Into the Woods
by Meghan Brunner
“Once upon a time… in a far-off kingdom…”
It’s the beginning of every fairy tale, so why not the beginning of a musical about all of them? While the narrator of Into the Woods starts off the way you’d expect, and the tales do follow the expected course (if you go by the original, bloody stories instead of Disney’s prettied-up versions), they prove that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that the reader never hears about.
For example, did you know that Little Red Riding Hood knew Jack of beanstalk fame? Or Rapunzel had older brother, who grew up and inherited the family baking business (guess where Riding Hood gets her rolls)? That Cinderella’s remaining shoe was more valuable than she knew (though not for the reasons you might think)?
The story begins for all the characters with a single statement that rings through each tale: I wish.
Riding Hood (who is actually kind of a snot) wants to bring some bread to her granny in the woods. Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Jack just wants his pet cow to give some milk so he won’t have to sell her. His mother wants a son who’s not such an idiot. The witch who took Rapunzel all those years ago wants a reverse to the curse that was laid on her when the Baker’s father stole magic beans from her garden. This requires a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – and she can’t have touched any of them. So she put a curse of her own on the Baker’s family when he was just a boy, and so now he and his wife must find the items before midnight in three days’ time to get their wish: a child.
And so into the woods everyone must go to seek their heart’s desire, crossing paths and helping (and occasionally hindering) each other as they go. More than most musicals, this one focuses on character development. The songs are simple – often stark – and thoughtful, without much in the way of dancing that would detract from the words.
The first act ends with a happily ever after (for most – these are the original tales), and could have easily ended there. However, the second act addresses the consequences of the characters’ seemingly innocent actions. The witch locked Rapunzel in a tower to keep her safe, but have you ever thought about what isolation for sixteen years will do to a girl’s head? Cinderella has her life of ease, but now she’s bored. The princes won their dream girls, but as one later points out, they were “raised to be charming, not sincere” and go looking for their next conquests. The baker and his wife have one child, but babies are a lot more work than the baker bargained for… and his wife wants another. And a bigger house. In the tales we’re told to root for Jack – but did you ever stop to think that he’s a thief and a murderer? What happens when the wife of the giant he kills comes looking for justice?
With a giant who has lost her glasses on the loose, the royal family makes a journey through the woods to go into hiding… only to find that they’re no more safe than the peasants who are doing the same (and/or trying to address the issue). The characters are divided among who is at fault, everyone certain, of course, that it’s not them. The witch (Bernadette Peters – if you didn’t love her before, you will now) takes the more pragmatic approach that it doesn’t matter what’s good or nice; she’s just right, and if they don’t listen to her, they’ll all be dead. It’s a very real threat; you’re reminded that this is no children’s tale as the body count climbs, and it’s pretty indiscriminate.
The show closes with the ends mostly tied up… but are they? The Baker begins to tell their story to his infant son with the lines the narrator used to open the show, leaving you to wonder if perhaps the entire tale was his telling as the final song encompasses all that the cast has learned:
“Careful the wish you make, wishes are children.
Careful the path they take, wishes come true,
Careful the spell you cast, not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see
And turn against you…
Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell.”
Into the Woods is a wonderful, thought-provoking show, and the Broadway version is brilliantly acted. Even those who don’t like musicals often like this one, and those who do will fall in love.
Meghan has been telling stories for as long as she’s been able to talk and will continue doing so until there is no sky left to hear them. In 1994 she auditioned for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, and it wasn’t long before the world of Renaissance entertainers fell subject to her pen. More than half her life, three books, and a Unicorn Award* later, she’s still picking up speed… and loving it.
*lifetime achievement award for entertainers at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival
The author may be contacted through her website at: http://www.faire-folk.com