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
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
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”…
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”.
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
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 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.
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
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
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.