Monday, December 8, 2014

Musical Spotlight: Into the Woods

With the official movie version coming out in theaters at the end of this month, I figured it would be appropriate to a musical spotlight on this iconic musical by Stephen Sondheim.

The show made its Broadway debut in 1987 and ran until 1989, closing after 765 performances. The show was nominated for ten Tonys in its original run and won three of them (Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress for Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife).

The musical has one of my very favorite stories. It begins as a mash-up of several different fairy tales all connected to each other, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel. There are also some lesser-known fairy tales involved, most notably one of a baker and his wife who must break a witch's spell to have a baby. (The Baker, the Baker's Wife, and the Witch are all prominent characters in the musical.) By the end of the first act, the stories have all finished with the happy endings we all know, and everything seems to be fine.

In the second act, however, everything goes awry. The giant that Jack killed has a wife who is out for vengeance, and she starts tearing apart the idyllic world of happily ever after endings. Everybody's fulfilled wishes slowly unravel, and the show gets much darker, deconstructing the original stories and delving into themes of death, infidelity, fear, and loss of innocence. While the show does end on a hopeful note, with evil being defeated again, the world has changed significantly, and the remaining characters have changed significantly as well. It's a brilliant takedown of fairy tale endings and how they don't reflect reality.

I'm cautiously hopeful about the new movie. Some casting choices have me a little worried, and I've heard some unsettling rumors that they're "Disneyfying" the very bits that were meant to "unDisneyfy" the fairy tales in the first place. But in the meantime, let's just focus on how great the songs are to begin with!

1. I Know Things Now

Movie casting choice that scares me #1: casting Little Red and Jack as actual children. As you can see in this song and the next one, they both have songs reflecting on their experiences that serve pretty clearly as fairly mature coming-of-age songs, especially in regards to possibly sexual meanings. Either way, they're definitely about losing innocence. Little Red's story in particular seems to portray the Wolf as a sexual predator, and her final thoughts reflect her new concerns that she is not immune to danger and that she isn't entirely comfortable with the new knowledge she's acquired through this experience (as evidenced by the final lines: "Isn't it nice to know a lot? ...And a little bit not"). In fact, the first girl cast as Little Red left because her parents felt precisely this -- that this song had undertones far too mature for an elementary-school child to be singing.

Nevertheless, it's a great song, and it does convey well how new experiences can leave us wiser but not necessarily happier.

2. Giants in the Sky

While Jack's story has fewer overtly sexual overtones than Little Red, his song here parallels hers in many ways. His story is a little less dangerous, but it also reflects his new knowledge and how it has changed him and how he's not entirely sure about it yet ("You think of all of the things you've seen / And you wish that you could live in between / And you're back again, only different than before"). I really love this song, with its combination of excitement at the new discoveries and wistful memories of who he was before, with the knowledge that he can never truly go back.

3. Agony

Here's something a little lighter for you. This song is sung between the two prince brothers who are in love with Cinderella and Rapunzel and frustrated that they can't seem to catch them -- both literally and figuratively. The two are shallow and even competitive in their sorrow ("Agony! Far more painful than yours"). It's a very funny song in the first act that has interesting repercussions in the second, and it's one of my all-time favorite musical theater duos.

4. No One Is Alone

Skipping through most of the second act to avoid too many spoilers, I thought this would be a good one to share from act two. It's near the end, and the two children have confessed that they feel very lost, alone, and scared in this new, darker world. The adults comfort them with this song, which reminds them that nobody is ever truly alone. It's really a beautiful song with deceptively simple lyrics that convey a much deeper meaning.

5. Children Will Listen

This song closes out the show (sung here in concert by Bernadette Peters, who played the Witch on Broadway originally). In the show, it's given as a piece of advice to those raising children in the aftermath of the shattered fairy tales, but given that the entire show is based on stories we tell to children, it clearly has a larger meaning to it. "Careful the things you say / Children will listen / Careful the things you do / Children will see and learn." It's a question of the stories we choose to tell and the stories and messages they communicate to the others. Like No One Is Alone, this song brings up our connectedness as humans, how the things we say and do will affect others, even when we don't think about it.

Plus, the song is just so pretty.

There are a lot of other really great songs in this unique musical, and my feelings toward the upcoming movie version are... well, to quote Little Red: "It made me feel excited... well, excited and scared."

Are you a fan of Into the Woods? How are you feeling about the movie? What other fairy tales would be interesting turned into a darker musical version of themselves?

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