Into the Woods

by John Stoltenberg

The acclaimed Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods has come to the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center for the holidays—I am tempted to say for a spell, because the show is enchanting as a magic elixer—and I completely concur  with my DCMTA colleague Andra Abramson, who gushed that it “deserves to be gushed over.”

Key to this surfeit of delights is the fact that Fiasco has reimagined the storytelling in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical classic in a way that inivites our imaginations into it. Both our inner child and our mental grownup get to play along with the players as they spin intertwined fairy tales that hark back to long ago and speak truths about life right now.

I loved, for instance, how a cowbell hung around an actor’s neck designates him a cow—and our imaginations get it. I loved how actors’ fingers fluttering pieces of paper signify a flock of birds—and our imaginations light up. I loved how a taxidermist’s trophy animal head held by an actor makes him into a wolf—and our imaginations believe it. I loved how the quivering feather duster in an actor’s arms stands in for a hen—and our imaginations are tickled again.

I loved Fiasco’s stripped-down simplicity too. For instance, the part of the narrator in the script has been dispensed with, and snatches of exposition are dispersed among the troupe of ten. The orchestra has been dispensed with as well: there’s a single pianist, and cast members on other instruments play a pickup tune team. There’s not even any woods. The sole tree is represented by a vintage dress form. Because in the world of make believe, why not?

All the focus is on the story. There are theatrical sleights like shadow plays and gag costumes, but the most special effect is what happens in our minds when we fill in the blanks and complete the tale. The performance style aligns so perfectly with the storytelling, in fact, it’s as if the musical was always meant to be staged exactly this way.

The book of Into the Woods is a commingling of familiar narratives about Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf and her grandmother, Jack of the fabled beatstalk and his mother and their cow, Rapunzel and her long hair, Cinderella and her tormenting stepsisters, a couple of prince charmings, and a wicked witch. Lapine and Sondheim have added a baker and his wife to complete the cast.

The plot is driven by three once-upon-a-time wishes. Jack and his mother want their cow to give milk, Cinderella wants to go to a big bash the king is throwing, and the baker and his wife want a child. Their quests hit some snags foist upon them by the evil hag, but the wishers carry on undaunted. And by the end of Act One everyone has what they wished for and is all set to live happily ever after.

I pause here between acts to insert some backstory that manifests in this entertaining production in a deeply intriguing way.

The stories that are the source material for Into the Wood originated in Germany in a generations-long oral tradition among women. These stories included sex and gruesome violence and were never intended for children. In the original, for instance, Rapunzel gets pregnant; the stepsisters chop their feet down to size to fit the slipper;  the wolf swallows whole little Red and her grand, who are rescued only when a hunter slices open the wolf’s belly. One can but speculate what roiled the imaginations of these hausfraus of Germany such that they would want to regale one another with these dark  and bizarre tales.

Two young German librarians named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, sensing a folk literature about to be lost, traveled the country to collect these adult-only stories and first published a selection in 1812. Immediately, under pressure from the book-buying public, the brothers began bowdlerizing the texts in subsequent editions so they could be read to the kinder—a process of lite-ning and cute-sifying that reached its apex in the Disney versions.


In 1976 a book appeared written by a Holocaust survivor named Bruno Bettleheim called The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. The book was a Freudian take on the kid lit that followed from the Grimm brothers’ un-griming. It argued that fairy tales, even those with darker themes, are good for children’s emotional development. When Lapine and  Sondheim got hold of the book, it was the lightbulb moment for what became Into the Woods.

And in that lightbulb moment was an important literary pivot: The process of child-proofing fairy tales was thrown into reverse. Lapine and Sondheim went back to the oral original versions (including theatricalized renderings of the examples of sex and gore mentioned above). And together Lapine and Sondheim proceeded to create a musical that is not really about childhood enchantment at all. It’s about adult disenchantment.

Which brings us to Act Two. Now the wishes have all been granted, but they’re not all the wishers hoped. And there ensues some coping rumination about what life holds for grownups, as in this lyric:

WISHES MAY BRING PROBLEMS,
SUCH THAT YOU REGRET THEM.
BETTER THAT, THOUGH,
THAN TO NEVER GET THEM…

Sondheim is the master of skepticism and irresoluteness, of misgivings and ambivalence, of existential weltschmerz. So many of his recitative-like musical phrases are not quite melodic, almost atonal (singable only by classically trained vocalists), as if to yield to hooks and homey humablility  would be to buy  in to a dubious fantasy that it’s a wonderful life and we can live happily ever after (or some such seasonal sentiment).

And then Sondheim will surprise us by pulling out the emotional stops. There is a gorgeous song near the the end called “No One Is Alone.” It’s one of Sondheim’s unabashed heart-tuggers:

SOMETIMES PEOPLE LEAVE YOU,
HALFWAY THROUGH THE WOOD
OTHERS MAY DECEIVE YOU,
YOU DECIDE WHAT’S GOOD.
YOU DECIDE ALONE.
BUT NO-ONE IS ALONE.

The musical refrain “No one is alone” seems not only a wish but an experience of its fulfillment. For just then the connection that has been happening between the inventive Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods and the participating imaginations of the audience becomes nothing short of a magic moment.

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