Into the Woods, the fairy-tale musical written by the award-winning team of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, is one of Sondheim's most frequently performed works, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the play. There is an ensemble cast with excellent parts, beautiful music, a compelling and engaging story, and, perhaps best of all, a feel-good ending. For these reasons, among others, Into the Woods has become a standard among school, community, and regional theaters. However, in the formulation of this fantastic quest of a Baker, his wife and many other more familiar fairy-tale characters, Lapine and Sondheim have crafted a show that still manages to strike very close to home. There are messages and motifs throughout the show that go beyond the framework of a typical flight of fancy, and continue to stay with us long after we have left the theater. The temptation exists to forget about these sobering themes in the pursuit of light-hearted entertainment, but these are lessons that cannot be easily dismissed, and they provide the backbone of this piece. At its core, Into the Woods is not so much about fantasy as it is about reality.
It is difficult to encapsulate all of the disparate messages of Into the Woods into a single theme, but the engine that drives everything else in the show is the absence of absolutes. There are many smaller issues, such as tolerance and understanding, which fall into the greater category of challenging the assumptions we make about ourselves and others. A vast majority of the characters in the play are definitely not what they seem, despite our instinct or desire to neatly categorize them. Who are the good guys? The Baker prepares to leave his son out of his own self-pity and insecurity, Little Red Riding Hood kills the wolf and makes a spectacle out of wearing his skin, Jack kills the giant stealing a golden harp that neither him nor his mother particularly need, the Baker's Wife commits adultery, etc. etc. However, these are done in such a way as to make these actions acceptable and understandable, and sometimes, even sympathetic.
A major indication that our assumptions about characters are being challenged is the treatment of the princes. Very little is placed into a Sondheim show without careful deliberation, and one of the strongest and most interesting decisions made in the show is the casting of the same actor to play the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince. The juxtaposition of the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods is one of the most crucial character decisions in the show, and a barometer of how much a particular director and production staff understand the work. Double-casting in Into the Woods is a conscious choice that is made to enhance the script and to create intentional links between characters in a show, and the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince are linked together in a number of different ways. Little Red Riding Hood thinks of herself as a tough adult, and she has always had a fascination with taking care of herself. This independence is manifested her insistence on going through the woods by herself and the absence in the show of a physical mother who directs her. That autonomy is mirrored in another one of the female characters, the Baker's Wife, who believes in her own ability to get through the woods unharmed. Her self-confidence is so profound that she tries to guide the Baker on his quest, because she feels that he will only be successful with her assistance. The Wolf and Cinderella's Prince provide opportunities for Little Red and the Baker's Wife to live out their fantasies, to disastrous ends. The methods of the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince are the keys in this equation because of their similarities. Both encounters (the Wolf/Little Red and Cinderella's Prince/Baker's Wife) are essentially seduction scenes, done from a very selfish perspective (the wolf does it to glean information about the grandmother and the little girl, and the prince does it to have another "moment" for himself). These scenes are also textually linked by the line "one would be so boring", which is spoken to both Little Red and the Baker's Wife.
By linking the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince in these ways, Lapine and Sondheim are playing off of the audience expectations for the wolf, as a predatory being, and then using those expectations to subvert the expectations of the prince. The prince from the first act is, for the most part, a fairly noble figure, and in the absence of a second act the splitting of parts may make some sense. However, starting from Act II Agony, we begin to realize that the Princes are not the noble, essentially good people that we had envisioned, but self-aggrandizing young men. This transformation becomes complete when Cinderella's Prince seduces the Baker's Wife, when the wolf aspect of the prince's character must come out, and all vestiges of nobility are lost. That does not make them bad people, but it brings us down to earth about our expectations about princes. The union of the prince/wolf reveals how they are two sides to the same coin, and that our desire to make them an object of our wishes is to place our trust in false ideals. The songs sung right after Little Red's and the Baker's Wife's realization of what happened, "I Know Things Now" and "Moments in the Woods" are both rife with uncertainty, and though morals are being stated, these morals are not clear for either one - "I should have heeded her advice, but he seemed so nice...Isn't it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not" or "Why not both instead, there's the answer if you're clever...Let the moment go, don't forget it for a moment, though". It is part of the breaking down of absolute rights and wrongs.
On the flip side, who are the bad guys? The Witch is the obvious choice, but most of that comes from her having the clearest vision of anyone in the piece. She hides Rapunzel away because she wants to protect Rapunzel from all the evil forces in the world, forces that eventually lead to Rapunzel's death (though the Witch's overprotection cripples Rapunzel's coping skills, and compounds the problem). The witch also wants to turn young so Rapunzel will love her, and she wishes to throw Jack to the Giantess because otherwise the Giantess will kill them all. In the second act, after Rapunzel dies and leaves the Witch devoid of emotion, she is the voice of pure reason that cuts through everyone's emotional defenses - telling the stepmother that there is nowhere to hide, confronting Little Red about how the wolf's mother feels, weighing the life of one against the lives of many. The Witch's key line - "you're so nice, you're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right."
What about the Giantess? She comes down and threatens to kill everyone until she finds the boy. But the unasked question is why was she down there in the first place? The only reason she returns is to exact vengeance on a boy who she took in and treated like her own child ("She gives you food and she gives you rest, and she draws you close to her giant breast") because he betrayed her trust by stealing her gold, her hen *and* her harp, and then killed her husband. In the tree, Jack demands to kill the Steward, who killed his mother, because "what he did was wrong, and he must be punished". That double standard exposes our prejudices towards hoping that there's a right and a wrong, and because of that often goes unnoticed. The Baker's response says a lot about the Baker's personal growth - "Wrong things, right things, who can say what's true". This revelation is especially salient after the Baker's own experience with the Mysterious Man exposing the Baker's own failings. However, who does she actually kill? She kills Rapunzel, but that was because Rapunzel ran under her feet (I'm making the assumption that since she was near-sighted, she would not have been aware of a little woman running underneath, and therefore killed her maliciously), and she kills the Narrator because she was deceived by the group into thinking that he was Jack. She does a great deal of damage to property and completely uproots several homes, but very little actual malicious damage to people, and certainly not much more than the Steward or the Baker/Granny/Little Red or even the birds that blinded the stepsisters. And, that destruction actually assists Cinderella's awakening, for if her tree had not been destroyed, she would not have been forced back into the wood and then been exposed to her husband's deception. We deceive ourselves so much by our emotional self-righteousness and our insistence on clear-cut black/white that we lose sight of the gray. This is not to say that they should have done what the Witch demanded, but rather to establish that pure evil, like pure good, simply does not exist.
The key to accomplishing this goal is not only by knocking down the prince or the giantess or the witch to our level, but by realizing that that we are all on the same level. There is a constant attempt by the witch to equate wolves and humans, not only in "Stay with Me", but in her accusation of Little Red in the second act - "Since when are you so squeamish, how many wolves have you carved up? (Little Red) A wolf's not the same. (W) Ask a wolf's mother!" This humanizing of the wolf (why else is the wolf anatomically correct?) has the effect of moderating a lot of the evil that we normally associate with wolves, even though we don't really know a whole lot about them. That is, after all, the big problem with wish fulfillment, we often make wishes about something without realizing what exactly we are wishing for. Then, there's no way to tell what is going to happen if and when our wishes come true. The wolf cloak that Little Red shows off to Jack is an attractive accouterment from her perspective, if you forget the fact that the skin over her shoulders used to be a live creature. Her cape also has the effect of numbing her to violence and inciting Jack to go get the harp, which ends up in the death of the male Giant and the coming down of the Giantess.... Obviously, the whole thing is interconnected. But, the same can be said of the Prince, who is an object of the wishes of Cinderella and the Baker's Wife. Let us not forget that Cinderella's Prince falls in desperate love with Cinderella after only a short meeting ("we did nothing but dance"). That, while a nice romantic concept, really is not the basis of a long-term relationship, and explains not only Agony II, but his infidelity in the wood. His explanation of his behavior says it all - "I was raised to be charming, not sincere. I did not ask to be born a prince, and I am not perfect. I am only human." In other words, he plays the exterior part of ideal prince, but no one could possibly live it all.
This leads to the further examination of wish fulfillment. This biased view of others also affects our view of ourselves, and what we perceive we need. We cannot dream for ourselves as individuals, we must wish for what is good for everybody, otherwise our desires become counterproductive. And it is not as simple as saying "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it", it is being cognizant of the fact that what we wish for are things we truly do not need - and the more we pursue our wishes, the greater the tendency to ignore what we possess in the search for what we want. If we start thinking that there is just one piece missing from our lives, one task left unaccomplished, then we fall into the dangerous trap of risking success. What happens when you achieve that "final goal"? You're left wondering "is that all" or "what next". After all, "wishes come true, not free".
This does not mean that disaster has struck because the characters in the play have 'strayed from the path'. The implications of that statement are, as far as I can tell, that a) there is a "straight path", and that b) that "straight path" is a superior one. Since we're getting into realms of symbolism here, there's no way for any of us to be certain that we're correct, but I would argue that the giants represent the fact that the "straight path" which we THINK exists truly does not. The giant is not just an obstacle to happiness and a plot device to make things interesting in the second act, but a force that makes us realize that we cannot operate in isolation. It is only by realizing that we are not alone, that we need others to exist and survive, that the characters in the show are enabled to defeat the giant. If there were a "straight path", we could exist alone, each following our own independent paths, calling on others for help if an obstacle suddenly impeded out progress, but then resuming the journey. The giant causes a collision of their fates, intertwining them. That is the reason the giant is down there in the first place. Everyone sought their own private end in the first act, and everyone's independent actions combined to make this disaster happen. Jack's killing of the first giant would not have been possible if the MM hadn't climbed into the witch's garden, causing the witch to curse the family, causing the Baker and the Baker's Wife to seek a potion, causing the first deception of Jack, causing the baker to kill the Wolf, whose skin Little Red showed off to Jack, who had gone up a second time to get more gold because he wanted to get Milky White, and if there were no sixth bean then Cinderella couldn't have thrown it over her shoulder which meant that there would have been no way the second giant could have come down, etc. etc. Their fates are already intertwined, they just don't know it. Truly, no one is alone.
This song is the culmination of a number of vital themes, and resolves a lot of issues that the show has brought up. Many people have dismissed this song as Sondheim's descent into a Hammerstein-esque moralism (please don't get me wrong, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing). 'No One Is Alone' definitely has that surface element of reassurance in there, with the older, more experienced Baker and Cinderella comforting Jack and Little Red. However, historical precedent indicates that Sondheim would not write a simple "it's okay, I'm here so everything is all right" song. When he writes a song like that, it tends to be laced with such irony of lyric or of situation that it stings a nerve as opposed to merely uplifts. Other songs that come to mind are "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney (which for some reason I find absolutely terrifying) and "Our Time" from Merrily. In 'No One is Alone', there are several plot developments that give the song additional significance.
First of all, at that point in the story, everybody *is* alone. The Baker has lost his wife and his father, Cinderella has lost her tree and her prince, Little Red has lost her mother and her grandmother, and Jack has lost his mother. Plus they're all about to face the giant, a position from which they are not certain they will escape alive. So when the Baker and Cinderella sing this song, they are trying to strengthen themselves, as well as the younger ones. The lyric is laced with this kind of self-awareness. Cinderella sings "Mother cannot guide you/now you're on your own/only me beside you/still you're not alone/no one is alone". That word, *still*, coming after 'only me', is absolutely vital to the tone of the song. She is not saying that 'since I'm here, you do not have to go through life by yourself', she is saying 'despite the fact that I'm the only one who is presently here to share your grief, you have not lost everything, because nobody is completely alone'. She then continues with "sometimes people leave you/halfway through the wood/others may deceive you/you decide what's good/you decide alone/but, no one is alone." Cinderella is trying to convince herself of the rightness of what she's saying to Little Red. They are both drawing strength from each other. The same thing happens with Jack and the Baker, where the Baker takes the responsibility to teach Jack that he can't kill the Steward. This is the lesson he learned from his father, not to run away. Finally the song ends with "someone is on your side" which is left unresolved because of the arrival of the giant. Sondheim makes use of this mystical "someone" throughout his work, most notably in 'Being Alive' from Company. The first verse of that song mentions "someone to hold you too close/someone to hurt you too deep", etc. There is a distance in the use of that word "someone", which lends it a safe impersonality and noncommitment. They don't say during 'No One Is Alone' that I'm on your side, they say someone is on your side. It is not until after the song, and their victory over the giant, that they commit to one another.
That is one of the other major purposes of 'No One Is Alone' - the idea that you're not alone because all of your actions affect everybody else, and you can't escape responsibility for those actions. People, like it or not, are inextricably interconnected. We cannot act in a bubble, like the characters in Act I and even the Baker's Wife during her 'moment in the wood' tend to do. The scathing commentary made during Your Fault is especially powerful because every single thing that is said is true. Everyone is at fault for the events that have befallen, but the point is, who cares? At that point, blame is irrelevant. That is what the Witch understands, "well if that's the thing you enjoy/placing the blame/if that's the aim/give me the blame/just give me the boy". Action needs to be taken. However, there is the extremely positive message that it is only by working together, and forming a community, that problems which are much too large for us individually to overcome can be conquered together. Collective blame, but also collective solution.
Tolerance and understanding come when individuals stop putting some people down and others on pedestals. We cannot act in isolation, nor should we want to for we can accomplish individually only a fraction of the things we can accomplish communally. Appreciate what you have, realize what you want, accept what you can't have, but discover what you are capable of. It is only when we start accepting each other's faults and acknowledging each other's strengths, then we can join together to combat the giants that face us all.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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