Be careful what you wish for…
As far as fairytale mashups go, you can’t get a more thorough entanglement than Into the Woods. The recent Disney movie brought Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack of beanstalk fame, and Rapunzel to the big screen, along with a baker whose story ties the other tales together. I watched the movie first, but it was originally a play, which is a bit longer. I found several of the additional elements and songs in the live musical to be an improvement over the movie.
Into the Woods, although fun to watch, was not a complete success. With some scenes stretching too long, and other parts of dubious purpose, this isn’t everyone’s fairy tale. But then there’s the MUSIC. Yes, the music is another matter entirely. Memorable and upbeat, the songs from Into the Woods are fantastic. Composed by Stephen Sondheim (a student of Oscar Hammerstein II), the opening prologue alone skillfully weaves every storyline into a masterpiece with over 10 parts.
It all starts with Cinderella and her kindness. We find her in servitude to her stepmother and stepsisters, waiting her life away.
Mother said be good,
Father said be nice,
That was always their advice.
So be nice, Cinderella,
What’s the good of being good
If everyone is blind
Always leaving you behind?
She also knows what she wants, with a confidence that is inspiring.
Look at your nails!
Look at your dress!
People would laugh at you!
I still wish to go to the festival
And dance before the Prince!
This version of Cinderella closely resembles the Brothers Grimm tale, complete with golden slippers and three trips to the ball. The birds help pick the lentils from the ashes, and later pluck out the eyes of Florinda and Lucinda. With no fairy godmother, Cinderella visits the willow tree over her mother’s grave, another common element in the legend. There’s even a song, “On the Steps of the Palace,” about the pitch the prince spreads on the stairs to catch her as she leaves. We’ll see these same components in German and Hungarian Cinderella stories!
I would be remiss if I did not mention any of the other ten or so singers back in the opening prologue.
Jack must part with his beloved cow: “Into the woods to sell a friend-”
Little Red Riding Hood is a hilarious mix of naivety and audacity. She can even contemplate her grandmother’s demise with equanimity:
Into the woods to bring some bread
To Granny who is sick in bed.
Never can tell what lies ahead,
For all that I know, she’s already dead.
Moreover, she remorselessly steals from the baker and his wife. But Little Red Riding Hood filches more than she can carry and pluckily asks them for help.
I sort of hate to ask it,
But do you have a basket?
We even find out that the Witch takes revengeful pride in her garden.
Now there’s no more fuss
And there’s no more scenes
And my garden thrives-
You should see my nectarines!
Everyone wants something different. However, the main storylines all join together, and our heroes and heroines can sing in unison:
Into the woods to get the thing
That makes it worth the journeying.
The songs from Into the Woods make this musical a worthwhile addition to the fairy tale tradition. I love how it uses the Grimm version of Cinderella, thus offering viewers a contrast to Disney’s stand-alone Cinderella story, which uses elements from the Charles Perrault version.