"Once upon a time" is the beginning of many a bedtime story for many of us. It is also the beginning of the 1987 Broadway Musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim (music & lyrics) and James Lapine (book & direction). In a twist of genius they combine the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the newly invented Baker and His Wife into a story of deceit, dreams fulfilled and broken, wishes, death, adultery, deception, magic and almost happily ever after.
The musical begins with the narrator introducing us to three sets of characters as he recites the tale which he has been told. Here we meet: Cinderella who lives with her father, stepmother and two stepsisters; Jack and his mother who are faced with hunger because their cow, Milky White, produces no milk, leading them to decide to sell her before she loses all her value; and the Baker and his Wife who, though they have a good business, remain childless. Each of them sings of their own wish: Cinderella wants to got to the King's Festival, Jack and his Mother want milk from their cow and the Baker and Wife want a child. Little do they know that they will all get their wishes but will pay a price for them which may be more than they would have been willing to pay as their actions bring destruction and death to their kingdom. The Baker is visited by a ravenous Little Red Ridinghood who is off to visit granny and comes to stock up on bread and goodies for her journey through the woods. After depleting the baker's supplies, including a basket to carry the goodies, Red heads out to visit granny.
In the meantime the Baker and his wife are visited by their next door neighbor, the Witch, who explains to them that they are childless because of a curse which she placed on them years ago. It seems that when the baker's mother was pregnant she developed a craving for vegetables from the Witch's garden and in stealing some from the garden for his wife the Baker also stole six magic beans. As a result the Witch was punished by her mother who caused her to lose her beauty. The Witch offers to concoct a potion which will undo the spell on the Baker's house if they will produce a number of items: a milk-white cow, a blood-red cape, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper which is as pure as gold. If they can provide the Witch with these three items in three days' time, she will reverse the spell for them. And so off they go.
In the next scene Cinderella visits the grave of her mother (a hazel tree which has grown over her mother's grave, watered by her tears) and expresses her unhappiness with her present life and her desire to go to the Festival. Magically her wish is answered as from the sky she receives a beautiful gown and slippers of gold enabling her to attend the Festival.
We next see Jack in the woods with his cow, on the way to the market. They encounter the Mysterious Man who suggest to Jack that the cow is so weak that he'd be lucky if he could get "a sack of beans" for her. So off he goes. Meanwhile Little Red Ridinghood, instructed by her mother not to stray from the path on her way to granny's house encounters the Wolf who convinces her to stray from the path in order to gather some flowers to bring to granny. At the same time the Wolf gets directions to Granny's house from Red and he takes the shortcut to her house, hungrily anticipating devouring Granny and Red. The Baker overhears this encounter and expresses concern for Red's safety, while his wife, who meets him in the woods, encourages him to focus on getting the items that they need in order to have a child.
At this point they encounter Jack, who, they notice, is accompanying his cow which is the color required by the Witch for her spell. Through some deception the Baker manages to exchange five of the beans (saving one for himself) for Jack's cow, Milky White, convincing Jack that the beans are really magic. With this Jack bids good-bye to his friend and hopes that someday he'll meet her again if he ever has enough money to buy her back.
The Baker argues with his Wife about using deception in order to get the cow, but she convinces him that they have to sacrifice something (their sense of morality in this case) if they really want to have a child. She then returns home with the cow as the Baker continues on his search for the other items.
The Witch now pays a visit to Rapunzel, who we learned earlier from the Narrator, was the Baker's sister, taken from his family at birth as a payment for the stolen beans along with the curse which was placed on his house. Rapunzel has been locked up in a tower by her "mother" who wants to protect her from the world. As she lets her hair down from the tower for her mother to climb, she is observed by a Prince who is determined to visit her and carry her away.
Red arrives at Granny's house only to be devoured by her big-eared, big-eyed, big mouthed "Granny" who is actually the Wolf in her nightgown. In pursuit of Red's blood-red cape, the Baker finds himself at Granny's house, but instead of discovering Red or Granny he discovers the recently satiated Wolf still in Granny's bed resting after a good day of eating both Granny and Red. Cutting them from the Wolf's stomach he rescues them as they murder the Wolf by putting stones in his stomach and watching him try to run away. Red sings of the lesson she learned from this episode, namely, nice is not the same thing as good: she thought the nice wolf was also good, but she discovered that she was wrong. Grateful for her rescue, she gives the Baker her cape and so now he has two of the four items he needs for the Witch.
On discovering what Jack did with his cow, his Mother throws the beans on the ground, setting the scene for the magic beanstalk which will lead Jack to new adventures.
Meanwhile the Baker's Wife encounters Cinderella in the woods as she is fleeing from the Prince. After she lies to the Prince about Cinderella's whereabouts, the Baker's Wife, wishing she could be pursued by a prince, quizzes Cinderella about her Prince in pursuit. Cinderella sings of how she had a nice time at the ball, but she does not want the Prince to find out who she really is: dressed as she is she is not her truer self and worries that the Prince will not want her if he discovers her true identity. As they are talking, Cinderella notices the giant beanstalk growing into the sky, while the Baker's Wife notices that Cinderella's slippers are what she needs for the Witch's spell. Ready to run after Cinderella, she loses her grasp on Milky White, the cow, and so must run after her instead, losing her chance to get the slippers.
There is a break in action as the characters step forward to announce the lessons they've learned so far in the song "First Midnight".
Jack, returning from the Giant's home in the sky sings of how he learned to appreciate his own world while far away in the Giant's kingdom, having met a friendly Giant and her hungry husband. Not only has he returned with a newfound appreciation for his own world but he has also stolen gold from the giant, in the hopes of using it to buy back his cow from the Baker.
Meeting in the woods, the Baker's Wife has to explain to her husband how she lost the cow and so they are now further away from having their wish fulfilled. They go off in search of their needed items as the two Princes, who are brothers, appear on stage, each to sing of his own "Agony" in pursuing a woman who is unreachable: one seeks Cinderella while the other looks to Rapunzel. From their song the Baker's wife discovers that Rapunzel's hair is the color needed by the Witch and so she goes off to get the hair.
The Baker encounters the Mysterious Man who reunites him with Milky White while his Wife is successful in pulling hair from Rapunzel. They now only need to get Cinderella's slipper and they will have everything they need for the Witch. At this point the Baker realizes that he had been wrong thinking that the spell was his problem, rather he shares the problem and the wish to correct it with his wife. "It Takes Two" they sing, aware that they are pair and need to cooperate in order to get what they want. Their song is followed by the death of Milky White, crushing their hopes as they see one of their magic ingredients die. After arguing over what to do next the Baker goes in search of a new cow as his Wife, now in possession of their last magic bean, goes to find Cinderella.
The Witch, having discovered that Rapunzel was entertaining her Prince, drags her from the tower and cautions her of the dangers the world holds. Still, Rapunzel wants to expand her horizons, so her mother cuts her hair and exiles her to the desert. Later, as her Prince seeks to visit Rapunzel, he is thrown from the tower and blinded. He is doomed to wander the world blind in search of his love.
Despite the danger of his first visit, Jack has ventured up the beanstalk again, this time returning with a hen and one of the golden eggs she produced. Little Red Ridinghood, newly garbed in her wolfskin cape, does not believe about the hen. He tells her it is true and tells her of something even more magical: a harp that makes music on its own. She remains an unbeliever and so off goes Jack to return with the magic harp.
The Baker's Wife finally manages to acquire Cinderella's slipper, giving her the last magic bean in exchange for it. Cinderella throws the bean away and swaps her slipper for the Baker's Wife's shoes, aiding her escape from the Prince's Steward. As she acquires the slipper she is greeted by her husband who tells her he has found a cow. They now have all four items. But their joy is tempered by the falling of a Giant out of the sky into Jack's backyard, announced by an hysterical Jack's Mother.
As the Prince runs off in search of Cinderella, having gotten her slipper by spreading pitch on the stairs the Witch returns and finds the Baker and his Wife in possession of the four needed items. However all is not well as the cow is not fully white, she is covered with flour. The Baker explains that the white cow died and the witch reminds them that she can bring the dead cow back to life. So they bring the dead cow back and the Witch brings her back to life. The Witch orders them to feed the objects to the cow and milk her but something is wrong, the cow does not milk. When the Witch discovers that the hair was taken from Rapunzel she tells them how she can not have touched any ingredients. The Mysterious Man advises them to feed the hair from an ear of corn to the cow and the cow produces milk which the Witch drinks, regaining her lost beauty. In the midst of this exchange it is revealed that the Mysterious Man is actually the Baker's Father. His motivation all along has been to undo the wrong he caused
The Baker and his Wife return home as Cinderella's Prince goes in search of the owner of the slipper. After two bloody attempts with Cinderella's sisters, the Prince finally discovers his true love in Cinderella.
Meanwhile, Rapunzel, now the mother of twins is reunited with her Prince whose vision is restored by the magical powers of Rapunzel's tears. On meeting her now-beautiful-again mother, Rapunzel rejects her for all the pain she has caused her. Having lost her powers she can no longer control her daughter.
At Cinderella's wedding, her sisters are blinded by pigeons and the happy couple meet a now-pregnant Baker's Wife.
Act One ends with almost everyone happy and singing of being "happy ever after". Jack and his Mother are wealthy and reunited with Milky White, Cinderella has been saved from the Wolf, the Baker and his Wife have a child and Rapunzel and her Prince are also proud parents. While the Witch and Cinderella's step-sisters learn of how they lost their happiness because of their own selfishness.
Act Two starts with the same three characters as Act One, but now it is "once upon a time, later". However they are no longer completely happy. Cinderella now ants to have her own festival, Jack misses the Giants kingdom and the Baker and his Wife want a bigger home. The narrator tells us they are "content". As they sing of their happiness destruction once again visits the kingdom as the Baker's house is damaged by what seems to be an earthquake. The Witch comes to investigate and tells them that her own garden has been trampled on and whatever caused the damage left "forty foot feet". It is obviously nothing less than a Giant. Looking to seek protection from the royal family, they are told that they will all have to work together to defeat the Giant.
On his way to the castle the Baker visits Jack and his Mother. Jack offers to help in the fight against the Giant, but his mother refuses to let him help. At the castle the baker tells Princess Cinderella of the Giant. She promises to look into it for them. As Jack's mother goes to market he promises to stay inside, a promise he does not intend to keep. Meanwhile Red Ridinghood visits the baker's house and sees the damage. They tell her they had a "baking accident." She tells them her house has collapsed and she cannot find her mother so she is off to stay with Granny.
Hearing news of trouble from her friends the birds, Cinderella decides to disguise herself and go into the woods to look into the trouble. Meanwhile the Baker and his Wife offer to take Red to Granny's house while Jack determines to go find the giant despite his promise to his mother. And so they all go "into the woods".
Meeting her mother in the woods, Rapunzel berates the Witch for all the harm inflicted on her life by her mother. In the same woods the two Princes meet, each looking for a new beauty they have found in the woods: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In a reprise of their one-upsmanship song of Act One they sing of their "Agony" of not having what they want. After hearing each others story they realize they must return to their wives.
Red, along with the Bakers, discovers that the way to Granny's house is also lost. They meet the royal family who tell them that the Giant has attacked the castle. They also learn from the Witch that the Giant has also destroyed the village. It is here that they meet the Giant and discover she is a woman, seeking revenge for the murder of her husband. She wants Jack. She tells of how he lied to them, stole from them and then killed her husband. She will not take "no" for an answer. She wants someone. They discuss who they should sacrifice and finally choose the Narrator, since they don't like the way he's telling the story anyway. The Giant takes the Narrator but, realizing he is not Jack, throws him down to the ground.
Immediately the group feels remorse for their action and debate whose responsibility all this danger is. While his Mother is defending Jack, the Steward attacks her in order to prevent the Giant from getting any more upset at them. Rapunzel, shocked at the appearance of the Giant, runs into the woods and is stepped upon by the Giant. She dies and immediately afterward so does Jack's Mother. The Steward says he did it in order to protect the "greater good" as the Witch laments the loss of the daughter she tried to protect from the world. She determines that she will seek out Jack and feed him to the giant.
As the royal family flees from the trouble in the woods, the Baker and his wife together with Little Red Ridinghood decide that they must save Jack from the Witch. And so the Baker and his Wife set off in opposite directions to look for Jack while they leave their son in the care of Little Red Ridinghood. On her journey through the woods the Baker's Wife encounters Cinderella's Prince. She tells him that she is in search of the Giant and he is impressed by this bravery. The Prince, aware of the dangers of the woods and attracted by the Baker's Wife's bravery asks if he can kiss her. She first is reluctant but then she gives in and he carries her off into the glade.
Meanwhile the Baker encounters Cinderella at her mother's grave which been destroyed by the Giant. Not recognizing her he tells her that the Prince is probably out seducing some maiden. When he recognizes her, he apologizes for his comment and offers to take her into his care.
The scene returns to the Baker's Wife and Cinderella's Prince kissing on the ground. Satisfied by his moment with the Wife, he tells her he has to go in search of the Giant. She asks if they will ever meet again and he tells her that their encounter was just their "moment in the woods". After he exits the Wife sings of how she has learned to appreciate what she has and how she needs to get back to her immediate concerns: her husband and son, and the Giant. As she heads offstage to retrace her steps she loses her sense of direction and, on hearing a loud noise, falls victim to the Giant.
Concerned with his Wife's absence the Baker decides to go look for her. As he heads off the Witch returns dragging Jack. The Baker notices that Jack has her scarf. Asking where he got it, he is told that Jack found her dead under a tree. He tells the baker that he buried her "in a footprint."
Filled with grief the Baker regrets sending her into the woods. The Witch tells him that he is not the only one who has suffered. And she still wants to take Jack to the Giant. The Baker now agrees that it was Jack's fault and so he should be punished. What follows is a 5 way version of passing the buck as Jack, Little Red Ridinghood, the Baker, Cinderella and the Witch each try to absolve themselves of the responsibility for the tragedy in the land. Each one tries to trace the guilt back to a person whose actions led to their actions.
The Witch finally interrupts their argument reminding them that they have an impending deadline as the Giant still wants Jack. The others protect Jack from her and will not let her feed him to the Giant. Fed up with them she leaves them alone, disappearing from the stage.
Convinced that everything is lost the Baker decides to leave, entrusting his son to Cinderella- he is lost without his wife. Journeying through the woods he encounters the Mysterious Man, his father, who is "not really" dead. His father tells him how he stole the beans from the Witch's garden, not knowing the consequences and after his wife's death he ran away. They sing of their desire to avoid difficulties in life and a desire to live a simple life. But the Baker comes to realize from his father that you cannot run away from your problems- a lesson he learned as he returned hoping to make reparation for his actions years earlier. The Baker realizes that he is about to make the same mistake as his father and so decides to return to the group in the woods.
Returning to the group the decide to defeat the Giant. Cinderella learns of her Prince's indiscretion from her friends the birds. She asks for their help in defeating the Giant. They will poke out her eyes after Jack and the Baker spread pitch on the ground to capture her. Jack, Little Red Ridinghood and the Baker go off to Granny's house, leaving Cinderella with the Baby.
Waiting in the woods she encounters her Prince again. She is cold to him and he learns that she has found out about his episode with the Baker's Wife. He speaks of his "needs" while she challenges him to curb his appetite as she has done. She asks him to leave, saying that being unhappy at her father's house she thought she would find happiness in the Prince's house but she realizes she wants something "in between."
While Jack and the Baker spread pitch in the forest and prepare to attack her Red Ridinghood and Cinderella wait to lure the Giant into the trap. Red tells Cinderella that Granny is gone and that she is concerned that she is doing the wrong thing in killing the Giant. She wants her mother or Granny to help her make this decision. Cinderella responds that "no one is alone" and that she has to make her own decisions now.
Waiting to slay the Giant the Baker tells Jack that his Mother is dead. Jack threatens to kill his mother's murderer. The Baker challenges him that it is wrong to kill him. The Baker and Cinderella sing of how decisions are difficult to make and many of the consequences of our actions are unpredictable. Nonetheless we have to make decisions based on what is inside us. Things are not always black and white in matters of morality- there are two sides to every story. "Witches can be right, giants can be good," they sing.
As the Giant returns Red and Cinderella send her off towards the trap where the birds attack her eyes and she is killed by Jack and the Baker.
Once again characters return to tell the lessons they have learned. Jack and Red decide that they will now be friends and start a new life... in the Baker's house! They ask Cinderella to join them, she agrees. The Baker wonders how he can raise a child without a mother. His wife returns to remind him that "no one is alone", telling him to have hope and "tell him what you know." He starts reciting the story using the same words as the narrator at the beginning as the Witch comes out singing to be careful what you say as children are impressionable. She is joined by the cast in counseling against wishing too freely as "wishes come true, not free".
The show concludes with a reprise of the title theme as the characters sing that you must go into the woods "every now and then." But now they realize that having been there before they go back with a wisdom which will help them on their next journey. And they go back with the help of others. And so they hope to go "into the woods, then out of the woods- and happy ever after!" The final notes of the show speak of their continued optimism as Cinderella sings out, "I wish..." ending on a note of new-found optimism based in their deeper awareness of what the journey means for them. And for us......
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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