Beyond Good and Evil: Into the Woods

Once upon a time, two Broadway musicals premiered in the same year, written by two musical masters who would change the medium forevermore. One would become the longest-running show in Broadway history, the other would get a tame Disney film adaptation 25 years later. The year is 1988 and while Phantom of the Opera dominated the stage on Broadway and the West End, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods snatched the Tony Awards for “Best Score” (Sondheim) and “Best Book” (Lapine). And this was the right choice.

Combing several classic fairytales (including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk), Sondheim and Lapine playfully subvert our expectations by creating a cliché Happy Ending in Act I, only to deconstruct and critique that very notion in Act II. Throughout the show, the audience is presented with supposedly well-known characters and archetypes who end up defying our preconceived ideas of Good and Evil. Thereby, Into the Woods represents our postmodern understanding of moral ambiguity while still instilling in us hope and a renewed faith in humanity.

The show opens and closes with the words “I wish”, showcasing the characters’ clear objectives:

  • Little Red Riding Hood wants to visit her grandmother in the woods,
  • Cinderella wants to go to the prince’s festival,
  • The Baker and His Wife want to break the Witch’s spell to have a child and
  • Jack wants to sell his cow to provide for his mother.

They all get what they want by the end of Act I – only to unleash an angry giantess who makes them suffer the consequences of their actions in Act II.

As the plot is knowingly intertwined and convoluted, I will look at each major character individually and shortly discuss how they defy our moral expectations through their songs and actions.

The Baker and The Baker’s Wife
Sondheim and Lapine have often stated that these two characters are the only ones without any Grimmian equivalents. Instead, the Baker and his Wife are conceived to be “normal people from Brooklyn” who just happened to find themselves in a land of witches and curses and giants. This also renders them the least special/most flawed characters in the show and thereby the most relatable for the audience.

While neither of them are given any names and the Baker’s Wife is only identified by her relationship to him, she arguably has the most agency of all the characters. In Act I, the two learn that they have been childless due to the Witch’s curse on the Baker’s family. He proudly wants to break the curse by himself, even though it’s clear he’s not up to the task:

Baker: The Spell is on my house
Only I can lift the spell

Now, what am I to return with?
Baker’s Wife: You don’t remember?

She accompanies him despite his protest and they soon face a moral dilemma: should they lie and betray others in order to achieve their goal? They end up trading some beans for Jack’s cow, telling him they’re magic (not knowing it’s actually true). Not heeding her husband’s worries, the Baker’s wife is quite Utilitarian about the whole thing:

If the end is right
It justifies the beans!

While she grows more affectionate towards her husband during their adventures, the Baker’s Wife is clearly infatuated by the idea of Cinderella’s Prince:

Is he charming?
They say that he’s charming

Is he sensitive, clever, well-mannered, considerate, passionate, charming,
As kind as he’s handsome,
As wise as he’s rich,
Is he everything you’ve ever wanted?

However, she tells herself that it’s not worth wasting any wishes on him

When you know you can’t have what you want
Where’s the profit in wishing?

In spite of this, she finds herself alone with the Prince in Act II and her non-wish is actually fulfilled: by dismissing her morals “for a moment”, she allows the Prince to work his charms on her:

Right and wrongs don’t matter in the woods
Only feelings

As he leaves her immediately after he is satisfied, she comes back to her senses:

There are vows, there are ties
There are shouldn’ts and shoulds

She realizes that she can’t live in her fantasies and that it’s time to return to her Baker – when suddenly she falls and is killed by a falling tree.

The Baker, grief-stricken, cannot bear the pain and wants to run away from it all:

No more feelings
Time to Shut the Door
Just- No more

A mysterious man stops him and turns out to be his once-presumed-dead father. He, too, wanted to run away to avoid pain and responsibility but has realized it does not work:

Just more questions, different kind
Where are we to go?
Where are we ever to go?

Trouble is son, the farther you run
The more you’ll be wandering blind

Upon realizing that he could become “like father, like son”, the Baker finds new strength to fight

All the witches, all the curses
All the wolves, all the lies
The false hopes, the goodbyes
The reverses.

Mandy Patinkin singing both the Baker’s and his Father’s parts

He has found a goal greater than and beyond himself, namely to care for his child and other people around him and to show them that “no one is alone”.

Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood embarks upon the journey into the Woods to visit her Grandmother- when she suddenly meets the Wolf (often played by the same actor as the Prince). In an enticing, jazzy number he lures her off the path despite what her “Mother said”. The allusions to his sexually predatory nature are everything but subtle: “Look at that flesh, pink and plump/ …Tender and fresh, not one lump/ …This one’s especially lush”…

The sexual undertones are rather overt in the 1989 performance

After she and her grandmother have been saved from the Wolf’s stomach, Little Red Riding Hood reflects on her experience: while it has been dangerous, she has also seen “beautiful things”, making her feel both ”excited and scared”. The more we grow up, the less clear-cut life becomes and she’s learned that “nice is different than good.” In Act II, she has abandoned her red cape and is wearing the dead Wolf’s pelt instead. But even those “will not protect you the way they should”: after losing both her grandmother and her mother to the Giantess, she is all alone and in need of Cinderella’s maternal protection. Rather than becoming more autonomous by the end of the show, Little Red Riding Hood realizes her interdependence on the other characters and is assured that “no one is alone”.

Cinderella
In keeping with the well-known story, Cinderella lives with her evil stepmother, two stepsisters and her emotionally absent father. She wants to go to the King’s festival to “dance before the prince”. She can talk to birds which help her finish the impossible tasks set by her stepmother. She’s accepting her oppression for the most part but grows more bitter towards always having to be the “nice girl”:

What’s the good of being good
If everyone is blind
And you’re always left behind?

With some help of her dead mother’s ghost, she receives a dress for the Ball. Despite getting her way, Cinderella is no longer sure of what she wants:

But how can you know what you want
Till you get what you want
And you see if you like it?

All she can say is that “he’s a very nice Prince”, echoing Little Red Riding Hood’s learned lesson, “Nice is different than good”. Although she’s actively chased by the Prince, she’s not sure he’s the right one for her and keeps running from him. When she is “stuck on the steps of the palace” after the Prince has spread pitch on them, she decides “not to decide” but rather leaving him her shoe as a clue. Of course, he finds her and the two marry.

In Act II, both she and her Prince are getting bored with their ever-after. She discovers the Prince’s infidelity with the Baker’s Wife and tells him to leave. Moreover, her mother’s grave is destroyed by the Giantess. By this time, however, Cinderella has matured and is not only able to pick herself up but also to comfort Little Red Riding Hood:

Mother cannot guide you
Now you’re on your own
Only me beside you
Still, you’re not alone

“No One is Alone” sung in Glee

Despite never having a loving family of her own, she is able to break the cycle of abuse and finally knows what she wants out of life. It was not the Prince who fulfilled her but her active role as part of a collective facing a crisis.

Jack
Jack loses his only friend – his cow Milky White – in order to provide for himself and his mother. This unusual attachment makes his mother suspicious of his mental capacities (“Sometimes I fear you’re touched”). However, their fortune changes when Jack gets the five magical-after-all beans from the Baker and His Wife: After growing the enormous beanstalk, Jack climbs it and discovers two giants living in a castle. He is embraced by the motherly giantess which seems to awaken his adolescence similarly to Little Red Riding Hood’s:

And she gives you food and she gives you rest
And she draws you close to her giant breast
And you know things now that you never knew before

After being found by the male giant, he flees and steals some gold. The male giant chases him but Jack kills him by chopping down the beanstalk. After realizing her loss, the giantess wreaks havoc on the characters and demands Jack’s blood for revenge.

As the giantess’ attacks are portrayed as random and seemingly unstoppable, many have read them as allusions to the AIDS epidemic at the time. Sondheim, however, has denied any conscious connections.

Witch
The Witch is easily presumed to be the evil character in the show but this is soon disproven. While her curse on the Baker’s family seems to be quite malicious, we soon learn that she is a very loving, if obsessively overprotective mother to Rapunzel. By shielding her from the world, the Witch attempts to make Rapunzel stay both a child and her child. However, she runs off with the Prince’s brother and eventually gets killed by the giantess. This affirms the Witch’s belief that

Children can only grow
From something you love
To something you lose.

When the other characters try to appease the giantess by assigning the blame to one another, the Witch refuses to go along. She knows that everyone has made mistake and acted selfishly but no one wants to admit it: “You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice”. She, on the other hand, is the only one who is honest about their actions:

I’m not good, I’m not nice
I’m just right
I’m the witch

As “The Witch” in the story, she expects to be blamed and accepts that role. But she doesn’t want to grant the other characters the easy way out so she disappears and leaves them to sort out their mess:

I’m leaving you my last curse
I’m leaving you alone

Meryl Streep playing the Witch in the 2014 Disney version

In the same way, Sondheim and Lapine are leaving it to the audience to make their own moral judgments, both in regards to the show and life in general:

Witches can be right
giants can be good
You decide what’s right
you decide what’s good

They do not solve the issue of good and evil but help us to imagine others more complexly, with empathy and compassion:

Someone is on your side
Our Side
Someone else is not
While we’re seeing our side
Maybe we forgot
They are not alone
No one is alone

Into the Woods call us to courage and community, to face our challenges and to see beyond Good and Evil. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we might even live happily ever after.

The Art of Making Art

A white, blank page is one the scariest things I know. It’s empty and hollow, demanding and mocking, it’s the abyss that gazes into you. For the titular hero of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Sunday in the Park With George, it’s life-giving, as the last words of the show reveal: “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities…”

George Seurat was a painter in late-19th century Paris and quite a famous one, too. We know all know his seminal work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, portraying Parisians from all walks of life enjoying a sunny day at the Seine. Curiously, none of the 48 people depitcted in the painting seem to make eye contact except for a little girl in a white dress who is looking directly at – us? The painter? For librettist James Lapine and legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Seurat himself became the missing protagonist of the painting. Taking full poetic license, they tell a fictional story of George’s life and legacy, his love for art and the love he lost in pursuit of it. Even thirty years after its premiere, Sunday in the Park With George is an intermedial masterpiece that translates colors into sounds, stillness into movement and which portrays the emotional, intellectual and relational processes of making art in its content and form.

A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte,_Georges_Seurat,_1884

George Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886

From the first moment we meet George he is working on his magnus opus, envisioning, sketching and creating – his challenge: “to bring order through design, composition, balance, light and harmony.” We meet his impatient muse and passionate lover Dot who is both attracted to George’s talent and disappointed by his coldness towards her. She enjoys being looked at with artistic desire, as if “he sees you and he doesn’t all at once” but soon realizes that he just “looks at her looking”. Completely engulfed in his work, George talks more with the characters he creates with his brush than the ones standing in front of him. While Dot dreams of having a normal relationship with George and going to the Follies with him, George is always “finishing the hat”.

This number offers the key to understanding George’s character. Sondheim cleverly plays with the typical Broadway trope of the “I Am”- and the “I Want”-songs by turning their concepts upside down: rather than proclaiming some deeply felt desire or showcasing the greatness of his character, George tells us how his obsession to perfection has completely isolated himself from human relationships. He begs us to understand

“How you have to finish the hat
How you watch the world
From a window
While you finish the hat”

George can only perceive of the world and the people around him as if through a window, with the distanced gaze of an artist; looking without connecting, seeing without wanting to be seen:

“Studying a face
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see-
It’s the only way to see”

After a pregnant Dot leaves him for the boring and benign baker Louis, George recognizes he’s paying a price:

“And how you’re always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light,
How the kind of woman willing to wait’s
Not the kind you want to find waiting.”

Still, George can’t even see what he’s turning to, only what he’s turning from. He knows that his focus will always be solely on his work, detached from the everyone else – and he knows that Dot knows it, too:

“And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, ‘Well, I give what I give.’
But the woman who won’t wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat”

In the number’s last lines, George finally reaches out and addresses the world at large:

“Look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat”

Jake Gyllenhaal’s 2017 interpretation

As will be reiterated in Act II, “a vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head.” George needs to share his creation and does so with almost childish pride. The act of creation is vital and revelatory, it’s the only way he knows he’s still alive.

For Act II, we jump through time and space to 80’s America and meet another George, our protagonist’s great-grandson. He’s an artist, too, and currently unveiling his “Chromolume #7”, an electronic installation reflecting on Seurat’s work. A lot has changed since the romantic days of the artist-genius toiling in isolation to realize his vision. Postmodern George knows that “keeping at a distance doesn’t pay” and that he must start “putting it together, bit by bit” through networking, lunch meetings, commissions, cocktails, politicking, marketing…

“Link by link
Making the connections
Drink by drink
Fixing and perfecting the design
Adding just a dab of politician
Always knowing where to draw the line
Lining up the funds but in addition
Lining up a prominent commission
Otherwise your perfect composition
Isn’t going to get much exhibition”

Barbra Streisand appyling the same principles to the art of music-making

Art has become an accumulative process, a market, an industry. Even the artist doesn’t exist in isolation anymore but is a part of the whole, one small dot in the big picture. For George, this world becomes too big and too overwhelming; his identity seems to fade away:

“George is afraid
George sees the park
George sees it dying
George too may fade
Leaving no mark
Just passing through
Just like the people out strolling on Sunday”

In a vision, he sees Dot and tells her his fears and desire to create, to stay alive:

“I want to make things that count
Things that will be new”

Dot encourages him to embrace the unknown, to free himself from the fear of failure. Just as she moved on from George all those years ago, this George, too, must move on:

“Stop worrying where you’re going
Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on

Stop worrying it your vision
Is new
Let others make that decision
They usually do
You keep moving on

Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see”

“Move On” performed by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters who originated the roles of George and Dot in 1984

By reminding George of his great-grandfather’s key principles (order, design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony), Dot is able to inspire him anew and to show him the infinite possibilities of a blank canvas.

Composer Sondheim filled his canvas through a technique very similar to Seurat’s pointillism. Most of the music accompanying George’s artistic endeavors consists of a few single notes repeated in quick succession. This represents both George’s painting style of adding up single dots and his thought process, as showcased in “Color and Light”:

“Red red red red
Red red orange
Red red orange
Orange pick up blue
Pick up red
Pick up orange
From the blue-green blue-green
Blue-green circle
On the violet diagonal
Di-ag-ag-ag-ag-ag-o-nal-nal
Yellow comma yellow comma
Numnum num numnumnum
Numnum num”

Theater scholar Christopher Balme has written extensively on the process of realizing “in one medium the aesthetic conventions and habits of seeing and hearing in another medium” – translating colors into sound, music into light. According to his definition, Sunday in the Park is an “intermedial” artwork: it combines the media of music, lyrics, acting and stage props while each medium affects and changes the others.

The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts, just like George’s dots: by directly relating to one another, the colored dots add up to something brighter and more brilliant than any one could on its own.

George creates relationships for his dots,
but forgets about his and Dot’s.

He fails to realize that his principle is true for life in general. The world is not black and white, and it’s not just “blue” or “green”, either: in the final number, the chorus reminds us that we are surrounded by “blue, purple, yellow, red water” and “green, purple, yellow, red grass”, even on an “ordinary Sunday”.

“Sunday”, the finale of the show

Sondheim and Lapine’s work recreates the process of making art to confront us with its pain and its power. They remind us that no art is created in a vacuum and that “no one is alone” (we’ll return to that in Into the Woods). Together we can create great things, and only together.

From this perspective, that blank page doesn’t seem so scary anymore.