Diving Into the Woods and the not so ‘happily ever after’ lifestyles of fairytale characters.
Every little girl has been raised on the romantically induced delusion of fairytales and happy endings. The ideas of a handsome prince, damsel in distress, and fire-breathing dragons are instilled in young minds before almost every bedtime. Yet when people say the word “fairytale” most minds drift to Walt Disney and the entire collection of beautiful princess stories he has created. However what most people seem to forget is that none of these stories were ever created straight from Mr. Disney. Where exactly did Walt get his inspiration?
It‘s doubtful that any conscientious mother would pull out a book of the Brothers Grimm fairytales to soothe her child to sleep each night; usually a bedtime story does not revolve around the ideas of cutting off toes or heels, banishment to the desert, violent blindness, and cooking people in ovens. Disney harnesses everything into a glowing light of happy endings, while the Grimm Brothers create a juxtaposition world that is dark, cold, and possesses a touch of cruel reality. The Grimm brothers show good winning over evil – without the sugar-coating projected by Walt Disney – and that not every story will have a beautiful ending. In the musical adaptation of many of their stories combined into one overall plot by composer Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods creates a reality world in the midst of a fairytale using the Grimm Brothers’ stories.
For the first act, people are able to soak in the magical lifestyle of the characters and their troubles, avoiding the reality and becoming engrossed in the classic fairytale. It then follows them further to explore the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests in the second act of the show.
The main characters are taken from the stories of Little Red Ridinghood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, and are all tied together by the main story of a baker and his wife. Each character has a wish in the beginning: Cinderella wants to go to the prince’s festival, Jack hopes for his cow to produce milk, and the baker and his wife wish to have a child. The stories collide when the ugly, wicked witch arrives at the baker‘s house. She tells him the story of his own father and mother, who were forced to give her their first child… Rapunzel. Although the first act follows the classic line up of the Grimm Brothers‘ stories, it also opens the walls for self-fulfillment and human nature as the characters travel into the woods to reach their dreams.
The Witch sends the baker to the woods to remove his family‘s barren curse (because of his parents‘ mistakes) by collecting four items; against his requests, his wife joins him and reminds him that it takes two to create a family. This also reminds the audience of the idea that a full family is important in life, whereas most fairytales usually only have one parent or none for the main characters. This family dynamic stretches even farther into the woods when the Witch realizes that Rapunzel has been seeing the prince; the Witch cares for Rapunzel, despite locking her away, and asks her to stay hidden, away from the world. Against her mother‘s request, Rapunzel begs to see the world, leading the Witch to banish her to the desert after cutting off her long, golden hair. So what is the overall connection for these tragic characters?
A wife wandering alone in the woods because of her husband‘s disagreements, Rapunzel banished because of a love-affair with a prince, and Cinderella‘s constant fear of being revealed, even after losing her shoe because of a trap of pitch laid out by the prince, all seem to have one problematic equalization: men.
No fairytale could be complete without the romantic aspect of a handsome prince. Into the Woods shows not one, but two princes. Rapunzel‘s and Cinderella‘s princes are originally shown in the light of the “tall, dark and handsome” stereotype throughout the first act. According to most fairytales set up by Disney, love comes just by looking at someone, or hearing them sing (to Disney, everyone in fairytales can sing at a perfect pitch and usually perfect harmony), and this one is no different.
After Cinderella‘s prince sees her at the festival, he is determined to catch her after she flees, without even knowing her name. Rapunzel‘s prince falls for his damsel just by the sound of her voice. Both princes are shown as strong, daring men who will stop at nothing to get what they crave. It is this, or what they consider to be, “agony” that shows them as characters in act one, and in act two are revealed to be just like any other man who prefers the chase rather than the reward.
As the first half comes to a close, everyone‘s happy ending is appearing to be in high spirits; Cinderella‘s foot fits in the slipper, the baker and his wife have a child, and Rapunzel finds her prince. Everyone is living out the perfect fairytale stereotypes that are expected. The Brothers Grimm stories have been completed. So the issue of where to go next arises. What comes after happily ever after?
The character‘s journeys do not end as the Brothers Grimm stories close, but instead take an even darker turn into a tragedy resulting from Jack‘s beanstalk adventure. The adaptation now becomes a story of its own. Drifting away from the classic plot, it leads the audience through the character‘s realization of reality and an even harsher acceptance of the truth they have created for themselves.
Even after the wishes have all come true, the characters long for something more. The second act focuses on the idea of the widowed giant coming to get revenge on Jack, after he killed her husband. But it is the side actions of the smaller, yet importantly realistic, characters that make the play breech reality lines.
While everyone else is drawn back into the woods to deal with the threat of the giant, the two princes have grown bored with their marriages and now lust after two new princesses – Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Their recent agonies of not being able to have what they want, has now faded and their cravings for more adventures are nipping at their heels; they develop a new, and highly dramatic, “agony” of wanting the unreachable (the newly discovered princesses), and regretfully remember that they have to return home to their wives at the end of the day, closing their adventures off once more. This lustful side of princes is never seen in the classic bedtime story princes and so Sondheim is working to show that not all princes are what they appear to be. Ironically, Cinderella’s prince and the wolf hunting Red Ridinghood, who are both shown as unable to control their appetites, are played by the same actor.
After having an affair with the baker‘s wife in the woods, Cinderella‘s prince makes the perfectly fitting statement of saying, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” The illusion of a perfect prince is completely shattered, providing a more realistic view of what was expected to be a happy ending. Unfortunately, a happy ending is not always achievable for everyone in the show.
In the end, our only main characters alive are Jack, Cinderella, Red Ridinghood and the Baker with his son. Any other character that had shown ravenous desires ends up facing a tragic death, including the two female leads of the Baker‘s wife and the Witch. This final scene shows that not all can survive with the fairytale lifestyle – it was not fit for some people. Now the characters that are left are forced to realize that they are not alone in their troubles and are able to face this fairytale lifestyle with courage and acceptance.
The troubling scenarios that are usually hidden from bedtime stories are put in Into the Woods as a reminder of the fact that reality does not have to be avoided in stories; instead, reality should be given a fresh new outlook. Each character learns a lesson by the end of the show, meshing fantasy and reality into a perfect blend. The show is able to cover multiple themes such as growing up, parents and children, accepting responsibility, morality, and especially wish-fulfillment and the consequences that come with it. William A. Henry III once said that the play’s “basic insight … is at heart; most fairytales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong — which is to say, almost everything that can — arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions.”
The human intentions shown in Into the Woods allow a stronger connection for audience members instead of the mundane, perfect love stories portrayed by Disney. People can relate more to these characters in their desires than those characters from a simple bedtime story. While those stories may be comforting and leave people feeling content, the lifestyles shown in Into the Woods leave some feeling satisfied with the fact that fairytale characters can be just as common as real people. Audience members can accept situations through this adaptation of small stories by seeing one basic fact wrapped up in song: Everyone is human. Everyone falters, yet pushes through to reach what is wanted most out of life. It‘s fitting that the most unpleasant person in the show would have the truest things to say as the witch connects with one last primal, humanly note by saying what most people wish they could: “I’m not good; I’m not nice; I’m just right.”
1. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “prologue” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiGRPYmTFV0
2. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “it takes two” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuiKujsm-5k
3. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “stay with me” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxg94OrOY9M
4. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “agony” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFgMowOwek0
5. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “ever after” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUzk2BC2Ssg
6. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “agony (reprise)” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=fvwp&v=UAPJTik5mSo
7. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “any moment/moments in the woods” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wy2ZftWX2pA
8. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “no one is alone” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xaxP_kErTU
9. Gemignani, P. (Writer) (1986). Into the woods “finale: children will listen” [Theater]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11jJu5hMrn8
10. Henry III, W. Time Magazine, November 16, 1987.
11. Liner Notes, Into the Woods CD, Sheryl Flatow, 1988, RCA Victor 6796-2-RC