The following post contains major plot spoilers for Into the Woods.
Into the Woods mixes the characters of four classic fairy tales into an original story. Everyone pursues their wish in a fast, funny, tightly plotted act one. Act two shows the sour side of happy ever after. The wishes have ugly consequences and half the cast dies. Like Candide and The Fantasticks the survivors sing an older but wiser ballad and replace adventure with domestic life. It’s messy, depressing and unfulfilling… which some say is the point.
I’ve seen about eight live productions, thus far, and the second act has never satisfied me. One director will be slavishly following the original Broadway staging. Then I read their program note… BAM… Cinderella’s Castle is the World Trade Center! The Giant is Global Warming! Wait… what? Before seeing the new film I thought I’d jot down some thoughts for my dream production.
Who are your protagonists?
Little Red, Bakers Wife or Witch can steal the show but they can’t carry it. Their arcs wrap up too quickly. I’ve seen many productions hit their emotional climax at the Witch’s “Last Midnight.” Show’s over folks, you can all go home…
Only we can’t. There are three more ballads and a reprise to sit through. If your Cinderella hasn't grown a spine and your Baker is charmless the energy sinks like a lead balloon. No one wants to hear Louise reprise “Little Lamb” after Rose has sung “Rose’s Turn.”
The film has cut The Baker’s “No More” and I know Anna Kendrick can play Cinderella’s arc. I’ll be curious to see how this shifts the balance.
What’s your favorite theme?
Sexual Awakening. Little Red, Jack, Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife each get seduced. Their flings lead to heartbreak, violence and self-growth. When the Baker’s Wife sings “Momentsin the Woods” the conclusions she draws can be a culmination of the lessons all four characters have learned. If your Jack and Little Red are cast too young, or your Wolf/Prince Charming is staged too chaste, the theme can be buried.
Death. Lots of people die in Into the Woods. I’ve seen a production where the actors built a grave for each death till the stage was covered in them… but Cinderella’s mother became a ghost in a tree so where does spirituality fit in? And what happens to the witch when she vanishes? Some productions turn her back into a crone. Some have her kill herself or be killed by the curse.
I’d like to see a production where she turns into a tree. Perhaps when the dead characters come back in the epilogue they are all trees and the survivors are holding a memorial ceremony. Which brings me to…
Community Building. Is “No One Is Alone” your thesis statement? Are the characters moving from separate journeys to pursuit of a common goal? If it results in two mob murders (The Narrator and the Giant) is it a good thing? It’s easy to lose this thread among all the late show exposition. When do your actors consciously decide to change their ways and work together? Can it be physicalized? Perhaps we see them rebuilding the broken homes, burying the Giant or holding the aforementioned tree funeral in the final scene?
Flawed Parents. Is “Children Will Listen” your thesis statement? Most of the characters are abused or abandoned by their parents. The Baker and his Wife want a baby. When they get one, they neglect it. The Narrator was killed for telling a harmful story to the cast but we end with the Baker telling the same story to his son. I always see this staged like it’s a positive thing. Are we supposed to believe the Baker is going to try to do better now? Your Baker had better have given us a reason to like him before that point or it will ring hollow.
And about that Narrator... I hate that his death is handled as a throw away gag. I’ve never seen a production where his absence has any consequence. Some directors deconstruct their set at intermission. Maybe save your big reveal for when the Narrator dies. Without him your set/structure/woods begin to fall apart.
I’d also like to see a production where Cinderella acknowledges the Narrator is gone. He steered her to her mother’s tree in act one. She’s offstage when he dies. Her next scene is at the fallen tree. Give her a moment to look to the narrator’s corner. The spot light comes up. No one is there. This is new. His death is real. Now she has officially lost her last parental figure and has to write her own story.
What does this all add up to? Maybe nothing. These are a collection of “moments” that have bugged me after watching multiple productions. They may go over the heads of other audience members. But I wanted to write them down before the movie becomes a new generation’s definitive version.
Look, tell him the story
Of how it all happened.
Be father and mother,
You'll know what to do.