"No one is alone."
These words, sung in Act II of Into The Woods, not only outline a major theme of this shows, but could be applied to most of Stephen Sondheim's work. Sondheim has often worked with the theme of connection between people, from Bobby's inability to find someone to love in Company through Seurat's command to himself to "connect" in Sunday In The Park With George up through the current Broadway show Passion, in which a woman's desperate need for love leads to a fierce, possessive relationship.
Into The Woods exemplifies this theme in several ways. At the beginning of the show, all of the characters are blithely preoccupied with their own concerns, ignoring the plights of those around them. The Witch, herself quite culpable, rebukes the Baker and his Wife for always thinking of themselves. Each action, however, impinges on someone else's story as the characters barely miss running full tilt into each other in these very busy woods. Even the music exemplifies the connections: melodies are repeated in other songs as accompaniment, and three songs by Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella are musical and lyrical variations of each other, linking them even as they remain unaware of the connection.
The impetus for Into The Woods came when Sondheim and James Lapine decided to write a musical creating an entirely new fairy tale. They discovered, however, that it made more sense to weave together a story from existing fairy tales for the first act; then the second act would follow the examples of Show Boat and The Fantasticks in exploring what happens after "happily ever after." Family fairy tale characters were chosen for the main storyline -- Cinderella, Jack and his Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and her wolf, the Princes Charming, and a Witch. The creators added two original characters to the mix: a childless baker and his Wife. Drawing on the original Grimm versions of the fairy tales, aspects were included which had been dropped in subsequent versions by Perrault and Disney. For example, the original tales were more violent, and the characters had greater challenges to overcome. Also incorporated into the script and the lyrics were elements of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, which is a psychological analysis of fairy tales and their meanings.
According to Lapine, what came out of these sources was a "quest fairy-tale musical," wherein each character has a specific goal to be completed to attain happiness. There are other themes beyond that, however. The first act opens with the "wishes" which are declared by Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Baker and his Wife. These characters must venture into the woods to fulfill their "wishes" and eventually learn responsibility to others.
The primary focus of the musical is the quest. In particular, the Baker and his Wife are seeking items to break the spell keeping them childless. These items bring them into contact with every other character and story onstage. There are other quests: Jack is seeking a friend, Cinderella wants someone to love her, and the Princes are looking for brides.
The woods are a dominant symbol. They are not the traditional pastoral forest, but are threatening, scary and perilous. While they are the place where wishes can be fulfilled, there is a cost and a consequence to every wish and action, even if not immediately obvious to the wisher. It remains for the characters to discover the effect of their actions on other, a lesson necessary for surviving in the woods. Moreover, the woods are representative of the transition between childhood and maturity. Like adolescence, they are scary and filled with angst, emerging sexuality, self-discovery and definition, and even death.
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