“How do you say to your child in the night / Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white / How do you say it will all be alright / When you know that it might not be true? / What do you do?”
— from “Children Will Listen,” Into the Woods
Disney has released the first trailer for their movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical Into the Woods, opening this Christmas. The story features famed fairy tale characters Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack in the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Prince Charming, along with fairy tale archetypes like a baker, a baker’s wife, and a witch.
Into the Woods has plenty to interest those working with fairy tales and children’s culture generally, given its complication of fairy tale themes such as good and evil, innocence and knowledge, love and desire, and of course, wishing–all deftly spun through Sondheim’s signature wit, rhythmic complexity, and lyrical depth.
Below are a few songs performed by the original Broadway cast in the American Playhouse’s filmed version of the musical that present particularly rich re-imaginings of fairy tale plots, characters, and motivations. It will be interesting to see how these moments will play in the movie version.
“Any Moment” / “Moments in the Woods”
“If life were made of moments / even now and then a bad one… / But if life were made of moments / then you’d never know you had one.”
In Into the Woods, Prince Charming and the baker’s wife share a brief dalliance in the woods, which they sing clever, funny songs about. There have been varying reports about whether or not this plot point (and these songs) will make it into Disney’s movie adaptation. But hopefully they do, because “Moments in the Woods,” sung by the baker’s wife, thoughtfully explores the difference between plain, day-to-day life, and grand, extraordinary “moments” that excitingly depart from daily life but also potentially overturn it.
It is also a prime example of how Sondheim structures a song: “A song, like a play, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have an idea, state the idea, and then build the idea and develop it, and finish. And in the end you should be in a place different from where you began.”
At the beginning of the song, the baker’s wife is still starry-eyed from the encounter: “Was that me? / Was that him? / Did a prince really kiss me? / And kiss me? / And kiss me? / And did I kiss him back?” Then she returns to her practical self: “Back to life, back to sense / Back to child, back to husband / You can’t live in the woods. / There are vows, there are ties / There are needs, there are standards / There are shouldn’ts and shoulds.”
In the middle of the song, however, she questions these standards: “Must it all be either less or more, / Either plain or grand? / Is it always ‘or’? / Is it never ‘and’?”
She concludes: “Let the moment go / Don’t forget it for a moment, though / Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’ / When you’re back to ‘or’ / Makes the ‘or’ mean more / Than it did before / Now I understand / And it’s time to leave the woods.”
Little Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now”
“Isn’t it nice to know a lot? / And a little bit not.”
The wolf in Into the Woods is quite lecherous: “Look at that flesh / pink and plump / hello little girl,” he sings when he first spots Little Red Riding Hood traipsing through the woods. But of course he puts on a charming face: “Hello little girl / What’s your rush? / You’re missing all the flowers / The sun won’t set for hours / Take your time.” This recalls the moral of Charles Perrault’s 17th century version of the tale, “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge”:
“Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”
In Into the Woods, Little Red Riding Hood is drawn from her path by the charming wolf, is eaten up along with her grandmother, but is saved when the baker cuts open the wolf’s belly. It’s a good thing, too, because she gets to sing this insightful song about what she knows now, and about how knowing things is as confusing as not knowing them.
“On the Steps of the Palace”
“But then what if he knew / Who you were when you know / That you’re not what he thinks that he wants?”
Like the Grimm’s version of Cinderella, the heroine attends a three-day festival at the prince’s palace, running away on the first two nights to return home. On the third night, she leaves behind her shoe, which the prince finds, and we all know what happens after that. In most versions of the story, Cinderella is blithely unconcerned with the personal upheaval of going from neglected commoner to adored royalty, and harbors no doubts about the transition from rags to riches.
In Into the Woods, though, Cinderella experiences an identity crisis as she stands on the threshold of this original ‘Cinderella story.’ She wonders whether it is better to stay in her old life, “where you’re safe, out of sight, / And yourself, but where everything’s wrong?” Or if she should step into the world of princes and riches, “where everything’s right / And you know that you’ll never belong?”