I’ve been skirting round this for some time, now I have to plunge in. Let’s make one thing clear right from the start, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is the greatest living writer for musical theatre. Within the pantheon of The Greats you will find Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. When he wrote “Into the Woods” he was at the very peak of his considerable powers and it is this musical that I consider his masterpiece.
It takes two?
Early on in his career Sondheim collaborated with two composers, providing the lyrics for Bernstein in West Side Story and for Jule Styne in Gypsy. Mentored by his friend Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim seemed to forget everything he had learned about writing for musical theatre when he came to write the lyrics and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum. Well, nearly everything. But, that’s another story, anyway, it doesn’t matter.
As lyricist and composer Sondheim is an amazing mimic and parodist, not content to simply churn out faux Puccini, he has written in almost every musical style from Gilbert & Sullivan to rap. That is not to diminish his capabilities in any way; throughout his witty parodies Sondheim’s own unique voice rings through in his vocal line, unexpected harmonies, genuinely funny lyrics and his interest in exploring those darker places of the human psyche.
Careful the things you say
Into the Woods is a dark comedy. This is no pantomime. These are the tales of our childhood retold for adults. The play explores themes of survival, morality – greed versus need – self versus society, and the consequences of the choices we make. At the heart of the show, and running throughout it thematically is the tangled relationships between parents and children, and conversely between children and parents. It is this main theme that makes the final few songs in the show so emotionally charged. The baker, fearful of his own abilities as a father, abandons his child, a baby, as he was abandoned by his own father, and he leaves the others to be alone in the woods. But woods are still dark and dangerous places where it is not safe to go wandering alone. It is in the woods where we confront the things we fear the most whether it is witches, wolves, giants or, in the Baker’s case, his own past and uncertain future, alone.
Into the Woods…to break the spell
This is, as I said, a dark comedy. I recently reread the story of Cinderella in my copy of Grimm’s Tales. The gore was there, the hacking of the stepsisters toes and heel, the three-night long festival and the pitch on the stairs. But no glass slipper, no mice and pumpkin, no midnight transformation and no fairy godmother. This is an altogether grimmer version than any Disneyfied version. Grimm’s sombre version is the one retold in Sondheim’s play, intermingled with the stories of Rapunzel, Jack & the beanstalk, Red Riding Hood and the story of the Baker and his wife – this the invention of the writers of the play, don’t go looking for it in any collection of traditional folk tales. The interweaving of these various stories is delightfully managed through witty repetitions of the “into the woods” theme, a song that seems to possess the simple catchy quality of a child’s skipping song.
The Baker has been cursed by the Enchantress next door and in order to break the spell he is tasked to leave hearth and home, enter the woods and collect the ingredients necessary to break the spell. But enough with the plot already for there is an unspoken curse and spell that binds the Baker more than any Witch’s curse and that is the curse of parenthood; the curse of becoming our parents and repeating their mistakes.
Children will listen
The most heart-breaking moment in the play follows the most gratuitously violent death in the whole of musical theatre – the death count is pretty high in this show. The Baker may have lifted the Witch’s curse but there is no Happy Ever After here, for this is not a fairy tale, this is the world, where actions have consequences. We may escape the supernatural by journeying to the woods where we discover new things about ourselves, both scary and exciting, but we also have to confront ourselves if we are to return to society and civilisation.
Lurking in the background, dashing fleetingly, is the Wild Man of the Woods, a mysterious stranger, shadowing the Baker who, in their ultimate confrontation, holds up a mirror to the Baker – like father, like son. And then, the curse is lifted, the spell is broken. This is the Baker’s moment of self-realisation.
It’s not just for a day
I’ve known and loved this show since I first saw it nearly twenty years ago. It still manages to enchant and move me. I was keen to see the new Disney film version that opened recently and I had planned this to be an attempt of some sort of critique of that, but that can wait. If you haven’t seen it yet, then go. Don’t wait for the dvd release as this deserves to be seen on the big screen. But if you get the chance to see this show live on stage then don’t hesitate….Go To The Woods!
I wish. . .