Into the Woods was my first introduction to the works of Stephen Sondheim. If you grew up reading the fairy-tale stories from the Brothers Grimm, you would know the stories that Into the Woods covers – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood. These fairy-tale stories all take place… in the woods. It goes without saying, that this article contains major spoilers for Into the Woods, so readers – beware!
Cinderella opens the musical with the song “I wish”. In fact, they all wish. Cinderella wishes to go the festival/ball to see the prince. She does end up going to the festival, every night, and Prince Charming pursues her repeatedly. In getting her desires of attending the festival, Cinderella did not anticipate the impact she, in her gown and glass slippers, would have in having the prince pursue her. If we follow her story right through, we will see they get their “happily ever after” midway. However, the prince remains unsatisfied and cheats on Cinderella because his nature is about being charming, and nothing more. Beneath, his morals and ambitions remain. Cinderella also finds palace living empty and reverts to her freedom in the woods.
Jack & the Beanstalk
Jack starts off as a simple lad, with his cow, Milky White. He wishes for the cow to provide milk and even some cheese. His mother wishes for a lot of things – but it goes from simple ambition to idealistic “walls were full of gold”. In his journey, he ends up trading his cow for magic beans, which lead him off on an adventure into the clouds. Egged on, partly through misunderstanding from Little Red Riding Hood, he goes back for more. Cutting down the beanstalk and killing the giant would also make more than just a thief, but a murderer. In the second act, the consequences of his actions, with the giant’s wife seeking revenge and wreaking the kingdom has a dedicated song number “Your Fault”.
Little Red Riding Hood
Her initial wish is - literally - not for herself, for her poor old granny in the woods – a loaf of bread please. However, her greed and selfishness is quite obvious as she continues to raid and take all the goodies from the baker. And then, she ends up eating most along the way to her granny. It is telling – even if it is a song lyric – that “for all I know, she’s (granny) already dead” the morals of Red are lacking. Her encounter with Mr Wolf (Hello) is part of the corrupting influence exerted on her and if it weren’t for the baker’s actions, Red and Granny would both be finished. Instead, Red goes on to survive and become a companion to Jack.
Jack and Red represent the youth in the story, who start naïve and simple-minded. Their journey and character development helps them realise life is more complicated and that often, actions have consequences.
The Baker / Rapunzel
The link between all stories is this one. The childless baker is in fact the older brother to Rapunzel, with the backstory of his father stealing greens from the neighbouring witch triggering and setting much in motion. Stealing the magic beans is what cost the witch her beauty, although it is interesting to see that reversing the curse did not leave her with her magical powers. The baker is the main character who we follow as he sets off into the woods, to fetch, “The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold.” These items all come from the other characters / fairy tales, and thus the Woods brings them all together.
Rapunzel isn’t a main character, but her relationship with the Witch is an interesting dynamic, best seen in the song during Act 2 – Stay With Me. The Witch sought to control her “child” but the suppression and longing for freedom resulted in Rapunzel’s rebellion. Coupled with the other song “Children Will Listen”, there is reconciliation before both Witch and Rapunzel meet their demise.
Lessons from Into the Woods
It goes without saying – there are more obvious lessons from Into the Woods. Don’t steal or be greedy (Baker’s father, Red, Jack). Was Cinderella wrong to wish to go to the ball? No, but she constantly ran away from the prince when she found herself the target of his unwanted desires. In the Broadway original, both princes cheat on their wives; their demise is implied and off-screen. Leadership from the court is lacking when the emergency of a giant loose in the land causes destruction and death.
All characters live in a far off kingdom, with the woods a separate location to their actual homes. Going into the woods is thus a big change, an instrument of adventure. It represents the uncertainty and the future. In our world, we have Christ who is the Alpha & Omega. He knows our future and gives us hope.
The items (cow, cape, hair, slipper) are symbols of hope for the Baker. Even then, as the means to an end (pregnancy and a child for the Baker), that is not the end. Instead, it is the beginning of Act 2, and all the consequences of their previous actions start to unravel. Life can be a cycle of action and reaction, and constant material desire. Placing our hope in the eternal can help transform our minds from ways of the world to God and heaven.
In this way, Into the Woods is not just a feel-good entertaining musical, with its catchy songs but the strong storylines and characters who develop throughout, provide plenty of material to analyse to find the deeper meanings and lessons of life.
Nic Lee works by day as a Business Analyst Consultant whilst, outside of business hours, maintains an IT support & website services business. He volunteers with 89.9 LightFM (Christian Community Radio). Nic has served for over twenty years in his local church, in worship, technology consulting, life group leading and event management.