One of the big things at our house the past few weeks has been the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods."
The first act of the musical weaves together the fairy tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and original Sondheim bridging material that can be called "The Baker and His Wife," into one more or less cohesive story.
The stories go pretty much the way you expect to, with some pretty good music along the way, and some rather hilarious comments on the tales themselves, such as when one of the princes comments, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel. What kind of a name is that?"
The first act ends like you would expect a fairy tale to end. Jack is wealthy, the Baker and his Wife are expecting their child, Rapunzel and Cinderella each have married their princes, and so on. Everything has ended "happily ever after," just as you’d expect it to.
And then the curtain rises on Act 2. Everyone is still happily-ever-aftering when the giant's wife comes down another beanstalk, looking for the boy who repaid her hospitality and generosity by stealing from her husband and then killing him. On top of that, Rapunzel has gone mad from years of living in a tower all by herself and then suddenly being thrust into palace life after giving birth to twins, all by herself, in the middle of the desert.
Oh, and the princes, having had everything they ever wanted and having believed themselves to have fallen in love with women they couldn't have ― Cinderella kept running away at midnight every night of the festival, and Rapunzel lived in a tower with no door ― have grown bored with their lives now that they once again have everything they ever wanted, and are in love with two new women, one of whom is in enchanted sleep within a forest of briars, and the other who lies in an enchanted sleep within a casket made entirely of glass.
It’s an incredible story, although it does get a little intense when everyone's arguing over how to stop the giantess and whether they shouldn’t just hand Jack over to her. (They tried having her kill the Narrator, but that didn’t work out.) When we watched it last week, Rachel -- who took a haunted house in good stride ― was so wigged out that she started shaking during that scene.
Like any good story, the show functions well at several levels. The first act is memorable because of the way it retells the fairy tales with all the charm and excitement found in the originals, albeit with a little more characterization. But by the time the second act is drawing to a close, the protagonists have been forced to grow up and assess their fairytale lives to find out what went wrong.
There's the message about letting someone else tell our stories for us, and letting them decide what should happen to us. Cinderella of course has lived the life her dead mother told her to, even going regularly to her grave for further guidance; and the Baker is horrified when the others kill the Narrator (God), because "Now we'll never know how our story ends."
In the end, the four who remain -- Cinderella, Jack, Red Riding Hood and the Baker -- are forced to determine how their story will go. Rather than running from its unpleasantness, they realize that the bulk of the misery everyone's experiencing comes from focusing only on what they wanted, and not considering how a blind pursuit of their own goals would affect everyone else.
So in the end, Sondheim uses the vehicle of fairy tales to critique the message of fairy tales and to pass on a lesson to adults about the life lessons we teach our children through the decisions we make.
One thing I find amusing is that while the decision to kill the Narrator is essentially an effort to throw off the yoke of subservience to God and experience freedom and self-determination, the characters don't really do that. The story remains scripted, orchestrated, and choreographed down to the final drop of the curtain.
No one got killed at all. At best, all they did was shake off the familiar representation of him that was at the moment engaged in pointless moralizing about their situation. His hand and his guidance remained on them no matter what they did.
Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.