Into the Woods

My favorite part of high school was playing in the pit orchestra for the annual musical.  I played pit for Camelot, The Music Man, and Funny Girl there.

I also played in the pit for musicals in college (H.M.S. Pinafore among others), and after college with the Kankakee Valley Theatre (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and others).  What fun!  I developed a love for community theater.  I enjoyed the drama.

While playing in the pit, though, it’s hard to get the whole story.  Some of the more important plot developments tend to be backed up by some of the more difficult musical passages, and even when that’s not the case the orchestra is busy during the musical numbers — so during rehearsals we more curious members of the orchestra would pop our heads up when we could spare a moment (and sometimes when we couldn’t — oops!) to  try to get an idea what was going on up there.

Dampened Enthusiasm

Sometimes at breaks I would borrow the conductor’s book and read the lyrics to the songs to find what I had missed.  Slowly, a pattern began to emerge for me as I did this:  I was disappointed by what I read.  What I saw was so often silly or just lacking in truth.

The excitement that is expressed by characters in a musical is often directed toward some passing triviality, not something that really matters; unwise romantic matches are celebrated; authority in general tends to be portrayed as a restrictive restraint that must be cast off; sometimes sin and wrongdoing are portrayed as a delight.

This dampened my enthusiasm for musicals.  Why put on a big show if the messages are not true?  Why sing songs and play pretty music if there’s no deeper meaning, no truth in it?

Every musical I’ve seen does have at least bits of truth in it, though.  The shining glory of God is displayed in The Music Man when Marian the Librarian discloses to “Professor Harold Hill” that she’s known he’s a liar and a fake all along… but she’s loved him anyway.  A steadfast love despite his sin.  It’s powerful — it redeems the musical (that moment comes right next to the horrible Shipoopi song, too!)

And Les Miserables — wow.  Don’t watch it on TV.  Go to your nearest big city and see that musical.  The whole thing is about God, repentance, the nature of good and evil, unbelief masquerading as devotion, laying down your life for another, sin and its consequences…things that matter.  Powerful stuff.

Into the Woods

But what I wanted to talk about was Into the Woods, a 1986 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  I first saw this musical performed at the Playmill Theatre in West Yellowstone, Montana, I believe in 1999.

Other than Les Miserables, Into the Woods has more truth packed into it than any other musical I have seen.

The musical takes several fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and one about a baker and his wife) and blends them together — or rather, they clash severely and get mixed up in the woods.

In the first act, each fairy tale’s characters are seeking something that they desire, and they do whatever it takes to get it.

(SPOILER ALERT) By the end of Act I, everyone has what they desired, and the apparent perfection of the situation seems to justify the sins committed to arrive there.  Into the Woods would be merely a cute (and silly) little cliche musical if it ended with Act I.  And indeed, what’s left for Act II, since all the problems have been solved? (END SPOILER ALERT)


I won’t go into those details here, but consider the wealth of moral issues the musical grapples with:

Act I

Maybe They’re Magic (Baker/Wife) — conscience and rationalization after deceit

I Know Things Now (Riding Hood) — conscience after exploratory sin

A Very Nice Prince (Cinderella/Baker’s wife) — chasing your own desires

First Midnight (Company) — lessons learned (right and wrong)

It Takes Two (Baker/Wife) — the intimacy of persevering through shared struggle

Stay With Me (Witch and Rapunzel) — children should listen

Ever After (Company) — “Happy”: the end achieved

Act II

Prologue: So Happy (Company) — the fleetingness of happiness and the consequences of sin

Agony (the princes) — slavery to one’s own desires

Lament (Witch) — children won’t listen

Any Moment (Cinderella’s Prince and Baker’s Wife) — sin grows

Moments in the Woods (Baker’s Wife) — rationalization

No More (Baker and Mysterious Man) — the futility of unfaithfulness

No One Is Alone (Cinderella, Riding Hood, Baker, Jack) — the importance of others

Finale (Company) — children will listen

and the impotence of a humanistic solution (“I wish…”)

Other issues raised

  • “Nice”-ness vs. true goodness
  • Where is the hope? In ourselves?
    • “All the wondering what even worse is still in store…”
    • “You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good…”
    • “Things will come out right now. We can make it so…”
  • Generational sin:
    • Witch: “As I could not…”
    • Mysterious Man and Baker: “Like father, like son”

In a genre where too often if you boiled down the ideas and themes to short summary statements you would get such unhelpful and unprofitable messages as “sin is fun” or “wisdom and discernment are unnecessary — emotions are all that are necessary to find the right way”, Into the Woods stands out as a serious (yet thoroughly fun!), thought-provoking work such that the time spent watching it could be profitable for your soul.

See this musical the next time you get an opportunity (perhaps with a friend or with your school-age children) and then have profitable discussion or reflection afterward!

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