Last week I saw the new production of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Into the Woods.” It is part of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park and runs through August. The tickets are free BUT they will cost you a boatload of time. The tickets are given out starting at one, but people start lining up before six in the morning. A dear friend of mine got there at a quarter to eight. He had his phone, Kindle App on his iPad and computer with an Internet hotspot to keep him company. He figured out that, at his professional hourly rate our tickets — among the last few to be given out — were the most expensive tickets he’d ever “bought.”
I enjoyed the show and with the sun slowly setting during the first act, the woods behind the open-air theater added another dimension to the setting. By the start of the second act, the dark sky reflected the darkness in the story.
“Into the Woods” uses a few of the most famous of the Grimm fairy tales as a starting point. In the first act all the characters — Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, The Baker and His Wife, Cinderella and all the other characters — including the witch — want something desperately. And get their happy endings. The second act — the darker act that began when the summer night sky was dark blue and the moon hung like a piece of scenery up stage left — opens AFTER everyone has gotten what they wished for, only to discover that getting what you wish for is not what it’s cracked up to be.
Neither Cinderella nor the Prince is satisfied with their marriage. After all, he was “raised to be charming not sincere.” The Baker and his wife love their new baby, but their tiny cottage is crowded and life is stressful. I won’t even try to describe what’s happened to Rapunzel and the rest. It’s a wonderful story and a beautiful score.
There are fairy tale monsters. The gigantic and vengeful Giant’s wife wants James to pay for slaying her gigantic husband and looting their home. But the biggest monsters are the characters themselves, for investing so much in their wishes in the first place and for their belief in the happily ever after of their dreams.
It’s very moving.
I felt tears welling up as the witch (Donna Murphy) began to sing “Children Will Listen.” That’s one of those songs that always gets me. It goes beyond the clichéd warning “be careful what you wish for” and delves into the messes we make even when our intentions are good.
“Into the Woods” reflects the real meaning — and real use — of fairy tales. The warnings, the lessons, and the terrible things that happen to characters in the old Grimm stories are completely unlike the sanitized versions in contemporary children’s movies and books. No wonder YA literature (“Hunger Games” etc.) is full of jeopardy and danger. If every Cinderella story you’ve ever heard ended with a royal wedding and the words: THE END, of course you’re craving the real MONSTERS that lurk in the woods.