Over the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:
Be Careful What You Wish For
In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.
How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”
It Only Takes a Moment
Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.
Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.