Thursday, January 01, 2015

Into the Woods

I'm teaching a class this coming semester on fairy-tales and fairy-tale adaptations. It's gonna be sweet; I'm incorporating some of the best short stories and poetry I can find, as well as turning to TV and film adaptations.

And I think I'll end the class with a two- or three-day lesson on the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. If you're not familiar with this play, it weaves together several of the most iconic Western fairy-tales into one story which ends up being, in some respects, an anti-fairy-tale.

The story starts with several characters wishing for something. Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, Jack wishes his cow would give some milk, and Little Red Riding Hood wishes for some bread to give her granny. The lynchpin that holds all of these stories together is a Baker and his Wife, who have been cursed by the local Witch to be childless. They, of course, wish for a child.

At first all of these wishes seem disconnected, the isolated dreams of people whose wishes could never interfere with each other's. But it turns out each person's wish affects someone else's. And the overarching wish is the Witch's, who wants to be young and beautiful again. To do that, she needs a potion filled with special ingredients--a cow as white, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold. You see where this is going . . .

She cons the couple into finding these ingredients for her, promising to lift the curse when they do. But as they go out into the woods, they find that following their quest for a child sometimes means taking away someone else's wish. How can Jack get his wish, to keep his best friend the Cow, if the Baker and his Wife take the Cow? How can Red Riding Hood remain safe in the woods if they steal her cape? (They don't, but she doesn't stay safe anyways; capes are not good protection.) How can Cinderella dance with the prince at the festival if her golden shoe is taken? And how can Rapunzel ever escape from the tower if they cut off her golden braid?

Basically, getting what you want means someone else doesn't get what they want. Wishing is selfish.

The first song, the Prologue, makes it clear that this is not a new issue; singleminded, selfish wishing started this whole problem when the Baker's father stole the Witch's greens (and her magic beans) for his pregnant wife, thus causing her to age and grow ugly, thus causing her to curse his family. I guess it's a bit like that old OUAT saw, "Magic always comes with a price." Except this time it's wishing.

At the end of the first act, however, the conflict between the different wishes has been resolved. Everyone has their wish, and they all seem poised to live happily ever after.

Except for two niggling things.

First, at her mother's grave, Cinderella was asked the question: "Are you certain what you wish is what you want?" The first time I saw Into the Woods, before I knew what to expect, this question, thrown away in the middle of a song, rang out like a gong in my head. How many times had I asked myself that same question? How many times had I gotten what I wished, only to find out it wasn't what I wanted? Even as I watched every character get their wish, that question seemed a warning. (Well, also the fact that it was only the end of Act One.)

Second, the beanstalk. The second beanstalk.

The second half of the show is when everything goes to shit. Because, in real life, even when the story seems over, the story continues. And there are always consequences. (See above, re: magic and prices.)

Jack, after escaping from the giant with the harp to buy his Cow back from the Baker, chopped down the stalk and killed the giant. Now, after everyone's happily-ever-after, the Giantess from above has come down the second beanstalk to seek revenge for her husband's death. A lot of sad, senseless things happen; Rapunzel, Jack's mother, and the Baker's Wife each die accidentally. And ultimately, Jack has to help kill the Giantess, his friend, the "lady giant" who gave him food and rest and affection.

The second half of the show dispels the magical thinking that people so often associate with fairy-tales. Nobody's happily-ever-after looks like what they hoped it would look like. The Baker and his Wife realize that having a child is a lot of work. The Princes get bored with their wives. The Witch gains her youth and beauty, only to lose her daughter Rapunzel. Things go wrong for the characters who thought of themselves as "good," while their enemies are unmasked as not merely "bad," but as people who are motivated by the same urges--grief, revenge, lust, boredom, etc.--that drive themselves.

The glorious thing about this musical is that it comments on almost any universal literary theme you can think of: Age vs. youth, experience vs. innocence, parents vs. children, good vs. bad (or, in one of the play's most pointed lyrics, good vs. "nice"). If fairy-tales are the ur-stories that continue to get retold and remixed and recast in literature and film ad infinitum, then Into the Woods is the uber-story. It has it all.

The film version of which, directed by Rob Marshall, was released on Christmas Day. I saw it last Friday and loved it. It is a decent and enjoyable film adaptation of the musical; the acting from almost everyone was top-notch, but I particularly loved Emily Blunt's Baker's Wife. However, the film does gloss over or leave out some pretty important material--Rapunzel's death, the Mysterious Man, the Princes' boredom with their wives, the touching relationship between Jack and the Giantess. I'm thinking about asking my students to read the book/libretto of the musical and compare it to the film in the last week of class, but I don't have any experience teaching from a musical script, so I'll have to do my homework ahead of time. Anyone got any tips for using texts like this in a classroom?


Shelby Knighten said...

Hello! I am one of the students that will be taking your fairy tale course this semester! I have been reading your recent entires about fairy tales! I'm having crazy chills right now because I absolutely LOVE _Into the Woods_ (way too much, truthfully). I thought of emailing you and asking if you would be including it on the syllabus. I have written two research papers on _Woods_, and I have found some great critical articles through my academic research if you are interested. I'm not sure if you are aware but the original Broadway cast has been filmed. Digital Theatre also recorded the 2010 Regent's Park production; the production was staged completely in an outdoor theatre. It is totally awesome; the artistic team made some great choices which reveal some new layers to the story and emphasize the theme of parenting! You should definitely check it out! Just google Digital Theatre. I'm so excited you have chosen to incorporate this text into the course! Thank you!

Kate Lechler said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Shelby. I have seen the filmed version of the original Broadway version and have lots of thoughts on the differences between the two. I haven't seen the Regent's Park production that you mention, though; I will look it up. Thanks for the recommendation! I can't wait to talk about this in class and am excited that you are so knowledgable and enthusiastic about it. :)