical, as the Baker, now left without his wife, must raise his son on his own.
Sondheim delivers a song for the ages that leaves anybody with a pulse thinking as the credits begin to roll in this film. It’s worth a watch – have a tissue box on hand.
Great, now I’m crying. I think I can still manage to say what I want to say. When the Baker’s Wife appears next to the struggling Baker and says “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood,” I immediately break down. The sincerity and love in Emily Blunt’s eyes when she delivers that line is so genuine that you cannot help but think of someone you have lost in your life, or someone that you absolutely couldn’t bear losing.
Once the Baker gains the courage to begin speaking to his child, the Witch’s voice begins in the background, emphasizing the importance of being cautious with what you say to children. It doesn’t matter as much what you say to adults – they are all selfish and caught up in years and years of their own beliefs. Children, however, are blank slates. They will trust. They will care. They will listen. Thus, talking to a child, and, in a greater sense, raising a child, is one of the greatest responsibilities a human being could have. As the Baker begins to get in a rhythm of talking to his little boy, Jack and Little Red enter too, as well as Cinderella, who seems she will fill in as the motherly figure in the absence of the Baker’s Wife. Even in the face of great tragedy, people find family, blood or otherwise, to hang onto.
This song is also a very personal one for Sondheim, who was very affected by the psychological abusivness of his own mother. The two had a horrible relationship, ending in a twenty year estrangement and Sondheim not attending her funeral. With this number, Sondheim issues his own warning, serving as an example of just how deeply a parents’ treatment of their child can affect them for the rest of their life. This is perhaps the most universal cultural message of the show – in the construction of one’s identity, the role models and parental figures in one’s life are absolutely essential.
If I ever want to get the water works to get going, I know where to go. Thanks, Sondheim.
Breifly on omissions
I’m sorry, I had to just take a few seconds of your time to say the following about the parts of this musical that didn’t make the cut from the stage to the screen. I don’t get some of these removals. Clearly, I’m a purist for this musical, but it goes further than that. How do you get rid of “Agony (Reprise)?” With that, the film totally dismissed the storyline of the princes not being satisfied with their wives, and having affairs with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
This is so critical to this class discussion we were having earlier, as the stage version of Into The Woods seems to support the thesis of “The more you have, the less satisfied you are.” It’s beautiful comedy. Here these princes are in Act I, yelling at the universe for not allowing them to have these women that they SIMPLY MUST have. The first “Agony” ends with the two entering a falsetto to sing, “I must have her, to wife.” In Act II, the princes rejoin to sing of the new maidens they have found, and conclude the song by this time singing, “Oh well, back to my wife.”
To leave out “No More” is equally as puzzling. I get it, Hollywood. Big lights, big money, not a lot of time. Blah, blah, blah. Gotcha. That doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most important numbers of the show. Talk about displaying the cultural significance of the show as a whole and bridging the gaps between all audience members by discussing the themes of family! Come on! “No More” is a seminal moment in which the Baker and the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s father) explore their broken relationship and how one is supposed to move forward in this scary and dark world. Another upper, I know.
There was no more universal reception at my high school performance than the reaction to this song. How could you not be shaken by the all-too relatable ideas of love, loss, fear, and broken-ness.
Try these lyrics on for size from the Baker as he unloads his fears to his father:
Can't we just pursue our lives
With out children and our wives?
'Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?
What is a father supposed to say that??? How do we get to that day when we are with the people we love, and don't have to worry about all the things in this world standing in the way of that? Will we ever get there? The movie should at least ask this question by not making this nonsensical cut.
the ultimate quest
Sondheim set out to make a quest musical. Sure, he succeeded in doing that. But Into The Woods leaves us with a lot more than the Baker’s journey to find the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. It leaves us with an urge to further our own quest in this world. It causes me to question my privilege. Are the problems I’m dealing with right now that bad? Or am I Chris Pine, throwing myself back on a rock over nothing while there is a James Corden right next to me in a much worse spot?
If you walk out of this movie thinking one thing, it has to be: “am I happy with my relationship with my family right now?” Into The Woods is a call to action for parents, children, husbands, and wives alike to right the wrongs in their relationship before it’s too late. The musical brings a sense of urgency to our time on this planet so acutely that I always feel a need to give my parents a call after watching this on the stage or on the screen.
With this musical, Sondheim so kindly says – “this time here is so precious, I would advise you to not mess it up.”
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