into the woods and out again

the reality of the fairy-tale musical

The Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods” debuted on Broadway in 1987 and won 10 Tony Awards. Twenty-seven years later in 2014, a film adaptation produced by Disney hit the big screen. “Into the Woods” begins with a number of different fairy-tale-esque stories that each require going—where else?—into the woods. Once in the woods, the characters meet and the plots intertwine, creating a new fantasy story. But the magic in this musical produces less happiness than might be expected: When the curtain falls, a typically fairy-tale ending is nowhere to be found, and the story’s true-to-life expressions resonate with the audience.

The musical begins by immediately combining characters and plot elements from many known stories—Cinderella, Jack and his Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, a witch and a curse, wishes and magic, princes and balls. But in the first act, this fairy-tale realm, though fractured, remains firmly rooted in the expected. Cinderella goes to the ball and finds her prince. The Baker and his wife break the curse and get a child. The witch wants, and gets, eternal youth and beauty. Jack steals riches from the giant at the top of the beanstalk. Typical fairy-tale endings, right? Perhaps, but the musical has just begun; this is only the first act.

After intermission the plot delves into what happens after happily ever after. Cinderella’s royal life bores her. The Baker and his wife bicker. Jack yearns for the world in the clouds. Fairy-tale life turns into something that looks weirdly like … life.

And then, in the midst of these unsatisfying, supposedly happy endings, all hell breaks loose.

A giant climbs down an accidental beanstalk and begins to wreak havoc on the kingdom below her large feet, searching for revenge. Realizing they must sacrifice someone, the characters repeatedly attempt to throw blame on each other, creating a seemingly endless cycle of pointing fingers. The audience’s preconceived notions of how certain characters would and should act are shattered as the characters exceed the bounds of their typical roles. During the mayhem, the land is demolished and a series of characters are killed, including Jack’s mother, Rapunzel, the Baker’s wife, the witch, and finally the giant. With this, the musical asks what blame really accomplishes other than further destruction.

Parents often read fairy tales to their children, so what better place than a fairy-tale musical for coming-of-age messages? Jack searches for adventure in the vast world. Red Riding Hood discovers things she never knew before. Characters change within the woods, an arena, a bubble removed from the day-to-day. But maybe that isn’t the best representation of what the woods are. Maybe instead of being a space separate from the real world, the woods encapsulate the musical’s most realistic depiction of the real world. After all, for characters who have a magic-filled existence, wouldn’t the real world—the world beyond fairy tales, the space the audience lives in—be a crazy place to visit? And that’s just what they experience inside the woods. Suddenly characters wonder about purpose and fulfillment and what is the right thing to do.

At its core, “Into the Woods” offers a reflection of real life. The painstakingly fairy-tale façade creates a presentation that leaves audiences stunned. Against all expectations, the mythical world produces some decidedly un-mythical themes: Success and wish fulfillment do not necessarily equal happiness; people want to place blame when bad things happen. Digging deeper uncovers a moral truth: People are not all good or all bad, as so often happens in fantasy worlds. Rather, everyone has some of both. The witch throws away her eternal youth and beauty, opting for death (or at least disappearance), when others don’t listen to the truths she spouts. The Baker’s wife has a brief affair with one of the princes. Justice and warranted happiness are rarities in the world of “Into the Woods.” What character really deserves punishment, blame, or a fairy-tale ending? Perhaps that is another theme, that just because something happens doesn’t mean the person deserves what happened.

But the context of these messages provide the musical’s success. After all, people already know most of these truths to some extent. The first act’s simple fairy-tale pace creates a relaxing environment, letting viewers settle in to what they believe will be an easy, comfortable show. And then, right after the plot reaches its most straightforward moment, there is a pause—intermission—and a plunge into the disarray of reality. This sharp reversal shocks and surprises and makes the real content clearer and more salient.

In the final musical number, characters yearn for what could have been. They realize that life continues even though people make mistakes. The song’s title “Children Will Listen” alludes to the great influence parents have on their offspring, but the lyrics touch on the reality that everyone has to grow up eventually. Continuing on this strain, the verses repeat the tune of an earlier song, “No One Is Alone,” which mentions that everyone—including parents—makes mistakes and that, though parents can guide their children, they cannot make their children’s decisions. As the show nears its musical conclusion, the characters almost seem content with—or at least resigned to—the show’s events, but the last words echo out into the audience: “I wish…”