Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Brilliant Strangeness of "Into The Woods"

This summer has found me spending countless hours involved in our local community's musical theater production.  The chosen show for the year was "Into The Woods", and I will admit, I knew very little about it.  As I began studying the show for auditions, and included this research once I was cast as Cinderella's Stepmother, it became very obvious from people's reactions that this show is mostly misunderstood.  Occasionally someone would say.."Oh, I really love that show", and we could have a good discussion about it. For the most part, people think the show is strange and dark, and do little beyond that to ponder what they may have just experienced.

There are many themes that weave seamlessly throughout the entire show and with all of the characters.  Parenting dilemmas,  the issue of finding contentment, the desire to live a life besides your own, and the need to properly interact and rely on each other are major life conflicts for those in the story.  It also goes where most fairy tales don't go, asking you to think about what happens when you get what you wish for.

As both Jack and Little Red are sent off into the woods (just replace 'woods' with 'world' as you listen to the story and you will start to feel the depth of the message) they are doing things their parents, by all right, should be doing. Jack is trying to salvage what he can of a living so he and his mother may survive. Little Red is visiting her grandmother who is sick.  It could be argued that both these tasks would be better suited if done by the parent.  It is also apparent by their actions and reactions to what happens to them that they were neither prepared or were they mature enough for what came to them in the woods.  While there is a lot of talk about The Big Bad Wolf and what he represents (pedophile is the most common assumption) this character can portray any kind of darkness or threat to a young adult who ventures out unprepared.  In life there are many predators that may appear "exciting and new", but in the end can truly be the demise of the person who engages it in. From addictions of all kinds, to abusive relationships, to predator type of relationships, we would be wise to teach our children about the realities of the world, instead of just sending them out and telling them to 'stay on the path". Jack also is unprepared for the temptations he faces, and his greed sets in motion a series of events which ends up causing tragic repercussions.

Another thematic element found is one of over bearing parenting. In major contrast to the Red and Jack's parents, the witch and the Stepmother both go to obsessive lengths to control their children.  From locking Rapunzel in a tower to cutting off parts of the Stepsister's feet, these mothers are determined to control the outcome of their children's lives. By the way..... this technique also fails miserably.  (Children can only grow, from something you love to something you lose....)  In the end even the cold Stepmother realizes she is of no help to the kingdom in fighting for peace and ends up hiding from the woods. The witch's desperate need to control Rapunzel and salvage her own image also comes at an extremely high price, leaving her with no powers and no family in the end.

Another family issue is trying to undo the damage done by those we follow. Our own parents, and even our ancestors, have done things that indeed define us- and our need to break free from that can also come at a price.

In Cinderella and the childless Baker and his wife we see the underlying desire to wish for more than what we have.  We wish for things from a far and are convinced that these things will finally bring us happiness.  Often times, the things we wish for have consequences and come layered with both good and bad realities. (Careful the things you wish, wishes come true..... not free.... ) The woods (world) is enticing for a lot of reasons. We cross paths and help others get their wishes. We are sometimes put in situations that contribute to or own arrogance, we sometimes do things thinking it only effects our self, when in the end it can cause ripple effects that disturb many.

Sadly the movie version pulled some of the musical numbers from the score.  While it is a beautiful portrayal of the story, in doing so a major point is missed. The Baker and his father sing one of the most touching songs of the show, in what becomes somewhat of a turning point. At some point "fighting" must be overcome and we must surrender to our lives. (Can't we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives?) We must unite with those we travel with and use our unique gifts to bring success into our lives.  We must recognize the value of the people in our lives (again, several characters do not realize what they have until they lose it) and work together, find contentment, and find joy in what we currently have.

Finally, in the closing ballad, what I believe to be the most critical message is delivered with beauty and courage.  The remaining characters, who have all experienced betrayal and loss in many forms, encourage each other with the incredible message that No one is alone. They are preparing to face their battle and handle their obstacle head on.  They are realizing things are not always as cut and dry as we may think, and they are realizing that in spite of tragedy they have beautiful lives to live.

The show is also peppered with amazing moments of humor, exaggerated characterization, and plenty of occasions to just have a good time ("Agony" sung by the frustrated princes is the perfect example of this). But in the midst of the laughter, the strangeness, and the quirky musical dialogue, if you are looking you will see that this is show that packs a punch with multiple messages.  It is far more than just a 'twisted fairy tale".  It is an amazing look at the human nature of us all and the messes we can get ourselves in...but ultimately it is a tribute to  the fact that sooner or later we find ways to triumph.