Witch in the Woods



If ever there was a musical laced with double meaning, it is Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a story that takes fairy tale tropes and turns them on their head with a dramatic shift in tone in the second act. The first half entwines the lives of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack (and the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, and a Baker and his Wife, all venturing into “the woods,” where each will face new aspects of their inner nature and their fears (and sometimes hidden desires), before reaping the dark consequences of their actions.

The driving villainous force in the story is the Witch, who stole away Rapunzel, and set the curse of barrenness upon the Baker and his wife, whose stolen beans cursed her with hideousness, and who wants “the curse reversed.” She promises to remove her curse from the Baker if he and his Wife get all the ingredients for a special potion—which means scamming Jack of his cow (he uses the beans to steal from a giantess), stealing a golden shoe from a fleeing Cindrella, nabbing golden locks from Rapunzel, and snatching the red cloak of Little Red Riding Hood. The little girl tangles with the Wolf, nearly to her own downfall (and most certainly to his!).

I was shocked upon my first viewing of the original musical, since its themes are very dark and adult in nature; Sondheim crafted an intelligent, morally ambiguous storyline where there is no “happily ever after” … as marital infidelity, death, and loss crash in upon the “heroes,” who are faced with the repercussions of their own amoral and selfish actions. Some live, others die; all point fingers at one another for their problems and refuse to accept any blame; heroes become murderers, because, as the Witch points out, all their actions were ultimately selfish. “You’re all so nice,” she sneers when the Baker, Cinderella, and Riding Hood refuse to turn Jack over to the giantess to save their lives when the giantess comes seeking vengeance for the murder of her husband; “not good, just… nice. I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right!”

And she is, and that’s the truly remarkable thing about the story … the witch, who makes all their lives miserable, has a better grasp of ethics than any of the so-called virtuous characters; she doesn’t choose to follow a moral code, but at least she doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what she is, unlike the others. She is completely honest about who and what she is, and has no remorse for any of her decisions until they cause her to lose Rapunzel, whom she sees as a daughter. Though burning with a desperate love to protect “her child,” the Witch cannot help her nasty nature, and in cursing Rapunzel and her price, the Witch loses her forever (in the play, Rapunzel dies crushed by the giantess; in the film she merely rides away with her prince, never to return).

Sondheim understands, as does the Witch, that the nature of good and evil can be pulled apart, that those who profess to be “good” can do evil, and those who are “evil” can do good. The Witch is the most honest of all the characters, for she accepts “the blame” and ultimately claims responsibility for all her decisions and actions. She is selfish, scheming, and cruel, but her honesty and self-sacrifice is what we remember, more than the moralizing selfishness of the other characters.

Into the Woods is a fascinating story that has grown on me with each subsequent viewing; it is rich in its themes, layered with symbolism and allegory. Each character finds and confronts elements of their nature in “the woods,” and all their interactions carry metaphorical significance, at times to an uncomfortable degree (Red Riding Hood’s story has always been about sexual awakenings, and the lyrics don’t shy away from it: “It left me excited… and scared… it’s nice to know a lot, and a little bit not!”). It is not afraid to delve into the darker themes of the original fairy tales, nor to show us a new side to the story, such as making Jack responsible for larceny and murder (neither the giant nor his wife had to die!).

Consequences run rampant for these characters; venturing into the woods gives them all their desires and downfalls, including the Witch. She is a reminder that a villain can set things in motion but it is up to the heroes to choose a higher ethical path. ♥

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!


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