My friends tend to think of me as overly zealous about things that I love, and I tend to love a lot of things. Even if it’s a terrible horror movie, even if it’s trashy reality television, I will find a reason to love it, and love the fuck out of it. Of course even for me there are things that I absolutely detest, and things that I am sorely disappointed by, but I have always given things a chance. My favorite drama on television for years was Desperate Housewives, which always elicited the same reaction: “Really!?” Yes, really. Did you ever watch it? “Well, no, it just doesn’t look like it’s for me.” Then you my friend, are missing out. It’s some of the cheesiest cheese out there, but it also has moments of true mystery, as well as several legitimately outstanding performances (looking at you, Felicity Huffman).
So you can name pretty much any work of visual art and I’ve seen at least an episode or part of it. I also try my best to see something the way serious fans of it tell me I should (“Watch these movies in this order!” or “Sit and watch season 6 first, that’s when it’s really at its best.”) and I always do my best to watch at least part of it independently of other people. Some things I have to reserve judgment on, like a season-long mystery on a TV show, I won’t judge until I’ve gotten to its conclusion, or such as a musical, because I’ve often listened to the recording long before I see it live on stage.
Speaking of musicals! There is a musical that is almost universally beloved by musical theatre fans the world over, throughout all of Christendom. It is a masterfully written work by a master craftsman at his very best, it is clever and subversive, while also being a well-suited representation of its genre, something that I love (Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, etc.) and the basis of any good musical: it has lovely, meaningful music.
ALL THAT BEING SAID, I just simply cannot bring myself to be excited about it. And it is, like I said, something that is beloved, and dare I say sacred among groups of friends. It is quoted to me constantly, its music is sung constantly to me, I’ve seen it performed in bits and pieces many times over the years, as senior projects or directing scenes, I’ve seen productions of it both professional and amateur, and I’ve sat and analyzed it to death with critics and fans alike. It is one of those pieces that I know in my heart of hearts (and even the outer hearts) is good, is fantastic, but it just doesn’t satisfy me emotionally, creatively. I have never been able to put my finger on it, I have never been able to articulate exactly why it doesn’t appeal to me, all I can say is that for whatever reason, there is some gaping hole in my imaginary list of requirements that fails to get ticked off. I thought perhaps by analyzing what gripes me about the show, maybe I can arrive at a more solid conclusion. So to that end, the musical that everyone just loves but I cannot care less about is Into the Woods.
There are a number of ways to tackle this analysis. There are its merits as a show (against itself, in a bubble), in comparison with Sondheim’s other works (against the canon, as it were), in comparison with other similar work (against its place in pop culture), and against my own criteria and thoughts (against the subjectivity of its audience).
Starting with its own merits, Into the Woods like I already said is an absolutely solid show. Sondheim has a real talent for keeping his music upbeat and moving, even when they’re just exposition. The Prologue is one of the single longest sequences in a show of his, but it doesn’t even occur to you that it’s 10 minutes until you reach the end. There’s multiple examples like this throughout, both Midnights, A Very Nice Prince, Any Moment, Agony… All rather expositional, but nonetheless exciting. Of course there are numbers that I feel are unnecessary, as with most musicals. Although with the way the show is structured, mostly sung-through, it’s more that there are sequences of music that I don’t think are necessary to advance the story.
I love Giants in the Sky, I used it as an audition song for a couple years, Moments in the Woods is fantastic, as is I Know Things Now, and representative of the show’s central lessons about growing up. No One is Alone and Last Midnight are also great. Agony is honestly hit or miss to me, if it’s not handled well, or if it’s overblown, I’m not such a fan of No More or even The Witch’s Lament (I think Stay With Me is better characterization).
I think it’s a fun use of characters we are familiar with, characters that are one-dimensional and really just plot devices for the lessons of the fairy tale being told. The real star of it all is the Baker and the Bakers’ Wife, with the Witch being not far behind.
But on its own, there are some problems. I think the plot elements are extremely convoluted taken at face value. The Witch is dealing with a curse of her own and so has to deal with the Baker and his Wife to reverse their curse? Why are there so many steps to this? What is the purpose of the Mysterious Man? Why are we given a brief moment with a character that makes no sense only to have it revealed that he’s the father, only to have that then taken away just as quickly? One of Sondheim’s many talents is juggling multiple characters, but even with his abilities, some of the storylines fall short. Dramatically, Little Red and Jack aren’t brought to a complete arc the way Cinderella is. Cinderella is one way at the beginning of the show, is granted that life that she desired, realizes it was not what she wanted, and learns to be happy on her own. Little Red’s character development in I Know Things Now has a lot to do with sexual metaphor, and that never plays a role again. She simply becomes a harsher personality for her troubles. Jack, for lack of a better characterization, is an idiot, and remains an idiot throughout, and regardless of what everyone lands on in Your Fault, it’s Jack’s fault. Come on, guys. It’s Jack’s fault, without a doubt.
I also do have a problem with its running time. It’s a three-hour (often plus) show. And I really don’t think it has to be. There are other shows that are just as long and I’m not saying they all warrant that run-time and Into the Woods doesn’t, but I think it does work against it more than others. I think people going in not knowing what to expect and hearing it’s fairy tales, I don’t think anyone’s expecting a three hour runtime. There are several steps added to every single storyline that don’t really need to be there. Why are there two giants? Doesn’t work alright with one with some rewrite? If Rapunzel isn’t the hair as gold as corn, why is she necessary to this story? Neither her nor the Witch complete the intended arc of their relationship. Rapunzel dies in rebellion, though through no fault of her own (unlike the Baker’s Wife who dies out of karmic retribution) and the Witch doesn’t change because of the death. I don’t really need Cinderella’s (or anyone’s for that matter) fairy tale retold to me as is if nothing is added to it. The Baker being added to Jack and Red’s stories justifies their retelling, but the Prince searching for Cinderella carries no emotional weight. We’ve already seen that done, there’s nothing added to it. And the movie highlighted again the lack of need for the Narrator. I was fine without that presence in the story.
Pulling back a bit, in terms of Sondheim’s anthology in general, I think everyone generally agrees his major period is from Company (1970) until Assassins (1990). Funny Thing lies outside that, but that’s fine. Sondheim has many times over taken material not thought suitable for musicals, and turned them into some of our most iconic. Sweeney Todd and Assassins are Sondheim at his darkest. Merrily We Roll Along and Follies deal with show business at its most difficult. Company and A Little Night Music are Sondheim at his most intimate. Pacific Overtures is so different and unexpected. Sunday in the Park With George is one of the most perfect intersections of art, music, life, and theatre. All of them are rather unexpectedly good musical sources. Sweeney Todd is about a murderous barber and a cannibalistic secret. Assassins is about some of America’s most irredeemable murderers and attempted murderers. All of them include at least one difficult, complex protagonist.
Against the oeuvre of work, Into the Woods, for me, feels the least ambitious. Even as a subversion of fairy tales, it’s still using fairy tales as its base, which is relatively easy in comparison to say, a difficult marriage or the westernization of a xenophobic country. It’s neither incredibly unexpected nor original. If you want incredibly staged violence and passion behind it, watch Sweeney Todd. I find the violence and darkness in Into the Woods completely unnecessary. If you want unexpected and intimate character arcs, go for Merrily or Night Music. You want an unexpected set of stories coming from a basic source material, go with Sunday or Assassins. I think against Sondheim’s other work, it rather pales. I’m not the biggest music nerd out there so I don’t have this analyzed to a science, but for my ears there’s more interesting musical structures in his other works. Assassins is more melodic, as is Follies, as is Sunday. Sweeney Todd is far more complex.
Which leads me into the next macro-point that I touched on a bit earlier, in that in terms of pop culture, it’s just not that striking of a result to me. The first of two that most quickly comes to mind in comparison of similar material is a graphic novel series called Fables, which is an intricately told, deeply layered drama told with the same basic premise: what happens after happily ever after? The series has really interesting character arcs to it, and manages to change genres seamlessly based on the breadth of its source material (characters range from Aesop’s fables to Hans Christian Andersen, to 1,001 Nights, to Mother Goose and everything in between). For the most part, my problem might be that Into the Woods plays it extremely safe with its cast. Their decisions and branching narratives are binary (this or that) and nothing pulls from that far out of left field. It’s all rather straightforward. Mind you, one of my problems with the stagings of the show is that many of its outlandish elements aren’t handled particularly well. The revival, making Milky White an actual person, is an inspired choice, but everyone handles the Giant and the Giant’s Wife just about the same, Cinderella’s mother and Rapunzel are handled the same (often out of the same tower structure), while the only major effect worth waiting for (most of the time) is the Witch’s transformation. Again, the movie helped play up the spectacle of it all. Using these larger than life characters and settings while have it all be pretty subdued on stage is disappointing. The movie opened that up. We got to see the real expanse of the forest, there felt like more urgency because of the actual presence of a giant (although that all still came up a bit short for me), we got to see “actual” birds attack the step-sisters, real horses, the transformation was spectacular. The only thing that made it a weird show was Johnny Depp’s wolf. Why wasn’t he a CGI wolf voiced by Depp? It stuck out as the most “theater-y” thing to do. Suddenly, we were in that Mary Martin Peter Pan movie where you can see the strings, and the sets are all clearly sets. Everything else though, really helped in enhancing the make believe and the magic of the fairy tales we were witnessing. But everything stays completely limited in the musical, whereas in this graphic novel series we get to see characters explored like they are real people. These are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and they are treated as such.
My other example is Wreck-It Ralph. Again, familiar characters or character types in unexpected stories. And their lives take turns for the worse before they become better. And it isn’t to say that I needed Into the Woods to end more hopefully, I think it is one of Sondheim’s happier endings, but the journeys feel more complete in Ralph. Ralph, and even Felix, along with the other main characters that the story revolves around, make journeys throughout and grow as characters. Nobody feels treated like they’re a plot device unless they are in fact a plot device. We also get to see a fully realized world unrestricted by the stage. And yes, I get all that rhetoric about the stage sometimes leaving those gaps for the audience’s imaginations to fill in. Believe me, I played video games in my childhood from throughout the late 80s and early 90s. You needed a lot of imagination to imagine you were playing Star Wars when all you saw were vector lines. But there’s a lot that Into the Woods is asking of me without showing much. There’s so much of this world that we miss out on because they simply can’t do it. Perhaps some of it, you could argue, is not necessary to the plot, but then I argue that it’s then not necessary to use these characters.
The Baker and the Baker’s Wife, again, are the most interesting part of this whole show to me. A show could be made to service them, with original characters, echoes of their inspirations perhaps, but not necessary. Why is it necessary to include Jack, or Little Red? Couldn’t we just have the beanstalk all the same, a vengeful giant come to earth all the same, a voracious wolf having taken human victims all the same, without ever seeing these characters and their worlds? The beauty of Ralph is that we get to see each of these worlds, so much so that it feels like there’s dozens more stories to tell and we might never be finished telling all the stories.
Which leads me to my own final thoughts and reactions to the piece. There just isn’t much for me to grab onto emotionally in the whole show, for whatever reason. I love the Baker and his Wife, but I’m not as invested in them as I feel I should be. I’m not made to care about them just because I’m told they have a curse placed on them. It’s why in Beauty and the Beast, Belle is the focus, and not the Beast. I’m told he is cursed at the beginning but that doesn’t make me have sympathy for that character, that character has to earn it. Belle earns it organically, because she tells us her desires at the top. The Baker and his Wife lack that sympathy for me. And the other characters who have a chance at gaining the audience’s sympathy, are simply not the main characters. Cinderella again is the closest, and I think she possesses the most complete journey. Red and Jack do not grow up, and we don’t see the lessons impact them the same way that it does Cinderella. For me, we get more sympathy from her than we do the Bakers. If someone were to tell me this is actually a story about Cinderella’s journey from neglected to wishes fulfilled, to realizing the realities of marriage, to exercising her freedom, to becoming a part of a family out of choice, then I would believe you. But it is presented as the story of a Baker and his Wife who will stop at nothing to have a child, which includes deceiving a boy, stealing from a girl, ripping hair from a stranger, and killing a cow.
I also have a huge problem with consequences in the proceedings of the story. The Witch gets everything she wants. Yes, she loses Rapunzel, but I don’t think there’s enough done to humanize her to a point where I care. She locked up this girl in a tower and forbade her from ever seeing the outside world. The first chance that girl got for freedom, she rejected her, and rightfully so. What tyrant expects sympathy for that? But she gets her beauty and magic back and disappears at the end, without really learning a lesson. The Baker’s Wife also has a tryst in the forest that goes unaddressed for the remainder of the show. She gets seduced by the Prince and sleeps with him in the forest, then dies. Like I said, there is karmic justice there, but the Baker goes on believing in a woman who never strayed from his side. It’s just a weird circumstance. It seems like Cinderella learns the identity of the “other woman” her Prince sleeps with, but in some productions I’ve seen it’s unclear if the Baker ever actually learns of it. I don’t think he does. Along with the Baker’s Wife and Rapunzel, Jack’s Mom, the Bakers’ dad, and TWO giants are dead at the end of the show. And none of their deaths are particularly emotionally difficult. Perhaps it is partly the lack of real emotional stakes, and a problem of juggling way too many stories simultaneously.
Every time I see this show, I want to like it. When I sat down to watch the movie, I admit that I liked it more than any production I’d seen. When I watch Bernadette Peters as the Witch, I want to like the show on the emotional level that she moves me. But it just doesn’t. I think it’s overly long without the emotional payoff it deserves, with characters who don’t learn as much as they should, used in ways that I think lack imagination. And now it’s time to leave the Woods.