Into the Woods
Into the Woods
STEPHEN SONDHEIM AND JAMES LAPINE
Into the Woods, published in 1986, is a collaborative work by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (story). It was the product of a workshop at Playwrights Horizon in New York City, and was first produced in San Diego in 1986. Less than a year later, the play appeared on Broadway, where it ran for well over a year. In fact, Lapine himself directed it.
Combining the traditional fairy tales of Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, and a childless baker couple plagued by a witch, Into the Woods offers an intriguing retelling of these tales as if they are really all part of one big storyline. Sondheim and Lapine introduce humor, mystery, emotion, and action to their imaginative drama. Readers and audience members find themselves at once familiar with the characters and also surprised at the new plot twists and interactions that Sondheim and Lapine have written. The play, a musical, visits themes of longing, pursuit, selfishness, and fantasy. The pace is quick, and the characters remain fairly static as the audience watches how their personalities play out rather than how they develop.
Since its first run, Into the Woods has been revived numerous times, with such cast members as Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams. The costumes, sets, and overdrawn characters give the play a heightened sense of theater. In 1988, the play won three Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards. In a
career marked by famous and beloved plays, Sondheim has added Into the Woods to the list of those plays for which he is best known. It is included in many drama anthologies and collections of Sondheim's work, and has even been illustrated for a children's book. Theatre Communications Group continues to publish a paperback of the play; its fourteenth printing was published in 2006, complete with photos from an earlier production.
It seems fitting that Stephen Sondheim, the respected composer and lyricist, was born in New York City, where he lives today. On March 22, 1930, Sondheim was born to Herbert and Janet Sondheim, a well-to-do couple who were both in the fashion business. Sondheim was an only child. His parents divorced when he was ten, and he and his mother lived in rural Pennsylvania during Sondheim's teenage years. A family who lived nearby, the Hammersteins, became close friends. Oscar Hammerstein II (who famously co-wrote songs with Richard Rodgers) became a father figure to young Sondheim. It was he who first introduced the young boy to musical theater, and he became a mentor to Sondheim. Sondheim attended Williams College, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1950, before pursuing his interest in music with graduate study in composition and theory. He went to New York City, where he began studying under Milton Babbitt.
Sondheim's first musical, Saturday Night was never performed, but it gave him a portfolio to show what he could do. As a result, he landed a job working with Leonard Bernstein on the lyrics for West Side Story, which was his first big break. After working with Jule Styne on Gypsy, Sondheim's mentoring was complete. He partnered with script writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and thus proved his ability to write music and lyrics on his own. After a few "concept musicals," Sondheim's A Little Night Music showed his ability to marry conventions of musical theater with modern tastes. Subsequent productions, such as Sweeney Todd showed the same style.
In 1984, Sondheim collaborated with writer James Lapine for Sunday in the Park with George, a work that won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Although this was another "concept musical," the two collaborated again for Into the Woods (1986), a more plot-driven and fanciful musical than their first effort. The play was a commercial and career success, further strengthening Sondheim and Lapine's reputations and garnering three Tony Awards.
Sondheim's career has been successful by all measures; he is well known, his work is praised by audiences and critics alike, and he has won prestigious awards for his work in theater. He is a multiple Tony Award winner, receiving the award for the following: in 1963 for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; in 1971 for Company; in 1972 for Follies; in 1979 for A Little Night Music; in 1979 for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; in 1988 for best score for Into the Woods; in 1994 for Passion; and again in 2002 for best revival of a musical for Into the Woods. In addition, Sondheim has been nominated numerous times for the Tony for his work on such musicals as West Side Story and Gypsy. Sondheim's work on Into the Woods also won him an Evening Standard Drama Award for Best Musical in 1989, a Drama Desk Award for lyrics and outstanding musical in 1988, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1988, Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1989, and a Grammy Award in 1988. Sondheim also won an Academy Award in 1990 for a song he wrote for the movie Dick Tracy.
In 1993, Sondheim was chosen to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. His work in musical theater has earned him a reputation as an influential force in American drama. His musicals offer a variety of musical styles and a sharper wit than much musical drama that preceded it. Although his sense of humor is among his best tools, Sondheim's works lack the doe-eyed romanticism of past musicals.
Hard-working Cinderella desperately wants to attend the King's Festival, but her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, Florinda and Lucinda, make fun of her. The stepmother throws a pot of lentils into the fireplace ashes, telling Cinderella she may only go if she gets all of them cleaned out in time. Meanwhile, a poor young man named Jack tries to milk his beloved cow, Milky White, who has stopped producing milk. In another cottage, the Baker and his Wife long for a child they seem fated never to have. A Narrator tells the audience about the characters and their desires. Little Red Ridinghood is preparing to visit her sick grandmother, and begs the Baker and his Wife for some bread and treats to take. They give her some things for her basket. After she leaves, a Witch visits the Baker and his Wife, explaining that they are childless because of a curse she placed on the family. It seems that many years ago, the Baker's father stole food from the Witch's garden to feed his insatiable, pregnant wife. Among the things he stole were some magic beans. Enraged, the Witch demanded the baby that was to be born to them and put a curse on the family that they would be barren. When the Witch collected the baby, she put her (Rapunzel) in a locked tower. The Baker never even knew he had a sister. The Witch tells them that if they want to lift the curse, they must bring her four things for a potion: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. She must have these ingredients in three days' time. The Baker is stubborn with his wife, insisting that since it is his family on whom the curse was placed, he should be the one to break it. Nevertheless, his wife follows along and tries to help. Before leaving, the Baker discovers an old coat of his father's that has some beans in it. He wonders if they are the magic beans stolen from the Witch.
All of the characters head into the woods. Little Red Ridinghood is off to see her Granny; the Baker and his Wife are off to find the ingredients; Cinderella, with the help of some birds, has cleaned out the fireplace (but was still left behind by the others) and goes to the woods to visit her mother's grave; and Jack's mother has sent him to market to sell Milky White for at least five pounds.
- The 2002 Broadway revival cast recording was released in 2002 by Nonesuch.
- The 1991 original London cast recording was released in 1991 by RCA Victor Broadway.
- The 1991 Broadway performance was released on DVD in 1997 by Image Entertainment.
- Into the Woods was adapted as an illustrated children's book in 1988 by Hudson Talbott and published by Crown.
- The 1987 original Broadway cast recording was released in 1990 by RCA.
Cinderella visits her mother's grave beneath a tree, and her mother's spirit answers her. Cinderella wishes to go to the King's Festival, and a beautiful silver gown and gold slippers fall from the tree. After a visit from the Mysterious Man who tells him he would be lucky to get a sack of beans for his cow, Jack trades his cow to the Baker for some "magic" beans. Although the Baker feels guilty for tricking the boy, he sends his Wife home with the cow. Little Red Ridinghood is stalked by a hungry and conniving Wolf, who finds out where the Granny lives so he can eat Granny and wait for the girl. The Baker steals Little Red Ridinghood's cape, but his guilt is too much, and he returns it to her. When she arrives at Granny's cottage, she finds the wolf dressed as Granny, but it is too late; the Wolf eats her just as he did Granny. The Witch visits Rapunzel in the tower by having her lower her extremely long hair to use as a ladder up the side of the tower. A Prince sees all of this and is taken by Rapunzel's beauty.
The Baker comes to Granny's cottage and finds the Wolf. When he kills the Wolf by cutting open his belly, Little Red Ridinghood and Granny emerge. Grateful, Little Red Ridinghood gives the Baker the cape he wanted. Back at Jack's cottage, Jack's mother is mad that Jack made such a foolish trade and tosses the beans out the window. Cinderella has been to the festival and is now running through the woods to escape the Prince and his Steward. The Baker's Wife, walking back home with the cow, sees her gold slippers but is confused about why she is running from such a handsome prince. Milky White escapes, and the Wife chases him. Jack has returned from climbing up the beanstalk that grew magically to the clouds from the tossed beans. He has brought back lots of gold and hopes to buy back Milky White.
The Princes long for their loves, Cinderella and Rapunzel. Having overheard the Princes, the Baker's Wife tricks Rapunzel into lowering her hair, and she pulls part of it out for the potion. The Baker is delighted and realizes that he really does need her help. The Mysterious Man has captured Milky White and returns him to the Baker. But when Jack arrives with a hen that lays golden eggs to pay for Milky White, they all learn that the cow has died. Back at the tower, the Witch has discovered that Rapunzel has been lowering her hair for others, so she cuts it all off and sends Rapunzel to the desert. Her Prince pursues her, but when he runs through a thicket to escape the Witch, he is blinded by the thorns.
On a dare from Little Red Ridinghood (who is now wearing a cape made of wolfskin), Jack decides to return up the beanstalk to get a magic harp. Cinderella's Prince plans to capture his love by hosting another festival and spreading pitch on the steps. Cinderella is not caught, but one of her shoes is. The Baker's Wife offers to trade her the last magic bean for her last slipper, but Cinderella is more interested in trading shoes (so she will have a pair instead of just one) than in having a so-called magic bean. She tosses the bean aside in her rush. When the Baker returns, his Wife has the gold slipper, and they have everything they need.
Things take a turn for the worse when a dead giant falls from the beanstalk after Jack cut it down to get away from the Giant. Moreover, the Witch's potion does not work when it is discovered that the replacement cow is not really white, but is only covered with flour. The Witch brings Milky White back to life, feeds her the other ingredients and drinks the milk she produces. The potion still does not work because Rapunzel's hair had been tainted by the Witch's touch. The Mysterious Man suggests using the corn silk used to compare the hair color, and then the potion works. The curse against the Baker is broken, and the Witch becomes young and beautiful, but at the cost of her ability to do magic.
Cinderella's Prince is running around trying to find the girl whose foot fits the slipper he caught in the pitch. Cinderella's stepsisters destroy their feet trying to make the slipper fit, but Cinderella arrives and the slipper fits perfectly. She becomes the Prince's bride. Meanwhile, the Witch tells the Baker that the Mysterious Man is his father, but he dies before the Baker can go talk to him. Far away, Rapunzel finds her blind prince and heals his eyes with her tears. As a counterpoint, Florinda and Lucinda are blinded by pigeons as punishment for their cruelty. All seems well until a second, ominous beanstalk grows.
For the most part, the characters are doing well. The Baker and his Wife have a baby; Cinderella lives in the castle as a princess; and Jack and his mother live more comfortably, and Milky White is back home with them. The Princes have lost interest in Cinderella and Rapunzel and are now interested in Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. To the dismay of all of the characters, the Giant's widow (the Giantess) has descended the beanstalk to find Jack and avenge her husband's death. Her tromping around has destroyed the Baker's house and Little Red Ridinghood's house. Birds have alerted Cinderella that something is happening in the woods, and she goes to check on her mother's grave. When the Steward, Cinderella and the royal family, and the Witch meet the Giantess face-to-face, they try to satisfy her by giving her the narrator. He tells them that if he dies, they will have to work out their stories on their own. Still, the Witch throws him to the Giantess. When Jack's mother enters and will not stop aggravating the Giantess, the Steward hits her over the head and accidentally kills her. The Giantess stomps Rapunzel to death. The Witch mourns Rapunzel and vows to find Jack and let the Giantess have him.
While everyone looks for Jack, the Baker's Wife and Cinderella's Prince have a tryst. The Wife then feels guilty and gets lost looking for the Baker. When the Giantess gets close, she panics and is crushed by falling branches. Jack is found and he relates that the Baker's Wife is dead. The Witch is ready to hand him over to the Giantess, but the others argue against it, all looking to blame someone else in the group. The Baker leaves the baby with Cinderella, and his father's spirit visits him and tells him to be a man and face his responsibilities. So he goes back and helps plan how to kill the Giantess. While the others go about setting the plan in motion, Cinderella looks after the Baker's baby son. Her Prince enters, and Cinderella berates him for betraying her and tells him she cannot stay with him. He leaves. Little Red Ridinghood delivers the news that Granny has been killed, and elsewhere the Baker tells Jack that his mother has been killed. Together, the group kills the Giant's widow, and all of the characters who died return to share the lessons they learned. The play ends with Cinderella repeating her opening statement: "I wish."
The Baker is cursed with childlessness because of his parents, who lived in the same cottage where he and his wife now live. He is hardworking and determined, but he is also stubborn and reluctant to do things that violate his moral standards. He initially tells his wife that he alone will collect the potion ingredients, but he later realizes that he needs her help. The Baker is a dynamic character who grows over the course of the drama, especially after a visit from his father's ghost. Widowed and feeling unable to go on alone, his father advises him to be a better man than he was and face his responsibilities instead if running away from them. The Baker chooses to be a brave man and a good father.
The Baker's Wife is energetic, pushy, and unwavering in her mission to break the spell that has left her and her husband childless. Her moral limits are softer than her husband's, and she pushes him to trick Jack out of the cow they need. She also tricks Rapunzel into lowering her hair, and tries to trick Cinderella out of her slipper. When the spell is broken, and she becomes a mother, she is busy but content. However, she allows herself to be swept away in a romantic moment with Cinderella's Prince, but immediately regrets it. Unfortunately, she does not get the chance to clear her conscience because she is killed when the Giantess stomps through the forest.
Cinderella begins and ends the play with the words: "I wish." In the beginning, she wants to be free of her subservient life and go to the King's Festival. With the help of her mother, she goes, but when she attracts the attention of the Prince, she is not sure she wants him. Eventually, he finds her and they wed, and she has the pleasure of seeing the tables turn on her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. But Cinderella's heart remains with her mother because, when she hears that there is trouble in the woods, she goes to check on her mother's grave. Although Cinderella's life has been difficult, she is not needy or desperate. When her husband, the Prince, cheats on her, she rejects him and everything life in the castle offers. In the end, she is the mother figure, but she is still not satisfied or content.
Cinderella's Mother appears as a spirit in the tree over her grave. The tree has been watered with Cinderella's tears, and it is the place where Cinderella goes to connect with her mother, the only source of love she has ever known. Her mother is compassionate and becomes a sort of fairy godmother, who grants her daughter's wish to go to the King's Festival. She provides a ball gown and slippers for Cinderella to wear, and the slippers figure largely in Cinderella's future as well as in the Baker's family's future.
Cinderella's Prince is fickle, immature, and driven by his lustful appetite. He claims to love Cinderella, and he is determined to find her. The harder she is to find and capture, the stronger is his desire for her. But when he finally finds her, he loses interest and becomes infatuated with Sleeping Beauty. Moreover, when he encounters the Baker's Wife in the woods, he seduces her. In many productions, the actor who plays Cinderella's Prince also plays the Wolf, which is fitting since both are motivated by insatiable appetites.
Florinda is one of Cinderella's stepsisters. She enjoys making fun of Cinderella in the beginning, and she tries to trick the Prince into thinking she is the one he is seeking to be his wife. But when Cinderella marries the prince and becomes part of the royal family, the tables turn. Worse, Florinda and her sister Lucinda are blinded by pigeons.
Jack goes back up the beanstalk to steal the Giant's golden harp. But the Giant chases him down the beanstalk, and Jack chops it down to escape the Giant's wrath. The Giant is killed, and his widow, also called the Giant (but who is, in essence, the Giantess), goes down another beanstalk to find and kill Jack for revenge. She is terrifying, clumsy, bent on revenge, and bloodthirsty. Although the other characters give her the Narrator, she discovers that it is not Jack, and continues to demand Jack. In her rage (and inability to see very well), she inadvertently destroys homes and kills other characters, including Rapunzel and the Baker's Wife.
Granny is Little Red Ridinghood's grandmother. In the beginning, she is sick and waiting for a visit from her granddaughter when the Wolf comes and eats her. But the Baker rescues Granny and Little Red Ridinghood. Granny later joins forces with the others to kill the Giantess and restore safety and order.
Jack is led by his emotions and is easily swayed. He has bonded with his "pet" cow, Milky White, and is desperate for her to start giving milk. He does not want the milk because he is hungry, but because he does not want his mother to get rid of the cow. When he goes to sell Milky White, Jack is manipulated by the Mysterious Man who easily sets Jack up to trade the cow for magic beans. When Jack finds giants and treasures at the top of the beanstalk, his main concern is having enough money to buy back his cow. He does not care about wealth or treasures, just having his friend back. Then, when Little Red Ridinghood goads him to go back up the beanstalk for the golden harp, he of course does it, much to the peril of the entire community. Even at the end, Jack has not grown much and is still not a particularly independent-minded young man.
Jack's mother is domineering, selfish, and unfeeling. She does not care about Jack's feelings, but does not hesitate to tell him what to do or call him names for being foolish. When he brings treasures back from the Giants, she is happy to have the wealth. Her bossy ways eventually bring about her own demise, however; she insists on arguing with the Giantess (she is trying to protect Jack) and the Steward kills her while trying to keep her quiet.
Little Red Ridinghood
Little Red Ridinghood is young and somewhat naïve, although she knows enough to be wary of the Wolf. Still, the Wolf is able to lead her off the path in pursuit of flowers. Little Red Ridinghood is one of the play's dynamic characters; she shows growth and learning when she emerges from the Wolf's belly and sings a song about knowing more. She has learned from her experiences.
Lucinda is Cinderella's other cruel stepsister. Like Florinda, she initially revels in mocking Cinderella, but gets her comeuppance later in the play.
The Mysterious Man appears sporadically throughout the first part of the play, popping in on the other characters in the woods, giving them things or advice they need to move their actions closer to the breaking of the curse. He prompts Jack to make the trade of the cow for the beans, and he returns Milky White to the Baker and his Wife. The Witch later reveals that he is actually the Baker's father, who brought the curse on the family. He did not die, as the Baker thought, but ran out on his family. Toward the end of the play, he encourages his son to make better choices, thus acting like the father figure the Baker always needed.
The Narrator serves the simple function of explaining the characters' histories and feelings to the audience. He does not really interact with the characters until they offer him to the Giantess in an effort to appease her. They tell him they do not like the way he tells their stories, and although he tells them they are better off with him than without, the Witch gives him to the Giantess and he is killed. Through this character, Sondheim and Lapine not only provide a traditional narrator befitting a fairy tale story, but they also comment on fiction and reality, while adding humor.
Little is known about Rapunzel as a person, although her history is revealed to the audience as it is revealed to the Baker. Rapunzel is the Baker's sister that he never knew he had. The Witch took her as part of the Bakers' parents' punishment for stealing from her garden. The Witch has kept Rapunzel to herself by locking her in a tall tower that is only accessible by Rapunzel's very long hair. Rapunzel wishes to have other companions, and she begins allowing the Prince to climb up her hair. When she is banished from the tower by the Witch, Rapunzel finds her blinded Prince and heals his eyes with her tears. She is a tender and honest person with sincere feelings, although her life has left her naïve about the world and relationships. When her Prince rejects her for Snow White, she goes mad and is later crushed by the Giantess.
Like Cinderella's Prince, Rapunzel's Prince is passionate about the object of his affection until he gets her. Although he sneaks into Rapunzel's tower and then endures being blinded by thorns for her, by act 2, he is bored with her and has his heart set on Snow White. He is ultimately fickle and immature.
The stereotypical wicked stepmother of fairy tale lore, Cinderella's Stepmother is cruel, mocking, arrogant, and ambitious. After giving Cinderella a seemingly impossible task to complete before going to the Festival, she unceremoniously leaves the poor girl behind while she, her daughters, and Cinderella's Father all leave for the Festival themselves. When Cinderella ends up on the throne, the Stepmother and her daughters are obsequious in their treatment of Cinderella, which is a complete turnaround that is wholly unbelievable.
The Steward helps the Prince catch Cinderella. When the Giantess is trying to find the golden harp that Jack stole, the Steward hits Jack's Mother over the head to keep her from further aggravating the Giantess. The Steward's blow kills Jack's Mother.
The character of the Witch is known for being the only character in the play who tells the truth. She is the most worldly and clever of the group. While she is not virtuous or selfless, she is honest and forthcoming. For example, she does not try to trick Jack into thinking he is safe, she makes it known that she intends to find him and hand him over to the Giantess. She is also oddly disappointed when the curse is reversed, making her young and beautiful but powerless. She misses her magical powers.
The Wolf is a creature of appetite, and he connives his way into finding out where Little Red Ridinghood's Granny lives so he can lay a trap for her. In his interaction with Little Red Ridinghood, he makes her feel uncomfortable even as he tempts her to break the rules her mother gave her. Of course, the rules are meant to keep her safe, and the Wolf has an altogether different agenda. Everything about him smacks of hunger and desire, and even the Baker (who is hiding, but watching) realizes the danger that the girl could face. The Wolf eats Granny and then tricks Little Red Ridinghood into coming close enough for him to eat her too. But the Baker finds the Wolf, cuts him open, and uses his skin to make Little Red Ridinghood a new cape.
Consequences and Lost Innocence
Into the Woods is a retelling of the stories of several classic fairy tales. Those stories are already dark, but in Sondheim's and Lapine's hands, they go a shade darker. Little Red Ridinghood learns within the first act about trust, intuition, and the importance of obeying rules. Prior to learning these lessons, she was naïve and expected everything to be all right despite a devious Wolf lurking about tempting her to break rules and tricking her into giving him information. Because of her innocence, Little Red Ridinghood and her Granny are eaten by the Wolf—serious consequences. Their rescue is a grisly and bloody one, and the girl walks away a little less innocent and a little more wise than before.
Cinderella begins the story with a simple longing to go to the King's Festival, hoping for a temporary escape from her humdrum life of hard work. But her presence at the Festival sets in motion events that turn her world, and that of the Prince's and her entire family's, upside-down. Although her initial impulse is to avoid the Prince, she marries him with the expectation that she will enjoy her "happily ever after." However, the Prince is not the man she thought he was, and his eye soon wanders. In the end, Cinderella's dream is shattered, and although she retains her dignity, she is still filled with longing. Similarly, Rapunzel is the very picture of naïvetée, having been sequestered from the world for her entire life. When she finally escapes her tower and finds what she believes is true love, her heart is set up for heartbreak. The Prince she loves does not love her anymore, and his sights are set on another woman. The turn of events drives her to madness, and she is later crushed under the Giantess's foot.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Choose two other Sondheim musicals, and look for similarities to and differences from Into the Woods. Can you see elements that characterize Sondheim's style? You may need to watch video recordings of the performances or listen to recordings of the songs to help get the feel for his particular approach to musical theater. Create a film or a slideshow to teach young actors and directors about Sondheim's style. Your piece should explain each element in detail and provide at least two examples from the works you have explored.
- Because the characters are fairy tale characters, they possess certain universal traits. Choose the character to whom you most relate and the one to whom you least relate, and find two more examples of these kinds of characters in literature. What is it that makes you most or least like them? Prepare a personality profile of the six characters you have selected.
- What is the psychological meaning of the woods? They appear in many fairy tales and other works of fiction, and they carry a great deal of symbolic meaning. After conducting research on various psychological theories on the subject, write your own essay exploring these ideas.
- Fairy tales are not always light-hearted fare. Who were the Brothers Grimm, and how did their names become synonymous with fairy tales? What was the original purpose of such tales, and why did they seek to preserve them? Prepare a short lecture on this topic and present it to your class.
- Find one other fairy tale and determine how you would fit it into the action and plot twists of Into the Woods. Outline your addition to the story, and choose one scene into which you will insert your new characters.
The Baker and his Wife begin the story as fairly naïve characters, willing to say "yes" outright to any plan that will help them have a child. What they do not know is that their pursuit of the potion to reverse the curse will cost them—and others in their community—heavily. In the end, the Baker is a widower with a baby to raise, and he has lost many of his friends. What began innocently enough ends in tragedy. Jack, although he grows very little in the play, also loses the one person who is most important to him—his mother. Like the Baker, he is emotionally abandoned in the end.
Throughout Into the Woods, parent-child relationships are depicted in various lights. Cinderella is for all practical purposes an orphan. Her mother is dead, and her father has no relationship with her and will not protect her from her wicked stepfamily. Cinderella ultimately learns that, as bad as it is has been having no mother and a disconnected father, it is just as bad to have a husband who is unfaithful. The castle and her position in it are no substitute for true love and respect. Jack and his Mother represent the quintessential dysfunctional family. With a harsh mother, Jack has transferred all of his loving feelings to a cow, who is able to offer him as much warmth and understanding as his mother. He is simple and emotional, his mother is domineering and judgmental, and his father is gone. Consequently, Jack is never taught how to be independent or how to take his place as a man in the world.
The Baker believed all his life that his parents died in a baking accident, but later learns that his father left the family. This is a difficult position for the Baker because he did not have the benefit of growing up with his parents to guide and love him, and then he has to face his resentment toward his father when he learns the truth. But his father returns to him as a spirit to offer much-needed advice at an important point in the Baker's life. It becomes a turning point that enables the Baker to be a good father to his own son—like the father that he so desperately wanted himself.
Rapunzel has been separated from her real parents since her birth, when she was handed over to the Witch. Since then, the Witch has been Rapunzel's entire family and a sort of surrogate mother. But the Witch acts towards Rapunzel completely out of selfishness and possessiveness. She does not want to be alone, so she does not want to share Rapunzel with the world. However, the Witch is unable to see how she is crippling Rapunzel, who needs more than just the Witch in her life, and it ultimately drives Rapunzel away from her.
The Individual in Society
The characters' stories in Into the Woods are so interrelated that every decision seems to affect the entire community. This illustrates the importance of the individual's responsibility to his or her society as a whole. When the Baker and his Wife set about collecting the ingredients for the potion, they give little thought to how their tasks will affect others. The Baker senses that Little Red Ridinghood is in danger when he overhears her talking to the Wolf. He is only there because he needs her cape, and the Witch convinces him to forget about protecting the girl and just get the cape. Consequently, Little Red Ridinghood and her Granny are in serious trouble. While the Baker is the one who rescues them, it is only because he sees the cape in the Wolf's mouth, and he wants it. His selfish pursuit brings major consequences on others, just as when he gets Jack in trouble with his mother when he coerces Jack to trade the cow for beans (that the Baker does not believe are really magic). As a result of the trade with the beans, the beanstalk to the Giants' land grows, bringing both treasure and tragedy.
Similarly, if Jack's Mother had been more understanding with Jack, she may not have carelessly tossed the beans out the window in the first place. Her personal reaction brought serious consequences (including death) to members of the community as a whole. But Jack is not completely off the hook, either. If he had listened to his mother instead of making a rash trade for the beans, he would not have ended up with a beanstalk in his yard that would take him to the treacherous Giants' realm. And if he had been able to stand up to Little Red Ridinghood, he would not have gone back up the beanstalk one time too many. These decisions cost his community dearly, as homes are destroyed, friends and family are killed, and two innocent giants also perish. Jack's selfish decisions not only impacted his society, but also affected the lives of the two giants outside of his society.
Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for Lapine's story so that Into the Woods would be a musical. The songs in the play accomplish two things. First, Sondheim uses the lyrics to full effect so that they provide background information and character insight, rather than being meant as pure entertainment. In some songs, multiple characters are singing at once, either individually or together, which helps the audience better understand how all the storylines tie together. The songs in Into the Woods are as important to the plot as the spoken segments. Second, the play being a musical suits its content and style. It is a fairy tale written to be blatantly fictional escapism. That characters burst into song throughout the play underscores that it is a fantasy, while fueling the play's high level of energy.
Once the characters and their basic situations are introduced, the play takes on a frenetic pace. Although the action of the story is tied together by the Baker and his Wife looking for the ingredients for the potion, the other characters all have their own side stories going on simultaneously. Because they are all on some kind of mission (taking treats to Granny, selling the cow, etc.), there is a lot going on onstage at all times. That the characters are all interrelated only makes the action more complicated.
Throughout the play, there are times when several plots are being advanced at the same time, and the characters alternate lines that are about their own missions and also about a broader theme of the play. This back-and-forth style of delivering lines, especially by actors who are moving on- and offstage through the woods, gives the play an energetic pace. There are only a few times in the entire play (the beginning and end of each act) when the characters are being still and reflective. The high-energy pace of the play underscores the theme of pursuit and the characters's determination to reach their goals.
Sondheim and Lapine imbue Into the Woods with fairy tale references, characters, and language. The first lines spoken in the play, by the Narrator, are "Once upon a time," and later in the first scene, the Witch says, "I thought…. we all might live happily ever after." These are lines that people associate specifically with fairy tales. Scene 2 opens in the woods, which figure largely in the tradition of fairy tales. Little Red Ridinghood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel all take place in the woods. Sondheim and Lapine also make a point of depicting their characters in the exact ways the audience and reader remember them from the classic fairy tales. For example, when Little Red Ridinghood encounters the Wolf in disguise as Granny at the cottage, they exchange the famous lines that audience members and readers know so well (i.e., "What big eyes you have!" "The better to see you with," and so on).
Introducing so many familiar fairy tale elements makes it easy for the audience or reader to surrender to the idea that this is a fairy tale fully in the tradition of the familiar childhood stories. In doing so, the reader understands that the story is a complete fantasy, but that it is also intended to illustrate a lesson.
History of Fairy Tales
Myths, fairy tales, and fables have been around since the earliest civilizations. They are a subset of folk tales, differentiated by their inclusion of supernatural elements (magic, talking animals, spells, goblins, and so on) structured around a lesson. The tradition of fairy tales, however, emerged from folk tales and their oral tradition. Tales from ancient Egypt depicted supernatural occurrences as this world and the divine world met. They also depicted a clear separation between good and bad. Because less than one percent of the ancient Egyptians were literate, the oral tradition was critical in preserving and passing down these stories. In fact, some of the Egyptian stories were actually preserved by Greek writers like Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E.). In ancient Rome and Greece, mythologies surrounding the gods were central to classical cultures. Because the stories about the gods depicted them as having human characteristics and flaws, and because the stories involved their interactions with and manipulations of humans, early people were careful to respect the gods and goddesses. The myths not only explained natural phenomena (such as the echo), but they also provided lessons in the form of cautionary tales. Aesop's famous fables (sixth century B.C.E.) were written specifically to teach important lessons in a way that was easy for people and children to understand. In the New Testament, Jesus uses parables in the same way, although without supernatural elements.
In Europe, the fairy tale tradition emerged as more of a social than a religious construct. The most famous writers and preservers of fairy tales are Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875; Denmark) and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, known as the Brothers Grimm (1785-1863 and 1786-1859, respectively; Germany). Their writings provide the basis for such well-known stories as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Thumbelina. Perhaps because of the efforts of these writers, fairy tales grew in popularity in Europe toward the end of the seventeenth century. In modern culture, many of the evil and frightening elements have been made more palatable for young children, and the stories have found their way into the mainstream through movies, books, and toys. Despite the sometimes extensive editing that has taken place over time, the main lessons remain intact, thus preserving the original purpose of the stories. More modern renditions of the fairy tale include George Orwell's Animal Farm and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1986: Sondheim and Lapine complete Into the Woods, and the following year it opens on Broadway. The original Broadway production will run 764 performances, and garner numerous Tony Award nominations with two wins for the writing and music, and one for the acting.
Today: Another musical based on well-known fairy tale figures, Wicked by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, has met with the same popularity as Into the Woods. It is about the background of the witches from L. Frank Baum's classic novel, The Wizard of Oz. The musical opened on Broadway in October 2003. In its first year it was nominated for ten Tony Awards, with three wins for acting, costume, and scene design.
- 1986: When fairy tales were first told, the best that most women could hope for was a good marriage, which explains the prevalence of stories about young girls who find themselves happily betrothed to princes. By 1986, however, women have several other options to choose from. Indeed, the median age for a woman's first marriage is 23, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1980, 39 percent of American adults are unmarried. This number slowly rises to 41 percent by the end of the decade, indicating an increasing willingness to wait for, or forego, marriage, and an increased social acceptance of that decision.
Today: The trend of women who marry later in life or not at all continues. In 2005, the median age for a woman's first marriage is 25.5, and 44 percent of Americans over the age of fifteen are unmarried.
- 1986: Although written between 1937 and 1955, J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series remains very popular among young adult readers, as does C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia series, written between 1949 and 1954. These are the modern fairy tales that have somewhat eclipsed the tales of the Brothers Grimm.
Today: The overwhelming popularity of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has further added to the canon of modern fairy tales. Published between 1997 and 2007, the seven-volume series contains such fairy tale elements as magic, spells, good versus evil, magic animals, and elves.
Musical theater has its roots in the over-the-top burlesques and vaudevilles of the early twentieth century. Over time, musical theater matured into a form that entertained while moving the hearts of the audience, teaching about life, and commenting on life and society. Theater historians generally agree that the modern musical underwent significant growth between the 1920s and the 1950s. The 1970s had seen a lot of energy and change in musical productions. While there were new conventional musicals (with traditional story structure, clearly good characters versus clearly bad characters, and catchy, family-friendly music) and revivals of classics like My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, and The King and I, there were new styles too. Musicals like The Wiz and Grease brought rock and roll music to the stage, and "rock operas" like Jesus Christ, Superstar and
Godspell were also groundbreaking. "Concept musicals," which are built around an idea instead of a storyline, like A Little Night Music and A Chorus Line brought a more abstract style to musicals and showed that the boundaries of theater could still be pushed.
In the wake of these changes in the 1970s, the musicals in the 1980s were open to further development, and audiences were open-minded about what producers had to offer. Traditionally-styled musicals still had a place, as evidenced by the success of 42nd Street and Big Rover. The quirky Little Shop of Horrors appealed to audiences with a dark sense of humor and an appreciation for B-movie plot lines. And the all-time longest running show, Cats, first premiered in 1982 and ran for two decades. Less plot-driven, and more like a revue, Cats created so much interest that numerous productions were launched all over the world. Another unconventional musical was Sondheim's and Lapine's Pulitzer Prize winner, Sunday in the Park with George (1985).
Critics tend to embrace Into the Woods for its wit, sophistication, and clever retelling of familiar stories. Reviewers note how Sondheim and Lapine bring modern themes and challenges into a setting as old-fashioned as fairy tale woods. David Van Leer writes in Raritan that audiences who go to the musical for a dose of Sondheim's usual cynicism "will be surprised by both the fidelity of the treatment and the emphasis on the social, not psychological implications of the stories." Robert L. McLaughlin notes in the Journal of American Drama and Theatre that the play:
explores individual responses to dehumanizing societal forces. Society continues to have a debilitating effect on individuals and couples, but this effect becomes deadly: the entire second act is played out under the threat of imminent total destruction analogous to the threat of nuclear-tipped ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] we live under every day.
The characters in the play are familiar, but characterized in new ways. In an article for the Explicator, Brian Sutton draws parallels between Sondheim's characters and a study about the phases of maturation for college students. He notes that "it is not surprising that the characters, like many incoming college students, at first view the world with a childlike, simplistic dualism that prevents the woods from seeming dark and tangled." He explains that the characters initially see things in terms of black-and-white, right-and-wrong, or dangerous-and-safe, with little understanding of anything in between. Indeed, as Brad Leithauser observes in the New York Review of Books: "The ‘happily ever after’ refrain closes the first but not the final act. Still to come are knives, wandering blind women, murders, and betrayals. It's a disenchanted tale of enchantment." In the Cambridge Companion to the Musical, Jim Lovensheimer notes that such familiar characters as Cinderella, Jack, Rapunzel, and Snow White all have personal challenges, but work together "to solve bigger problems." He further notes that the play as a whole is about outsiders, and that the song "‘No One Is Alone’ is a benevolent anthem to outsiders—people are never completely disconnected from others in their thoughts and actions." McLaughlin remarks on how the characters grow over the course of the play: "To bring order to these chaotic familial relationships, each character must not only achieve his or her quest but also mature psychologically." He adds that when the characters work together to defeat the Giantess, they grow collectively and individually. He explains that "as individuals they are helpless. They need to connect with others and understand how their actions affect others in the human community in order to accomplish anything."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales (1974), by the Brothers Grimm, includes all of the Grimm stories, including the most famous ("Little Red Cap," "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," and others) as well as less well-known stories. This edition is praised by critics for its thoroughness, its excellent translation, and its beautiful illustrations.
- Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (2003) is a collection of interviews and conversations with Sondheim about his writing process. He shares his wisdom about themes, motifs, characterization, rhythm, and mood.
- Stuart A. Kallen's A Cultural History of the United States through the Decades: The 1980s (1998) covers the important events and trends of the political scene in the 1980s in America. The book also includes cultural and historical overviews of the decade.
- Meryle Secrest's Stephen Sondheim: A Life (1998) gives students of Sondheim's work a biographical overview along with summaries and discussion of his major works.
- Four by Sondheim (2000) is a single volume that includes some of Sondheim's best-loved works, written with Hugh Wheeler, James Lapine, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, respectively. This anthology includes A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George (his first collaboration with Lapine), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Jennifer A. Bussey
Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explores the theme of pursuit, the portrayal of women, and the presence of external danger to demonstrate how Into the Woods is clearly a product of the 1980s.
Published and produced in 1986, Into the Woods bears many of the hallmarks of having been written in the 1980s. The setting, the music, and the language is timeless, and the content is applicable to the commonalities of human experience, but the play does bear the subtle fingerprint of that decade. The theme of pursuit, the portrayal of women, and the response to a serious external threat are all portrayed in a way that is consistent with American thought and culture in the 1980s.
The frantic pace and the characters' motivations are all fueled by pursuit and, in some cases, greed. None of the characters are truly content with their current lots in life, and they are in active pursuit of something more. The Baker and his wife drop everything to go after the four ingredients needed to make the potion that will break the curse that has rendered them childless. They are not content with one another, and they forgo all ethics to get the things they need for the potion. Lying (they think) to Jack to get the cow, stealing Little Red Ridinghood's cape outright, trying to swindle Cinderella out of her slipper, and tricking Rapunzel into lowering her much-needed hair-all of these decisions are somehow justified in their minds because their pursuit is more important to them than treating other people fairly.
Cinderella is understandably discontent with her situation, living with a family that does not love her or care about her. Even her own father stands idly by while her stepfamily mistreats her and uses her as a servant. She is as objectified by them as she later is by the Prince. But readers can certainly understand why she would pursue her desire to go to the King's Festival; she wants to have fun and feel like a vibrant young woman, at least for a little while. What is less clear is why, when she catches the Prince's eye, she runs away from him and hides. At that point, it is the Prince who is in pursuit of the thing he wants and that is out of reach. He is relentless in his pursuit, bringing along his Steward and layering pitch on the steps to try to catch Cinderella. His motivation is rooted in immaturity and stubbornness—the more elusive Cinderella is, the more he is determined to have her. His brother, Rapunzel's Prince, is no better. He sees Rapunzel and is determined to have her, pursuing her up the tower and beyond. But he also loses interest in his lady love after he catches her, and his eye turns to another who he then pursues. The Princes are only interested in pursuit for its own sake.
The Wolf is also in pursuit, but his pursuit of Little Red Ridinghood and Granny is different from the other characters' pursuit of what they want. Where they chase, he plots. He tricks the girl into revealing where Granny's cottage is so he can get there first, eat Granny, then disguise himself and wait for the girl. He gets what he wants, but he soon finds that this leads to his demise.
Jack and his Mother are also pursuing things, but they have very different goals. Jack has to give up Milky White, so he is single-minded in his plans to get her back. His Mother, on the other hand, wants wealth and material comforts. Although all of these characters reflect the emerging consumer culture of the 1980s, perhaps Jack's Mother is the most literal representation. In the 1980s, the pursuit of monetary success and material goods characterized the culture. Indeed, the prevailing culture in America during the 1980s was to do what it took to be successful and to be able to buy nice things. People were encouraged to be dissatisfied with what they had, and this lack of contentment drove people to work long hours and make great sacrifices for the sake of a career and financial success. Surely, audiences in this time period would readily identify with the frantic pursuits of the characters depicted in Into the Woods. The question then becomes whether or not they would learn from Jack, who found that once he had taken risks to pursue adventure and excitement, he missed the simple life he left behind.
The 1980s were also a time of greater opportunity and independence for women. This was the result of the activism and growing feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and women in the 1980s were educated and ambitious. Not only did they seize opportunities the women before them had worked hard to make available, but they were outspoken in their fight to receive equal pay and respect in the workplace. At home, more women were willing to wait longer to get married, while others were less fixated on getting married at all. More women became career-oriented, deriving their self-worth and identity from the workplace rather than from running a home or from romantic relationships.
In Into the Woods, the Baker's Wife is more assertive and independent than her husband, and it is she who sometimes keeps pushing him toward their mutual goal. Despite living in an oppressive home where she is merely a servant, Cinderella is not desperate to get married. Her self-esteem remains firmly intact, and when her Prince cheats on her, she does not hesitate to leave him. Unlike the traditional Cinderella, this one is not waiting passively for a prince to ride in and rescue her. Finally, the Witch is more interested in power than beauty. When the curse on her is reversed, her youthful beauty is restored but at the cost of her power. She laments the loss of her previous life. All three of these women reflect the changing status and attitudes of women in the 1980s.
Another reflection of the times in Into the Woods is the presence of and reaction to a serious external threat. All is well in the woods until the end of act 1, when another beanstalk grows. In act 2, the threat of the new beanstalk is revealed when the widow of the Giant Jack killed climbs down to seek revenge for her husband's death. The Giantess is bigger, stronger, and madder than they are, and because she is a foreign creature, she is mysterious and frightening. Only the Witch seems to know how to handle a giant. The group of characters responds first by blaming one another for bringing this danger into their midst, before they ultimately organize themselves to work together to defeat her.
The Giantess is reminiscent of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was still a prominent issue in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were at odds, but fearful of provoking each other because each country possessed nuclear weapons and war could lead to "mutually assured destruction." For Americans, the threat of nuclear war was a serious threat, and the Soviets were perceived as a mysterious enemy (just as the Giantess was in the play). The solution in the play is the same as it is in foreign affairs; the nation (or community) must join together and take action. In the play, while the characters bicker about whose fault it is that the Giantess is there, she roams freely and destructively through the woods. Once they join together, however, the threat is eliminated.
It is a testament to Sondheim and Lapine that a play with such clear ties to the decade in which it was written is able to transcend trends and topicality to be universally entertaining and relevant. Perhaps it is the timeless setting, or the depth of characterization, or the clear cause-and-effect in the action of the play that captures the attention of audiences today.
Source: Jennifer A. Bussey, Critical Essay on Into the Woods, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical analysis of Sondheim's work.
Stephen Sondheim's contributions to twentieth-century musical theater have been so significant that the Dramatists Guild Literary Quarterly designated its first ten years as the "Sondheim decade." "There can hardly have been an issue since," the editors commented, "when a work by Stephen Sondheim…wasn't a major attraction on the Broadway scene, and often more than one." Sondheim has indeed been instrumental in revolutionizing the stage musical. The composer's ability to incorporate a variety of musical styles into his scores caused T. E. Kalem of Time to claim after seeing a Sondheim production that the "entire score is an incredible display of musical virtuosity." Using music, Sondheim creates an attitude for the dramatic situation so that individual songs may push the drama along. Sometimes, unlike most of his predecessors, the composer strays from the traditional rhyming structure. Too, his lyrical cynicism and satire have moved musical comedy from the lighter and simpler shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein to what is termed "conceptual musicals."
Instead of escapism, Sondheim's conceptual musicals present serious concerns and dramatic subtexts. Each of the composer's works depends on one fundamental concept to act as a framework. One of the creators of the new, unromantic musical production, Sondheim has helped to place the musical on a more serious level than that of the traditional Broadway show. When Sondheim composes, it is a cooperative effort. "I go about starting a song first with the collaborators," he once divulged, "sometimes just with the book writer, sometimes with the director. We have long discussions and I take notes, just general notes, and then we decide what the song should be about, and I try to make a title." The composer, according to Sondheim, must stage numbers or draw "blueprints" so that the director or the choreographer may see the uses of a song.
For Sondheim, collaboration usually begins with the book and book writer from whom "you should steal." Since a good production sounds as though one writer is responsible for both the book and the score, the book writer and composer must work together if a play is to have texture. "Any book writer I work with knows what I'm going to do," explained Sondheim, "and I try to help him out wherever I can; that's the only way you make a piece, make a texture." "I keep hearing about people," he continued, "who write books and then give them to composers or composers who write scores and then get a book writer. I don't understand how that works."
Sondheim's first Broadway collaboration! has an unusual history. At the age of twenty-five, the composer completed the music and lyrics for Saturday Night, a musical that never saw the Broadway stage owing to the death of its producer Lemuel Ayers. But Saturday Night still served Sondheim well. "It was my portfolio," he once explained, "and as a result of it I got West Side Story." The story of the ugly life on a city street, with only glimpses of beauty and love, West Side Story is considered one of the masterpieces of the American theater. Beginning its first run in New York in 1957, West Side Story ran for 734 performances on Broadway. After an extended tour of the United States, the play began a second Broadway run of 249 performances. In 1961 West Side Story was adapted into a motion picture that captured ten Academy Awards and became one of the greatest screen musicals in terms of commercial success.
Many critics have attributed much of West Side Story's popularity to its musical score. In The Complete Book of the American Musical Theatre, David A. Ewen named the score as "one of the most powerful assets to this grim tragedy." Ewen cited "Maria," "I Feel Pretty," and "Somewhere" as "unforgettable lyrical episodes." Sondheim's comic songs, such as "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke!," have also been applauded for their wittiness and their roles as satirical commentaries.
Sondheim's next production was Gypsy, a musical based on the autobiography of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. Initially, Sondheim was contracted to write both the music and the lyrics for this show, but actress Ethel Merman felt uneasy with a little-known composer. So Jule Styne composed Gypsy's music while Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Although the play is entertaining in the tradition of Broadway musicals, it is on a deeper level the story of universal human needs. One song from Gypsy, "Some People," is considered by several critics to be one of the best ever written.
An old-fashioned burlesque, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, followed Gypsy. Sondheim and playwrights Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart adapted Forum from the comedies of Plautus, a classical Roman playwright. The play is bawdy, rough-and-tumble, and fun. A low comedy of lechers and courtesans done in a combination of ancient Roman and American vaudeville techniques, Forumis paced with ambiguous meanings, risque connotations, and not-so-subtle innuendos. For instance, a slave carrying a piece of statuary is told by a matron: "Carry my bust with pride." Typically Sondheim, the score is saturated with humor. Some critics have cited "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" as particularly amusing while "Lovely" has been suspected, at least by one critic, of being Sondheim's satire of his own song "Tonight." For Forum, unlike most of his previous plays, Sondheim wrote both the lyrics and the music. "With Forum," a Time reviewer noted, "Sondheim finally proved that he, like Noel Coward, could indeed go it alone." Forum received a Tony Award as the season's best musical and in 1966 adapted for film and released by United Artists as a motion picture starring Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton.
During 1970 and 1971 Sondheim produced two works in collaboration with Hal Prince and Michael Bennett that were considered to be "concept musicals." Company (1970) has no plot, but is a montage of observations about the institution of marriage. It depicts five married couples who hold a birthday party for a bachelor friend. As the play progresses, the observer realizes the amount of disharmony present within the marital relationships. Company garnered the New York Drama Critics Award and six Tony Awards, and completed a run of 690 performances.
1970's Follies focuses upon a reunion of two former showgirls from the fictional Weismann Follies who are about to witness the end of an era signified by the demolition of a once-renowned theater building. The play received seven Tony Awards and the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical.
In 1973, when several critics worried that the Broadway musical had degenerated to an embarrassing state of high camp and rock music, Sondheim's A Little Night Music appeared, restoring faith in musical theater. Critics recognized A Little Night Music to be as spectacular as the great musicals that had gone before it, but also recognized its serious vein. Sondheim composed all the musical's songs in three-quarter time or multiples of that meter; this served as the play's concept and tied it together. Three-quarter time was the foundation to which the composer added a Greek chorus, canons, and fuguetos. Subtexts were injected into almost every song—most notably in "Every Day a Little Death," which allows a countess to express her feelings of loneliness as a philanderer's wife. In addition, Sondheim devoted himself to the "inner monologue song," which is a song, a Time critic explained, "in which characters sing of their deepest thoughts, but almost never to each other."
Though A Little Night Music addresses the standard musical-comedy subject—love—it "is a masquelike affair, tailor-made to fit Sondheim's flair for depicting confused people experiencing ambivalent thoughts and feelings," the Time reviewer assessed. Many of the songs illustrate ambivalence because Sondheim likes neurotic people. He once revealed: "I like troubled people. Not that I don't like squared-away people, but I prefer neurotic people. I like to hear rumblings beneath the surface." The show's cast of confused characters includes the giddy childbride whose middle-aged husband takes up with his ex-mistress while his adolescent son has a crush on his new stepmother. Of course, the above-mentioned countess laments the sadness of her marriage to a straying husband, and a lusty chambermaid salutes carnal love through the play. Critically, A Little Night Music was a triumph. Many reviewers agreed that the strongest element in the play is Sondheim's score, which was compared to the work of musical greats such as Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart.
In 1976 Sondheim again collaborated with Hal Prince in the production of Pacific Overtures, a show that encompasses 120 years of Japanese history from 1856 to modern times. Pacific Overtures was performed by an entirely Asian, male cast and in order to achieve the correct sound, Sondheim used many Asian instruments in the orchestration. He also utilized elements of Japanese Kabuki theater, Haiku poetry, and Japanese pentatonic musical scales. New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes considered Pacific Overtures to be "very, very different."
Sondheim once again made his presence known on Broadway with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He became interested in the play in 1973, related Mel Gussow of the New York Times, "when he saw a production of the melodrama at the Stratford East Theatre in England. He was captivated by it, although, as he said, ‘I found it much more passionate and serious than the audience did.’" Composed as if it were an opera, Sweeney Todd is the story of a murderous barber who sends his victims downstairs to a pie shop where they become the secret ingredients in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies. By Sondheim's own admission, the play "has a creepy atmosphere." The main character, Todd, is out for revenge. Judge Turpin, who desired Todd's wife and daughter, shipped the barber off to Australia as punishment for a crime that he did not commit. Todd escapes and returns seeking vengeance. His attempt to kill the judge fails, causing his revenge to snowball into mass murder. In the end, Todd kills Turpin, but by then the barber, too, is doomed.
Sweeney Todd is about revenge. Harold Prince's production, however, mirrors the industrial age, its influences, and its effects. The play received numerous Drama Desk Awards and Tony Awards in 1979, including best score of a musical. In the opinion of director Harold Prince, the play's music is "the most melodic and romantic score that Steve has ever written. The music is soaring." Nearly eighty percent of the show is music, and musical motifs recur throughout the score to maintain the audience's emotional level. Sondheim even incorporated a musical clue, a theme associated with a character, into the score.
In 1984 Sondheim teamed up with artist-turned-dramatist James Lapine to create the musical Sunday in the Park with George. For Lapine and Sondheim, their first collaboration was a remarkable success, garnering the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Their feat was made even more unusual by the fact that Sunday in the Park with George is centered around an idea Clive Barnes deemed "audaciously ambitious" in the New York Post. "It is to show us the creation of a work of art, the formulation of an artistic style based on scientific principles, and to reveal, in passing, the struggles of an artist for recognition," Barnes explained.
"I write generally experimental, unexpected work," Sondheim told Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times; he made that truth perhaps nowhere more evident than in Sunday in the Park with George. Conceptual rather than plot-driven, the play structures itself around two vignettes that are performed as two separate acts. The first follows French pointillist Georges Seurat in the evolution of his renowned painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The second is centered upon the artistic struggles of the American great-grandson of the artist, the "George" of the play's title, who pays homage to his ancestor's work through modern laser artistry.
Critical response to Sunday in the Park with George was divided. Many felt that the play confirmed the belief that the creative process is inherently undramatic. David Sterritt, in a review for the Christian Science Monitor, pointed to a conflict between the desire to depict art and the desire to depict an artist as the source for the play's failure. Sunday in the Park with George, he wrote, "hovers between the formal elegance of La Grande Jatte and the living, breathing, potentially fascinating life of Seurat himself—but partakes fully of neither." Other critics took exception to what they saw as the autobiographical note sounded by the play's theme: in the depiction of Seurat's rejection by art critics of his time, many felt, was Sondheim's venting of his frustration at his own critical reception. "It is easy to see why Stephen Sondheim should have been attracted to the idea of creating a musical about Georges Seurat, whose career is a way of discussing some of the dilemmas that confront the contemporary artist," Howard Kissel observed in Women's Wear Daily. Kissel went on to object to what he saw as the "defensive" stance Sondheim reveals in songs like "Lesson #8," and to dismiss the notion that the play is avant garde. Instead, the critic expressed the opinion that Sunday in the Park with George is merely contrived.
Yet many critics were compelled by the play's premise and convinced of its status as a breakthrough for theater. "To say that this show breaks new ground is not enough; it also breaks new sky, new water, new flesh and new spirit," Jack Kroll proclaimed in Newsweek. Kroll not only approved of the material, but he celebrated the pairing of Lapine and Sondheim, declaring that over the course of the musical its creators "take us full circle, implying that there's still hope for vision in a high-tech world and that art and love may be two forms of the same energy …, in this show of beauty, wit, nobility and ardor, [that idea] makes this Sondheim's best work since … his classic collaborations with Harold Prince."
Not surprisingly, Lapine and Sondheim went on to collaborate on the 1986 musical Into the Woods. Again, their collaboration was richly rewarding. Winner of Tony awards for lyrics and outstanding musical, the play was a greater commercial success than Sunday in the Park with George. Essentially about the loss of innocence, the play explores the "grim" in the Brothers Grimm and in other tellers of children's tales. Turning fairytales like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood on their heads, the two acts of Into the Woods move from the happily to the unhappily ever after. Yet the musical ends on the surprisingly upbeat notes of the song "No One Is Alone," prompting some critics to complain that Sondheim had sold out to public demand for lighter material. Others, however, found the musical wholly appealing. "It is that joyous rarity," wrote Elizabeth L. Bland and William A. Henry III in a Time review, "a work of sophisticated artistic ambition and deep political purpose that affords nonstop pleasure."
In 1990 Sondheim earned his first Academy Award for the song "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," composed for the movie Dick Tracy and sung by Madonna. From there, Sondheim went on to create a uniquely American show, Assassins, which showcases the assassins and would-be assassins of presidents of the United States. With characters such as John Wilkes Booth and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, the musical quickly earned the reputation of being Sondheim's darkest work to date. Undaunted, theater-goers lined up in droves for its sold-out run in 1991.
Two years later Sondheim received a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1994 he answered with another award-winning musical, Passion. Based on an obscure Italian movie, the work features a love triangle between Fosca, an ugly, frail woman; Giorgio, a handsome Italian army officer; and Clara, Giorgio's beautiful mistress. After being assigned to a regiment in Parma, Italy, Giorgio meets the tormented Fosca. The two develop a rapport based on their mutual interest in literature, but their friendship quickly takes a new turn when Fosca declares her obsession and love for Giorgio. Repulsed by Fosca, Giorgio is nonetheless unable to rid her from his mind. Fosca pursues Giorgio relentlessly; when Giorgio finally admits that he too is in love with her, the two consummate their love. Fosca dies shortly thereafter, while Giorgio, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is admitted to a hospital.
Audiences and critics alike had mixed reactions to Passion. Nation critic David Kaufman remarked, "A dark tale of an obsessive love that is cut short after it finally finds its perfect object, Passion is archetypal Sondheim in its content." Calling the work "passionless," Kaufman concluded that it "emerges as more of an elegant chamber piece than a full-scale musical." Similarly, Ben Brantley in the New York Times noted that Passion "isn't perfect…. There's an inhibited quality here that asks to be exploded and never is." But Robert Brustein of the New Republic declared the musical "Sondheim's deepest, most powerful work…. Passion is a triumph of rare and complex sensibility, fully imagined, fully realized." Despite its mixed reception, the show won several Tony awards, including best musical and, for Sondheim, best original music score.
In 2000, upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Sondheim granted an interview to New York Times magazine writer Frank Rich. When asked to critique his own work, Sondheim said: "Verbosity is the thing I have to fight most in the lyrics department…. ‘Less is more’ is a lesson learned with a difficulty." He later added: "I'm accused so often of not having melodic gifts, but I like the music I write. Harmony gives music its life, its emotional color, more than rhythm."
Source: Gale, "Stephen Sondheim," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2007.
Mark K. Fulk
In the following essay, Fulk defines Into the Woods as postmodern, further noting that the characters are driven by desire. The adultery that occurs in the play, Fulk claims, is used as a vehicle to explore gender issues.
The Baker's Wife falls victim to confusion and punishment in the woods in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1986 musical Into the Woods. Like the other characters, she is led into the woods by her desire. Initially, the characters of Into the Woods are shaping and controlling their own desires. The chorus of "I wish" that opens the play shows that desire is the motivating factor for entering the woods. At the end of Act I, the wishes of the cast are achieved, and their euphoria is reflected as they reemerge, singing, "Into the Woods, / Then out of the woods … — and happy ever after." Although desire again propels some into the woods in Act II, their desires are transformed (or even malformed), and the society they once knew, and which authorized their desires, now exists in chaos and dislocation: the giant Jack slew becomes the locus of desire for the giant's widow, who comes seeking revenge. Narrative control symbolically dies as the narrator is crushed. Jack's Mother and the Baker's Wife also die. The humor, so much a part of Act I, disappears, as even Little Red Ridinghood becomes more mature and sober.
My project explores adultery in Sondheim's plays as a site to chart his gender politics. Into the Woods provides the fullest treatment of this topic in Sondheim's corpus, but I will also refer to other works as they become relevant. The Baker's Wife and her tragedy represent one piece in a pattern of gender inequality evident throughout Sondheim's work, an inequality that both reflects and perpetuates the gender inequities in American society of the 1980s and 1990s. In the final analysis, who killed the Baker's Wife? Sondheim and we, the audience.
To fully understand Sondheim's Into the Woods and the issues surrounding the demise of the Baker's Wife, one must explore the relationship this play has with postmodernism. As a philosophical and artistic movement, postmodernism embraces certain tenets. While any definitional framework will itself present obstacles, it becomes singularly necessary to have one so as to critique Into the Woods's interactions with it. Sondheim embraces many of the aspects of postmodernity, and in so doing, both represents this form and furthers its multiple and contradictory ends.
Although all definitions of postmodernism are provisional, and open to charges of totalizing or simplifying, I have found Jane Flax's framework the most useful. In her book Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West, Flax states that postmodernist discourse rests on three premises: the death of man, or the death of the subject; the death of history, or the death of totalizing Enlightenment narratives; and the death of metaphysics, or the death of transcendent, nondiscursive truth. Postmodernist art forms embrace these ideas in a number of creative and often contradictory ways. As we encounter each of these ideas in Into the Woods, I will explain them in more detail.
The Sondheim and Lapine musical opens with the assertion of narrative control by the narrator, as well as the all-encompassing desire of the various other cast members. Centered around children's fairy tales, which as a musical tradition have "amounted to a not very cohesive legacy," according to Stephen Banfield, the musical begins with the longing of each of the characters for change or to complete some mission, however that may be conceived, kept safely at a distance from the audience by the overarching and moralizing framework provided by our male narrator. Cinderella explains that these desires are beyond all bounds: "I wish … More than anything … More than life." The excessive nature of this desire further reveals itself when Jack's mother (one of the first to die later) rattles off a series of five "I wish" statements. In fact, excessive desire that demands containment or punishment comes to be symbolized in the music by the rap beat that accompanies the witch's story about the pillaging of her garden, which she symbolizes as both robbery and rape.
At heart, the desire expressed by the characters is positivist. We do not have in Act I merely the desire to survive, except perhaps in the case of Jack's Mother. Rather, the desire focuses on obtaining some goal that will unproblematically improve life. Thus, when Little Red Ridinghood introduces the main motif of the title song, her statement of desire is simple and pure: "Into the Woods—/ It's time, and so / I must begin my journey … Into the Woods / And through the trees / To where I am / Expected, ma'am, / Into the Woods / to Grandmother's house—." Indeed, the purpose and clarity of the mission is so great that it leads Little Red Ridinghood to moralize, moving from self-assurance to directing others: "The way is clear, / The light is good, / I have no fear / Nor no one should." The desires are, in this narrative, to meet their happy ending where good is rewarded and bad is punished. In fact, the woods, which represents the locus and fulfillment of these desires, becomes a place where one can safely journey and seemingly be "home before dark."
The audience thus puts faith not only in the direction of the desires themselves, but the outcome that is known from the familiarity of these childhood tales, and in the friendly older male narrator. The narrator offers himself as a figure of stability and guidance, shaping the narrative and, in apparent detachment, giving the audience the framework they need to understand. In fact, the narrator alone keeps this part of the play from becoming multivocal, a heterogeny of postmodern collage.
Although there are moments in Little Red Ridinghood's portion of the narrative that suggest things may not be as good as her light-heartedness suggests, it is not until the appearance of Cinderella's Mother that the problems of wishing itself are raised. Cinderella's Mother asks, when Cinderella begins with a rather unfocused statement of desire:
Do you know what you wish?
Are you certain what you wish
Is what you want?
If you know what you want,
Then make a wish.
Cinderella's Mother suggests that there is the possibility that Cinderella (and the others) really do not know what it is they wish for, nor consider the ramifications of those desires.
Little Red Ridinghood continues as a sort of microcosm of the narrative, as she is led astray by her own desires, tempted by the wolf from the path she chose. Her confusion, however, is not merely a desire for flowers, but also for adventure and romance. The temptation that works, indeed, is not when the wolf tells her of the beauty that lies off the path, but that there are many paths with many destinations:
Little Red Ridinghood:
"Come what may
Follow the path
And never stray."
Just so, little girl—
So many worth exploring.
Just one would be so boring.
Temptation here comes in the form of multiplicity, in the possibility that there are numerous paths, perhaps all with the same ultimate outcome. The wolf, who is later destroyed, comes to represent the purveyor of heterogeneous ways, evil only because he uses them as a trap to catch his victim. Little Red Ridinghood, in repeating "Mother said" four times to the wolf, shows her naiveté as well as her vulnerability, and the vulnerability of a child's morality learned only by rote from her parents. Little Red Ridinghood never, for instance, seems to know from her mother, or anyone but the wolf, what lies off the path, both its pleasures and dangers. Indeed, we see the weakness of Little Red Ridinghood's inherited faith when she tells the audience that she has put her faith thus far in "a cape and a hood" that have failed. The wolf is able to use her desire, and prey on her weak faith, to construct a narrative of many paths that seems tempting and convincing, but in the end leads to death.
The night that was to end the journey into the woods elapses, and yet the characters are still caught in their desires as well as their "master" narratives. The end of Act I, Scene ii, shows the characters still after their one desire, and moralizing their failures in ways that do not call the basic thrust of their narratives of progress and improvement into question. From the simple "Never wear mauve at a ball," to the enigmatic "No knot unties itself," to the sententious "Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor," this moment and the one like it in Act I, Scene iv, still embrace the idea of objectivity, the idea that "man" can stand apart and moralize from a stance that is not implicated in the drama itself. Yet, the play calls this very idea of a totalizing, objective viewpoint into question. Sondheim thus embraces what Flax explains as the death of man and the death of history. While postmodernism rejects both the detached subject and the idea of a positivist, progressive narrative of history (or, I would assume, its stark opposite, the idea of history as one long, continuous descent), the desire for both of these resides in our indebtedness to the Enlightenment. The "birth" of these ideas stretches back to the paradigms constructed during the Enlightenment. And, as Flax notes, "Postmodernists share at least one common object of attack—the Enlightenment— but they approach this object from many different points of view and attack it with various methods for diverse purposes." For Act I of Into the Woods, Sondheim's characters all embrace this narrative of progress. Truly, the climax of Act I, with the rebirths of Little Red Ridinghood, the Mysterious Man, and the Witch, embraces this "happy ever after" ending.
However, the end of Act I, while idyllic, also shows the limitations of such an ideal. The idea of progress towards happiness is stopped as the narrative closes with happiness and misery aptly, poetically bestowed. Yet, the Witch's and Cinderella's stepsisters' doom to be perpetually "unhappy" interrupts the overflow of positive feelings in the rest of the cast. Beyond this, however, two more events lead the audience to suspect that all is not ideally settled: the growth of another beanstalk, and the narrator's "To be continued." Still, Act I gives the readers the complete fairy tale closure of most children's stories, and thus, when Act II begins, literally out of the darkness, the audience realizes that the narrative itself (its progress, rewards and punishments) becomes the subject of the less unified, more disjointed, "postmodern" story of Act II.
Act II begins by literally and physically deconstructing the happy outcome of Act I. In a time "later," we see the improvements achieved in Act I: the homes of Cinderella and Jack have materially improved, and the Baker and his wife have their baby. However, the self-congratulatory nature of the opening "wishes" of Act II is rudely set back as desire plummets from wishing "to sponsor a Festival" to the hope to just survive when the female Giant, the distraught wife of the giant that Jack kills, comes seeking revenge. Thus, the utopia of the happy (or miserable) ever after stasis of Act I crumbles into chaos and death in Act II. The demise of utopia follows what political theorist Seyla Benhabib identifies as a key element of postmodern, post-communist political thought. Benhabib argues that postmodernism has led, at least in feminist theory, away from the idea of utopia because of utopia's basis in Enlightenment notions of reason, and because of the practical failure of many such engineered societies ("Feminism and Postmodernism" 29). Following (and developing) the writings of Jean-Franèois Lyotard, Benhabib argues that utopian thinking has normally led, at least since the Enlightenment, to "the crassest instrumentalism … [in that] the coming utopia exempts the undemocratic and authoritarian practices of the present from critique" ("Feminism and Postmodernism" 30). While Benhabib supports some milder forms of utopian thinking, she rejects utopia because it ultimately leads to unsettling and problematic practices in an attempt to achieve it.
Into the Woods in Act I achieves a kind of utopia, but there are two central problems with that achievement. First, the idea of its perpetuity. This utopia, as conceived in the closing number of Act I, is continual, unchanging and static. Life, however, remains in flux, not simply a static "happy ever after." Secondly, the achievement of this utopia was accomplished by employing the kinds of immoral acts that Benhabib deplores as means to an end. The Giant, when she comes on in Act II, recasts Jack's actions into moral terms that call the initial fairy tale into question: "That boy asked for shelter, and then he stole our gold, our hen, and our harp. Then he killed my husband." By domesticating and moralizing what Jack did, the audience is left to ponder not only the ends of the utopia achieved by Act I, but also the problematic means used to obtain these results.
Act II of Into the Woods makes the destruction of utopia real and tangible, and this pain echoes through a plethora of aural sounds, culminating in the "boom," "Squish," "Splat" of the song "The Last Midnight." Indeed, the audience initially becomes uncertain whether they are part of the catastrophe, because the very first effects of the Giant's visit are staged in such a manner that the audience "should be momentarily uncertain as to whether there has truly been an accident on stage." Like the conclusion of Assassins, where the assassins may be staged to take aim at the audience, the audience of Into the Woods becomes fully (if only momentarily) immersed in the action of the play. The audience quickly realizes that the safe "fourth-wall" world of Act I is shattering, and even their position as detached spectators may be threatened. This erosion of audience expectation and safety continues from the staged "accident" through the following events: the discounting of faith in the royal family, and thus the safety of established hierarchy; the contradiction of platitudes, so much a part of Act I, characterized in Act II by the assertion of Jack's Mother just before the destruction of the town, that "Giants never strike the same house twice"; and finally the brutal clubbing death of Jack's Mother and the death of the Baker's Wife, which symbolically enacts the destruction of the family.
The most disturbing and unsettling displacement of certainty occurs with the loss of the narrative/ didactic frame, personified in the death of the narrator. A full comprehension of this crushing death of the narrator comes when we understand the discussion and debate that informed this pivotal moment in the play. Lapine and Sondheim planned the role of narrator to be a recognizable and stabilizing presence. Lapine told writer Craig Zadan that among their choices to play the role were men not even associated with the theatre, such as Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Tip O'Neill. In fact, in the early run of the play, the narrator was not killed, but actually became both the father and the son of the Baker (Zadan 343-44). However beautiful, this ending was scrapped by the end of the second week of the New York run of the play, and the narrator was finally killed. Sondheim told Zadan that the plot really called for this development:
The plot, as well as the theme, of the second act is about the chaos that the characters face when dreadful events occur and the controlling force (the Narrator) of the story is removed. To paraphrase something Mike Nichols said when he came to a preview, "We all tend to live our lives as if there were a script." Well, there isn't.
Before his death, the narrator becomes even more didactic and complacent in his assertions, believing himself to be comfortably "not a part of it." Ironically, what he becomes particularly strong about is the very lack of certainty for the cast. Staged here, then, is a moment where theory stands outside, assuredly critiquing theory's lack of knowledge. The narrator tells the audience that the cast was not "familiar with making choices" and that "their past experiences in the woods had in no way prepared them to deal with a force this great." In fact, before proudly rebuffing the group standing behind him, he begins a comment on the "moral issue" of the "finality of stories such as these." In his own defense, he relies on his prescribed and thus knowable role as detached and "objective" spectator, the stance of the Enlightenment philosopher who claims "there must always be someone on the outside" to "pass the story along." Finally, as the rest of the cast organizes against him, he asserts that they will "never know how the story ends," and be "lost" in a "world of chaos." Thus, he echoes the supposed threat of leaving an Enlightenment paradigm of universal truths accessed by detached reason.
The loss of the narrator symbolizes one of the distinguishing and crowning achievements of postmodernism, demonstrating not only the potential of postmodernism but also the anxiety of the loss of a central logos and ethos, even if it were merely a construct. In a rather standard metaphor of detachment, Jack in his song "There Are Giants in the Sky" represents the claim of the Enlightenment that man can stand above, and look down:
When you're way up high
And you look below
At the world you've left
And the things you know
Little more than a glance
Is enough to show
You just how small you are.
Jack further asserts that, once above, "Exploring things you'd never dare / 'Cause you don't care," the detached observer comes to "know things now that you never knew before, / Not till the sky." Jack foreshadows the attitude of the narrator who finally does not care except when threatened, and who acts as if knowledge is certain and incontestable. Thus, the narrator in the sky achieves a sense of power and unconcern, and the ability to claim to "know," a claim reified in Little Red Ridinghood's earlier song "I Know Things Now." Even Jack, a boy not known for brilliance or even intelligence, ultimately decides to leave this beanstalk pedestal and return to the land below, thus becoming smarter than the narrator, who still insists that he is separate, distinct, and uninvolved with the action transpiring around him
The fear of the unknown and the unknowable after the demise of the narrator translates fairly swiftly into tentative and uncertain action. However, the certainty of knowledge, of fairy-tale endings, still continues to haunt members of the cast, culminating in the "punishment" of the Baker's Wife. Of all these deaths, that of the Baker's Wife becomes most compelling. Her affair with Cinderella's Prince frees her from the desire for the romance of having a prince. She comes to see returning to her husband and their baby as a choice which is now invested with significance because of the affair. As she sings, "Now I understand— … And it's time to leave the woods." The Baker's Wife asserts that she has come to understand and is thus liberated, as expressed in her song "Moments in the Woods":
Just remembering you've had an "and,"
When you're back to "or"
Makes the "or" mean more
Than it did before.
Now I understand—…
And it's time to leave the woods.
Yet, her understanding is problematic. The woods, which were so easy (in comparison) to enter and return from, with one's desires achieved, have now become, with the destruction of the town, the only place one can reside. The Baker's Wife thus cannot leave the woods. As she tries to retrace her steps, she falls to her death. When her ghost returns in the conclusion of Act II, she is devoid of sexual desire, a disembodied spirit that authorizes the Baker's maternal instinct and, ironically, her own story as a cautionary tale: "Look, tell him the story / Of how it all happened / Be father and mother." Yet, what story can be told and what knowledge can be imparted seems ambiguous. Will the story be the sad and tragic but simple narrative of the giant's arrival and a mother's "innocent" death? Or will it be the story of desire, of contested meanings, and of fulfillment and lack that have characterized the experiences of the surviving cast of Act II?
Thus, the adulterous wife and her death bridges the desire that opens the play and the closure reached in the most famous song from the musical, "Children Will Listen." She becomes the center of desire, a desire that must be contained and rendered powerless through death and idealized motherhood. She also represents postmodernism's (and Sondheim's?) own ambivalence to female empowerment. Her speech must be silenced because she as adulterous wife, even though she decides to return, becomes a destabilizing influence. Into the Woods offers another place where these problems can be examined. Even though the plays are vastly different, some of the same tropes surface concerning women and their sexuality. The adulterous wife becomes the locus where Sondheim chooses to chart these anxieties. Sondheim lets Cinderella's Prince escape his adulterous action, even allowing him to bond with his brother, Rapunzel's Prince, in plotting other possible adulteries in their duet "Agony."Although the Prince is stunned when Cinderella leaves him, he escapes the woods unscathed and perhaps even relieved. This escape becomes possible because the sexual contract of a husband is perceived differently than that of a wife in this play. Laurie Shrage writes that a "husband's adultery may be more ‘understandable’ and tolerated, while the adulterous wife is forbidden to have (or at least exercise) such desires." If she does, she "may still be held uniquely blamable for the adultery" in ways her married male counterpart will not. She embodies the betrayal of "the family religion" and "the invitation to passion, death, and the destruction of society" (Armstrong 12). Her self-actualization represents "an essential disparity, disequilibrium, and even discord between the two sexes" and the fearful prospect of "a matriarchal society."
Therefore, the Baker's Wife's enacting of her desire, and then her equally bold statement of knowledge (and the power to leave the woods) becomes a challenge to the deeper story of postmodernism itself. Postmodernism claims that there are no knowable, uncontested arenas from which to act. The Baker's Wife, even after the death of the narrator, claims that there are, and further that she has achieved knowledge of them, and can now leave the realms of desire to return unscathed to the world of the family. As her song "Moments in the Woods" argues, she thinks she has the choice to live time as if it is full of individual moments that do not impact other moments; or that she can return to her life, always knowing (and perhaps cherishing) her "moment" in the woods. As her fate tells, neither is truly possible.
The Baker's Wife's death also marks the darkest point of the postmodernist deconstruction this play offers of fairy-tale certainty. The cast is left with ruins, with little hope of ever building a certain (even if fictive) foundation again. The cast, however, cannot live in nihilism, having accepted ruin. To do so would be to die, and there clearly are still goals to reach and lives to live, even without overarching certainty. The reconstruction, and the move to continue forth with purpose, even if it is tentative, comes in the most famous song of the play, entitled "Children Will Listen." This song offers finally what postmodernism offers: tentative starts towards new narratives, but narratives that are embedded in time and praxis, not detached and objective.
"Children Will Listen" begins with the cautionary. The word "Careful," now the most prominent word, appears six times in this song. This repetition displaces, but only momentarily, the other important repetition that opens both acts of "I wish." The song builds from the truths gained from the experiences of the woods. Thus, the narrative it offers is embedded in the stories that have preceded it, in the experience of the woods and desire itself. It is offered tentatively, softly not in the grand finale, but in the moments before. Zadan relates a disagreement that occurred between Sondheim and Lapine over the placement of this song. Lapine told Zadan that he "wanted the song … to build into an incredible anthem that would end the show … but Steve didn't agree," worried that "it would become sentimental." "Children Will Listen" remains tentative and quiet because postmodernism can only offer narratives that are embedded, in flux, and experiential. The characters now admit that desire will return, that "every now and then" one has to go into the woods again, but they can go with an awareness of the past and a "mind [toward] the future." The reprisal of the title song afterwards adds to this tentative start at building a better tomorrow: a reaffirmation of the experience as well as the continuation of desire itself in Cinderella's last call of "I wish." Although the characters once more embrace the idea of "happy ever after," it is now more problematic, less binary, and more receptive to the possibility of another opening for desire, for another trip into the woods.
Unlike Sondheim and Lapine's musical, and as a literary critic, I add a third act. It is a tentative move, even characterized by the more postmodern idea(l) of "Reflections" instead of the more monolithic, hegemonic idea of "Conclusion." The triumph of Into the Woods is the way it embodies both the wonder and the trouble of postmodernism, both its potentials and its pitfalls. Into the Woods offers the move from the Enlightenment fairy-tale of knowability and detachment (Act I) to the enmeshed struggle for survival of postmodernism (Act II). This move is, like Sondheim's reading of his own conclusion (Zadan 353), tentatively hopeful. Gone are the days of certainty, replaced with the days of possibility, of multiple and possibly contradictory roles and ideas co-existing. Truly, one may even hope that postmodernism as seen in this musical could offer the potential of a "nonviolent relationship to the Other and to otherness in the widest possible sense" that Drucilla Cornell labels as the goal of the "ethical."
Yet, within the hegemony of multiplicity that is postmodernism, Sondheim's play also shows the danger and violence inherent in postmodernism's rejection of liberation. The Baker's Wife comes to represent the limits of postmodern potential. Because there are multiple and controvertible narratives and teleologies possible, the categories of knowledge and liberation become contestable and entangled, even impossible. The volume of essays entitled Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange, from which I have extensively quoted, shies away from any kind of full embracing or engagement with postmodernism for these very reasons. Steven Garber's book The Fabric of Faithfulness does the same thing, but for very different moral (and religious) reasons. This unlikely pairing of radical feminism and conservative Christianity becomes united in their rejection of any kind of full acceptance of postmodernism because of the reasons exposed in Into the Woods. There are many other examples of this contingent and tentative discussion of postmodernism from all sides of the social and political spectrum. Into the Woods deserves reading, hearing, and reiteration because it joins these various discourses in exposing both postmodernism's promises and potentials, as well as its perils and problems.
Source: Mark K. Fulk, "Who Killed the Baker's Wife? Sondheim and Postmodernism," in American Drama, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1999, pp. 42-60.
In the following essay, Sutton traces the character development in Into the Woods. Sutton comments that it is this aspect of the play that appeals most to college students.
A major source of textual pleasure is being able to identify with a character as that character matures. That is one reason that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Tony award winning play Into the Woods works well in a college classroom. Even though the characters in the play are drawn from fairy tales, their intellectual and ethical development precisely mirrors the stages described in the most widely cited study of the maturing processes of college students, William G. Perry Jr.'s Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years.
Perry describes three main stages in college students' development: viewing the world dualistically and relying on authority to provide the right answers; accepting relativism in a world with no easy answers; and recognizing that even in a relativistic world, one must still form commitments. Although Perry acknowledges that students may be deflected by escapism or similar behaviors, he states that students generally move from dualism, through relativism, and on toward commitment.
Given that Into the Woods starts out with the narrator's words "Once upon a time," it is not surprising that the characters, like many incoming college students, at first view the world with a childlike, simplistic dualism that prevents the woods from seeming dark and tangled. In the opening number, the cast sings, "The way is clear / The light is good, / I have no fear, / Nor no one should. / The woods are just trees, / The trees are just wood."
The characters also fit Perry's definition of dualistic thinkers in their faith that authority will provide right answers. Authority may be parental, as when Little Redridinghood and Jack (of "beanstalk" fame) begin their journeys because their mothers tell them to, or when Cinderella reacts to a crisis by seeking advice from her mother's ghost. It may be matrimonial, as when the baker acknowledges that he depends on his wife "for everything." It may be communal, as when each character states a nugget of folk wisdom that seems to guide his or her conduct, or when Baker, after his home has been partially destroyed by the giant, is reassured that "Giants never strike the same house twice." Or it may be royal, as when the kingdom is threatened by a giant and the characters' first instinct is to tell the royal family because "the prince will see to it that the giant is rid from our land." The way is clear; the light is good.
But these characters, like Perry's college students, must discover the complexity inherent in life's journey. Confronted by Wolf, Little Redridinghood simplistically sings, "Mother said, / ‘Come what may, / Follow the path / And never stray.’" But the wolf a wonderful symbol for the excitement and danger of increased sophistication—replies, "Just so, little girl—/ Any path. / So many worth exploring. / Just one would be so boring. / And look what you're ignoring … " Little Redridinghood is being led toward the labyrinth of relativism. Throughout the first act, the other major characters undergo similar metamorphoses.
But relativism is not an end in itself. Many students in Perry's study went through a stage in which lack of certainty made it difficult for them to accept responsibility and take a stand. Similarly, near the end of act 1, Cinderella sings about her ambivalence regarding being pursued by the prince; "And then out of the blue / And without any guide, / You know what your decision is, / Which is not to decide." Whereas Perry states that the students with the most "advanced" positions tended to use existentialist terminology to describe their views, Cinderella's attitude at this point would make an existentialist cringe. She and the other characters still have a lot to learn.
Besides supporting inaction, relativism can also justify ethically questionable actions. When Baker and Wife desperately need Jack's cow but have no money to pay for it, the wife argues that they should pretend their beans aremagic and offer to trade them for the cow: "There are rights and wrongs / And in-betweens / …Everyone tells tiny lies— / What's important, really, is the size. / … If the end is right, / It justifies / The beans!"
Later, the characters must face the consequences of their actions, as a giant, enraged at Jack's having stolen her harp and killed her husband by chopping down the beanstalk, ravages the land. The giant will leave the others alone only if they let her kill Jack. The characters' moral dilemma is heightened by the legitimacy of the giant's outrage, the complexity of Jack's ethical situation (he was motivated by extreme poverty to steal, and having stolen, was arguably acting in self-defense when he killed the pursuing giant), and the fact that all of them have committed unethical or unwise acts (the fraudulent selling of the beans, for instance), acts which have contributed to their current crisis. The situation demands immediate, decisive action. But instead, having passed beyond simplistic dualism, each character uses his or her relativistic viewpoint to argue, plausibly but spitefully, that another character is to blame for the crisis.
By now, the characters are literally and figuratively lost in the woods. When the bewildered Little Redridinghood says, "The path is straight," Baker replies, "Was straight. Now there is no path." The landmarks of authority have disappeared: Jack's mother, Redridinghood's mother and grandmother, and the baker's wife have all been killed; the enchanted place where Cinderella received advice from her mother's ghost has been destroyed; the giant has attacked the baker's house twice, destroying both the house and the comforting security of folk sayings; the royal family has proved unworthy of trust, both in crisis facing a giant and, as Cinderella has learned, in marriage. And the ultimate guardian of order in a fairy tale, Narrator, has been killed by the giant, just after warning the others that without a narrator "You'll never know how your story ends. You'll be lost … in a world of chaos." The characters are now terrifyingly free to make their own decisions, create their own endings.
Perry states that when students lose the comfort of dualistic certainty, they ask such questions as, "And my enemies? Are they not wholly in the wrong? … Will no one tell me if I am right? Can I never be sure? Am I alone?" He also states that some students attempt to "escape … to deny responsibility through passive or opportunistic alienation." Similarly, many of the minor characters in the play desert the others during the crisis, saying, "I'm going to hide. Everything will work out fine in the end." Even Baker, the character with whom the audience is most likely to identify, voices a similar urge, in words with which any college student can identify: "No more questions. / Please. / No more tests. / Comes the day you say, ‘What for?’ / Please—no more." Later, confronted by Jack's queries about the world's injustice, the baker angrily says, "Stop asking me questions I can't answer."
Yet finally, Baker and the other major characters reject escapism and seek what Perry calls commitment. First, in a world of chaos, they commit to each other. Consoling the bereft Redridinghood, Cinderella sings, "Mother cannot guide you. / Now you're on your own. / Only me beside you. / Still, you're not alone. / No one is alone." While Cinderella's words could be criticized as sentimentalism, as the song continues, the idea that "no one is alone" takes on a more profound meaning: that our actions affect others. Baker and Cinderella sing, "You move just a finger / Say the slightest word, / Something's bound to linger, / Be heard," and the baker adds, "No one acts alone. / Careful, / No one is alone." Thus the characters, like Perry's most "advanced" students, express their commitment in terms that echo existentialism and its insistence that although each individual bears responsibility for his or her decisions, each decision affects everyone on earth (Sartre 19-21).
Besides committing to each other, the four central characters also commit to a course of action-and they do so without simplistically demonizing the enemy. Even as they prepare a trap to kill the giant and save themselves, the baker and Cinderella sing, "Witches can be right, / Giants can be good." And although their plan succeeds, they remain uncertain of anything beyond the need for responsibility and commitment.
As the play ends, the characters view the woods much differently, singing, "The way is dark, / The light is dim, / But now there's you, / Me, her and him." And just as Perry acknowledges that even the most advanced students still have room for further growth, so the characters acknowledge that their personal journeys are recursive: "Into the woods, each time you go, / There's more to learn of what you know."
If Perry's study accurately captures the process of intellectual and ethical growth for college students, as is widely claimed, then despite the fairy tale background, the situations in Into the Woods should prove powerfully recognizable to those students.
Source: Brian Sutton, "Into the Woods," in Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 4, Summer 1997, 3 pp.
Robert L. McLaughlin
In the following excerpt, McLaughlin compares the themes in Into the Woods to similar themes that can be found in several other works by Sondheim. McLaughlin finds that Into the Woods explores the often contradictory dynamics between love and society.
… Into the Woods, Sondheim's 1987 musical based on traditional fairy tales, also explores individual responses to dehumanizing societal forces. Society continues to have a debilitating effect on individuals and couples, but this effect has become deadly: the entire second act is played out under the threat of imminent total destruction analogous to the threat of nuclear-tipped ICBMs we live under every day. Change is imperative and just possible if individuals can reestablish human contact, understanding, and sympathy.
Act One of Into the Woods presents the psychological growth of several fairy tale characters to the point where they can achieve love relationships. The play begins with the characters going into the woods on quests to solve certain problems caused for the most part by disjointed families. Cinderella is abused by her father's new family; her quest is to go to the king's festival. Jack (of Beanstalk fame) and his Mother are poor because his father has left them; Jack's quest is to get money by selling his best friend, his cow. The Baker and his Wife are unable to have children; their quest is to obtain the items for the Witch's potion and remove the spell. The Witch is an old and ugly mother to her adopted (seized?) daughter Rapunzel; her quest is to drink the potion that will make her young and beautiful. To bring order to these chaotic familial relationships, each character must not only achieve his or her quest but also mature psychologically. Two of the Act One quests present challenges in love relationships similar to ones in Company. Cinderella gets her wish to go to the festival but confronts there a new dilemma: the undivided attention of the Prince. Considering her cruel treatment at home and the potential wealth and luxury that come with being a Princess, we, the Prince, and even Cinderella have a hard time understanding why she runs away from him each night. Like Robert (and more significantly from a feminist point of view), she sees commitment as limiting since any definite decision destroys all other possibilities. Running away from the Prince, she thinks that her best course of action is to go home: "You'll be better off there / Where there's nothing to choose, / So there's nothing to lose." In addition, she fears that the Prince would not want her if he knew who she really is and that the Prince, in pursuing her like an animal in a hunt, is objectifying her just as her family does. In leaving him the clue of her shoe in the pitch, she tests his commitment in two ways: first, to see if he will use the slipper to try to find her; and second, to see if, once he sees her in ash-coated rags, he will still want and love her. Of course, the Prince passes both tests and Cinderella answers with her own commitment. She agrees to marry him, giving up all other possibilities with the hope she will be happy in this one. The Baker and his Wife begin the play like the couples in Company: they are together but each bristles at lost independence. The Baker, relishing his autonomy, at first refuses to let his Wife help in the quest: "The spell is on my house. / Only I can lift the spell … " The Baker's Wife longs for the more handsome, wealthy, and glamorous Prince. But in the woods the Baker and his Wife learn a new interdependence. In "It Takes Two" they realize that their marriage demands a loss of independence, but in return they gain the positive qualities and love of the other person. The Baker sings, "I thought one was enough, / It's not true: / It takes two of us" and his Wife describes him the way she had previously described the Prince: "You're passionate, charming, considerate, clever—." The Baker sums up their new interdependence, " … I'm becoming / Aware of us / As a pair of us, / Each accepting a share / Of what's there." Cinderella and the Baker and his Wife, then, face the problems the characters in Company couldn't resolve and through their learning experiences in the woods become part, at least temporarily, of interdependent love relationships.
However, after Act One shows that such love relationships are possible, Act Two, like West Side Story, asks if they can survive in their societal context. The widow of the giant Jack killed comes down from the sky to seek revenge. The giant can be seen as symbolic of any type of societal crisis that intrudes on the private lives of people and forces them to respond in some way to save their way of life. Faced with this crisis, the characters bicker and divide themselves. The wealthy royal family flees the country, leaving behind the lower class characters. Those remaining can't agree on a plan to deal with the giant, and while they bicker, more and more of them are crushed. The futility of their divisiveness climaxes in "Your Fault," where they desperately try to blame each other for the calamity. The Witch leaves them at this low point, when they are isolated and dehumanized: "Separate and alone, / Everybody down on all fours." Eventually, however, the remaining characters, the Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red Ridinghood, are able to transcend their pettiness through two important steps. First, each loses the person on whom he or she was dependent. Cinderella loses the guiding spirit of her mother when the giant crushes the tree in which she resided. Little Red Ridinghood loses her mother and grandmother when the giant steps on their houses. Jack loses his mother when the Prince's steward kills her to keep her from provoking the giant. And the Baker loses his Wife when the giant crushes her after her dalliance with the Prince. Although this seems to be another instance of outside forces destroying love relationships, these characters must lose the people who support them so that they can continue to grow psychologically. They need to become independent so that they can come to understand their interdependence on a wide range of people, not just one person. This is the second step to their eventual triumph. Although the outside forces encourage division and isolation, to accept such isolation is a mistake. When the Baker abandons the others after the death of his Wife, he meets the Mysterious Man, his father, who years before had abandoned him after the death of his mother. In "No More" the Mysterious Man counsels the Baker that such isolation, while physically possible, is mentally impossible and spiritually damaging: "Trouble is, son, / The farther you run, / The more you feel undefined / For what you have left undone / And, more, what you've left behind." When the Baker returns to the others, they pool their ideas and their abilities to defeat the giant, and as they put their plan into action, they sing, in "No One Is Alone" what they've learned: that as individuals they are helpless. They need to connect with others and understand how their actions affect others in the human community in order to accomplish anything. They dismiss their previous divisions and isolation: "People make mistakes, / Holding to their own, / Thinking they're alone." Instead, one's actions touch many others: "You move just a finger, / Say the slightest word, / Something's bound to linger, / Be heard. / No one acts alone."
The play's finale, the last reprise of "Into the Woods," is an antithesis to the end of Sweeney Todd. There we saw a vision of people thrust apart by their own hate and greed. Here, all the characters return in a final dance, not divided, as the Act One finale was, by class lines, but homogeneous and joyous. And instead of singling us out as Sweeneys, the cast points out our interdependence: "The way is dark, / The light is dim, / But now there's you, / Me, her and him." Our awareness of and willingness to act on this interdependence is necessary for the creation of the kind of society where love relationships, like Tony's and Maria's and the Baker's and the Baker's Wife's, can flourish.
Source: Robert L. McLaughlin, "‘No One Is Alone’: Society and Love in the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim," in Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 27-41.
Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman, "Fairy Tale," in A Handbook to Literature, Prentice Hall, 2003, pp. 203-204.
Leithauser, Brad, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway," in New York Review of Books, February 10, 2000, pp. 35-49.
Lovensheimer, Jim, "Stephen Sondheim and the Musical of the Outsider," in Cambridge Companion to the Musical, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 181-96.
McLaughlin, Robert L., "‘No One Is Alone’: Society and Love in the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim," in Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 27-41.
Sondheim, Stephen, and James Lapine, Into the Woods, Theatre Communications Group, 1987.
Sutton, Brian, "Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods," in the Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 4, Summer 1997, pp. 233-36.
"Tales of Magic and Wonder from Ancient Egypt," in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995.
Van Leer, David, "Putting It Together: Sondheim and the Broadway Musical," in Raritan, Vol. 7, No. 2, Fall 1987, pp. 113-28.
Banfield, Stephen O., Sondheim's Broadway Musicals, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Along with an overview of Sondheim's personal and professional background, Banfield turns to a more detailed discussion of each of Sondheim's Broadway musicals. His examination includes all of Sondheim's works fromWest Side Story to Into the Woods.
Maguire, Gregory, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Musical Tie-in Edition), Harper Paperbacks, 2004.
This musical builds on the well-known story of The Wizard of Oz, in which the reader learns about the early life of the Wicked Witch of the West. This book was adapted for the musical stage to great success.
Tatar, Maria M., The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism, W. W. Norton, 1999.
Divided into six types of fairy tales, the numerous stories collected in this book are drawn from cultures all over the world and throughout history. Each story is preceded by an introduction and includes annotations. Critical essays by a wide range of scholars put fairy tales in a broader literary and historical perspective.
Zipes, Jack, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry, Routledge, 1997.
Zipes reviews the history and cultural relevance of fairy tales from ancient days to modern times. He pays special attention to how (and why) fairy tales have evolved over time, and what cultures and businesses have done to use fairy tales for their own purposes.