Into the Woods (1991)
Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
Directed by James Lapine
For a minute, I thought about rewatching the Frank Marshall-directed version of this musical, but the idea of watching James Corden turned my stomach enough to find an alternative. So I decided to finally check out this film of the original Broadway cast’s performance. It may not have the digital effects and “star power” of the 2014 motion picture, but it is the complete musical being done by highly talented people, and I loved it. I was able to see the entire story, all the scenes and songs deleted from the Disney movie, and the result was a story with much more cohesive themes and a maturity the film ultimately lacks.
A Narrator (Tom Aldredge) introduces the audience to some familiar fairy tale characters. There’s Cinderella (Kim Crosby), pining for life beyond slaving for her step-sisters. Jack (Ben Wright) loves his pet cow but is pressured by his mother to sell her. Little Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland) arrives at a Baker’s (Chip Zien) shop, where she tells him about visiting her grandmother. A Witch (Bernadette Peters) shows up after Red leaves and tells the Baker and his Wife (Joanna Gleeson) that there is a curse on him due to the sins of his father. This curse means the Baker will never have children, but she gives him a list of items that, if gathered, will break the spell.
Events play out much like the original stories, with the Baker and his wife crossing paths with everyone as it turns out they each have an item needed to break the spell. It’s clear through the songs that everyone is discovering things about themselves, and the young characters are going through a sexual awakening. The great twist of the tale comes at the start of the second act when we keep following the characters after their famous stories end. We see how dissatisfied they are, feeling as if something is missing and that there is no happily ever after. What’s actually going on is that real-life experience is being imposed on these fantasy figures. Like our lives, there is never a clear endpoint. If a milestone happens, we do not fade to black; instead, we keep living. This means victories do not last forever, and old troubles can rear their head again. When we attain those things we believe will improve life, we regularly find our mood is not improved.
Stephen Sondheim was in his early/mid-40s when he wrote Into the Woods, which shows in the underlying themes of the production. The play is basically a person reflecting on the stories from their childhood, with the added knowledge of thirty-plus years of adulthood, and thinking about how life did not turn out the way they imagined as a child. Characters must deal with relationships, infidelity, anxiety related to sex, fears of becoming a parent, and dissatisfaction with where you are in life. They don’t find easy answers either, and some pretty important characters die throughout the story. These moments are genuinely painful, and we see the grief in affected characters, contemplating a future without all of their loved ones.
It always felt strange that Disney would want to make a film out of this musical because it stands in direct opposition to the brand they endlessly promote. Disneyworld is considered a place where “dreams come true,” We all know that’s a statement that cannot be lived up to. If you’ve ever been to Disney and listened to the conversations around you, you will quickly become aware of how unhappy such a place can be. My last time at Disney, I remember being in the line for the monorail in the evening and hearing and watching families argue with each other. I’m sure they had moments of joy on a ride or walking around the park, but reality breaks through filters we put up. We will always have to return to our mundane lives and deal with our problems.
The crucial relationship in the musical is between The Baker and his Wife. They desire to have a child and follow the Witch’s instructions to make it happen. But, running around in the woods leads them to know each other better than before, and they don’t necessarily like what they see in the other person. They find everything they need and have their child but completely change during the first act. Their life before the start of the play is surface level. They run the bakery, they clean, wash-rinse-repeat. They don’t really know who each other is. That’s an experience any couple married for a long time will have, and it doesn’t have to end up as bleak as Into the Woods. Through the pandemic, I’ve become closer to my wife than ever before, and we both can’t imagine a life without the other at all now. Hard times can strengthen relationships if the people involved are open and honest about their mental health and how life feels. But many other people are scared of that level of intimacy even with people they have had sex and children with, they share a home with. Vulnerability with another person is one of the scariest things in life and an experience that can be rewarding beyond measure.
Sondheim’s Into the Woods is a beautiful adult fairy tale that never once tries to talk down to the audience. Its story was relevant in the late 1980s and still resonates today. Life is tough to get through, and you’re going to learn things about yourself that might make you proud or feel shame. That’s okay; it’s how things have always been. When we don’t confront our lives headfirst, we never really live them; we just exist. There’s never going to be a Happily Ever After, but there can be moments of joy between everything else, and that’s beautiful. We know that there will be brief oases from the turmoil of existence from time to time. One of the last songs in the play is the wonderful No One Is Alone. Its words remind us that we have to live collectively because we’re connected. Trying to do our own thing and see ourselves as a singular main character is foolish.