This is possibly Stephen Sondheim
and James Lapine
at their very best, with extremely complex music meeting brilliant lyrics, motifs a-plenty and more easily accessible than other collaborations like Sunday In The Park With George
. The production first opened in 1986 and hit Broadway
in 1987, running for 764 performances. It won Tony Awards
in 1988 for score and book as well as for Joanna Gleason
as 'best actress in a musical'. There have been many productions since the first, from the West End
to student theatres
, but none has reached the perfection of the first or the matchless performances from Bernadette Peters
, Joanna Gleason
and Danielle Ferland
. I can't see anyone else playing the roles of the Witch
, the Baker's Wife
or Little Red Ridinghood
now without thinking of them.
The musical is very much an ensemble production, but the Baker and his wife can be seen as central for much of it, and are perhaps the only completely original characters in the musical. According to Sheryl Flatow, they were inspired by the first lines of the story of Rapunzel (Into The Woods OST inner sleeve, RCA Victor. 1988) and were due to be part of an original fairy tale story by Lapine, before the decision was made to produce instead the classic amalgam of fairy tales we have all come to know and love.
Here is a general synopsis of the show (my individual character developments follow and to some extent overlap the synopsis):
Once upon a time
In a far-off kingdom
Lived a fair maiden (Cinderella)
A sad young lad (Jack)
And a childless baker and his wife...
Cinderella sings of her desire to go to the ball, while Jack desperately tries to get his cow Milky White (a subtle name if ever I heard one, given the later plot) to give milk, and the Baker and his wife talk of their wish to have a child. Each is interrupted in their reverie; Cinderella is mercilessly derided by her stepsisters, Jack's mother begins to tell him that he must sell the cow and Little Red Ridinghood appears, ravenous, to buy food for her Granny, who is sick in bed. Over the course of the prologue each resolves to go into the woods to find what they must for their wishes. Cinderella goes to the grave of her mother to ask for help, Jack reluctantly goes to sell Milky White, Little Red Ridinghood goes off to visit her grandmother. The Baker and his wife resolve to go off only after discovering that the baker is under a family curse which makes him impotent, and which he must get the ingredients for a potion in order to reverse. As the witch says: 'Go to the woods!'
The scene is set. Cinderella goes through a schmaltzy visit with her mother (frankly enough for anyone to endure) before getting her wish and going to the Prince's three day festival. Little Red Ridinghood bumps into a very friendly and extremely lecherous wolf (who just happened to be the same actor as the Prince in the original production - it says a lot). He persuades her to take a circuitous route to her granny's house. The Baker is watching from afar and, concerned for Red, forgets the items he needs for the potion. Luckily, his wife has followed him. They begin arguing about her presence, while she has the presence of mind to grab Milky White and buy the cow from Jack in return for some magic beans. This doesn't make the Baker too happy, and they continue to argue. Meanwhile, the witch who has put the curse on the Baker visits her adoptive daughter Rapunzel, who she keeps locked in a tower (for her own good, of course). A prince (not Cinderella's prince) spots her and resolves to visit the long-haired lady.
Back in the Baker's part of the woods, Little Red Ridinghood is devoured by the wolf and the Baker soon comes to the rescue. After a little interlude with a murderous granny, Little Red Ridinghood sings about her eye-opening experience and gives the baker the 'cape as red as blood' for which he is searching. Two more items to get.
Jack gets chastised by his mother for returning only with beans, and they get thrown to the floor (conveniently far enough away from the house not to cause damage later). The Baker's wife bumps into a fleeing Cinderella, and tells the passing Prince that she has not seen the hapless ballgoer. She falls for the Prince instantly, though, and keeps at Cinderella with questions, which Cinderella is woefully unable to answer, about what he's like. Just before they part the Baker's wife notices Cinderella's shoes and, in running after Cinderella, lets Milky white escape.
The beans really are magic. Jack has an adventure up the beanstalk, but pisses off the giant up there. The Baker's wife is just in the right place again to overhear Rapunzel's Prince and his brother, Cinderella's Prince, commiserate with one another over their romantic mifortunes. The Baker's wife hears that Rapunzel has hair as yellow as corn (another necessary item) and runs after the prince, managing to grab a lock of the girl's hair. Meanwhile, the Baker has Milky White returned to him by a mysterious man. Husband and wife are finally working together.
The Witch discovers that Rapunzel has been seeing a Prince and cuts off the girl's hair in disgust, casting her out into the woods. In an attempt to escape from the witch Rapunzel's prince gets blinded by thorns. Elsewhere Jack and Red run into one another and she dares him to go back up the beanstalk and prove to her that he could steal gold from there. The Baker's wife is still chasing after Cinderella's shoes, which she manages to swap for her own so that Cinderella may escape from the Prince faster.
A big crash. Jack has escaped from the giant and cut down the beanstalk. Big dead giant in the backyard. The Baker returns home, too, with another cow (covered in flour) but the witch gets him to bring back Milky White, whom she resurrects. Baker and wife feed the items they have found to Milky White and the 'mysterious man' is revealed to be the Baker's father, who dies as soon as the curse on his house is lifted. But nevertheless all is well. Each has what they want, with a pregnant Baker's wife, a rich Jack and a betrothed Cinderella. Happy ever after!
Well, not quite happy ever after...
Once upon a time - later
In that same far-off kingdom
Lived a young princess
The lad Jack
And the Baker with his family...
Each has their own little troubles, but each is also fundamentally 'so happy'. Not for long, though. The Giant's wife has come after Jack and tramples the Baker's home. Red's house has been destroyed, too, and the Baker's family decide to escort her to find her grandmother. Jack decides to slay the giantess and Cinderella decides to find out what's wrong. The princes have each discovered newly unobtainable maidens and each decides to follow theirs. Back to the woods.
Baker et al run into Cinderella's family before suddenly confronting the giantess. She doesn't believe that Jack isn't with them and they are forced to offer someone up to save themselves. Bye bye narrator. Now they're really screwed. Jack's mother gets killed by Cinderella's steward after trying to argue with the giantess. Rapunzel runs off and gets trampled to death. The Baker's wife runs into Cinderella's Prince and is seduced before getting crushed in her turn.
The remaining protagonists come together and each starts recriminating one another before the witch intervenes, departing the scene with a scream. A plan is made to trap and kill the giantess and, after some qualsm, all unite. Thus, in the end, while they certainly do not live 'happily ever after', they are all able to discover faith in themselves and one another and look to the future together. A last 'I wish' from Cinderella is met with a murderous look from the ensemble cast.
Here is the central story of each main character (with some of my own embellishments as I see them in the story, but essentially staying faithful to the book):
He finds himself barren due to his mother's pregnant gluttony which led to his father's theft of magic beans from the witch. In order to 'have the curse reversed', he must fetch a number of items ('the cow as white as milk/the cape as red as blood/the hair as yellow as corn/the slippers as pure as gold') for the witch. Being the typical stubborn macho man at the beginning, he refuses to let his wife help him on his quest, but soon find he forgets the necessary items. His stubbornness also leads him to disapprove of the trickier means by which he can procure the items (hence the argument in 'Maybe They're Magic'). Gradually, though, he comes to grow up and appreciate his wife ('It Takes Two') and they work together to achieve their goal at the end of the first act. Unfortunately, in the second act his wife dies (but not before a 'moment' in the woods) and he is forced to confront both his father's and his own mistakes before looking to the future and his own fatherhood.
The Baker's Wife
The most practical and pragmatic character, she is frustrated with her husband's unwillingness to let her help him in his quest and sneaks along, managing rapidly to procure 'the cow as white as milk'. Meeting with his disapproval, she wanders off and meets Cinderella, and we learn how much she envies Cinderella for meeting a prince (here there is a musical preview of what is to come as the tune drifts off into a distinctive melody for the Baker's wife's list of a prince's potential attributes, which the prince will later use to describe himself). When she succeeds in obtaining Cinderella's shoe, she reconciles with the Baker (but when she describes him with that same prince motif tune and lyrics, is she really thinking of the Baker in 'It Takes Two'?). Yet in the second act, wandering off again, she runs back into Cinderella's Prince. They have a 'moment', finally allowing her to achieve the glamour for whifch she has been pining throughout the musical to this point. She knows it is wrong, but is beguiled by the Prince's non-logic, before he abandons her again. In a tour de force, she then decides that while she enjoys such moments she can't hold onto them after all. But, luckily, "just remembering you've had an 'and' when you're back to 'or' makes the 'or' mean more than it did before..." And then she gets crushed.
A rival to the Baker's wife for the most classic character, the witch begins in style with a rap(!) describing the robbery of her garden. She is ugly but powerful and wants to regain her beauty with a potion, the ingredients of which she sends the Baker off to obtain. She tells the Baker of a sister, which we later learn is Rapunzel, whom the witch has come to consider as her own daughter. She is upset to find that Rapunzel has been disobeying her by meeting with a prince ('Stay With Me'). She is more upset still, though, when she finds that with regained beauty she has lost her power (though Bernadette Peters really is damn fine as the reborn witch). In the second act, she becomes philosophically reconciled to this loss of power and acts as an arbiter above the desperate bickering of the other characters (though not before joining in for a while to blame the Baker and his father). Giving up on them she asks her Mother to take her away and departs with a scream. Proving how much she has learnt, she returns again for the finale to tell everyone that 'children will listen'.
It's all Cinderella's fault, really. She's the one who starts it all up with 'I wish...' She wants to go to the ball, of course. With veiled subservient bitchiness she panders to her stepmother and stepsisters (Lucinda and Florinda), doing whatever she can to get them to allow her to come. They manage to stop her, though, and she resorts to talking to a tree, which just happens to have the incarnate spirit of her dead mother contained within it. Her wish is of course granted after a brief period of cloying sweetness. She goes to the ball, ya-di-ya-da, and then meets the Baker's wife, completely failing to see that some people might envy her experience. But the Prince has her in his sights, and the next time, knowing she'd run from him, 'spread pitch on the stairs'. She decides to leave him a shoe as a clue ('On The Steps Of The Palace'), which does just the trick. Happy ever after? Well no, because now she's a princess with all the attendant petty demands. Nevertheless, when things start hotting up again she goes to the wood 'to see what the trouble is'. During the periods of recrimination and blame she gradually comes to grow up, too, and with the Baker is able to take Little Red Ridinghood and Jack (of beanstalk fame) under her wing at the end.
Jack is a bit dim. But he has a nice cow. He sells it for some magic beans, climbs the beanstalk and makes friends with a giant's wife before the giant returns and he is forced to flee (stealing what he can). He kills the giant in the usual way, which sets up the plot for the second act as the giant's wife comes looking for revenge. Many people suffer the old 'Boom! Squish!' (as the witch descibes it), Jack gets blamed a lot but no one will give him to the giantess, because they're too 'nice'. She is defeated in the end, though by then very few of them are left. Jack, being young, looks to the Baker for support and they pull together, finding hope again in each other. Not happy ever after, but still an affirmation in humanity.
Little Red Ridinghood
Both Jack and Little Red Ridinghood manage to display their immaturity through a trick of bad grammar - 'different than'. Jack does this in 'Giants in the sky', while Little Red Ridinghood does it (ironically) in the song in which she decides she has learnt all her lessons, 'I Know Things Now' ('Isn't it nice to know a lot? And a little bit... not') Little Red Ridinghood is generally a gem of a minor character, demanding such things as 'a sticky bun... or four', though like Jack she descends in the second act into dependency and fear. They both pull together in the end, and would probably make the perfect couple in a modern day film sequel).
Other wonderful additions to the plot are Jack's long-suffering mother ('slotted spoons don't hold much soup') and the princes. I bet you never realised that two princes were responsible for every fairy tale romance. Busy men. 'Agony' indeed...
The original 1987 cast of the musical, in order of appearance, was as follows:
Narrator: Tom Aldredge
Cinderella: Kim Crosby
Jack: Ben Wright
Baker: Chip Zien
Baker's Wife: Joanna Gleason
Cinderella's Stepmother: Joy Franz
Florinda: Kay McClelland
Lucinda: Lauren Mitchell
Jack's Mother: Barbara Bryne
Little Red Ridinghood: Danielle Ferland
Witch: Bernadette Peters
Cinderella's Father: Edmund Lyndeck
Cinderella's Mother: Merle Louise
Mysterious Man: Tom Aldredge
Wolf: Robert Westenberg
Rapunzel: Pamela Winslow
Rapunzel's Prince: Chuck Wagner
Grandmother: Merle Louise
Cinderella's Prince: Robert Westenberg
Steward: Philip Hoffman
Giant: Merle Louise
Sleeping Beauty: Maureen Davis
Snow White: Jean Kelly
The songs of the musical and who performs in each are as follows:
1. Prologue: Into The Woods (11.55) Narrator and Company
2. Cinderella At The Grave (1.14) Cinderella and Cinderell'as Mother
3. Hello, Little Girl (2.32) Wolf and Little Red Ridinghood
4. I Guess This Is Goodbye (1.06) Jack
5. Maybe They're Magic (0.56) Baker and Baker's Wife
6. I Know Things Now (1.48) Little Red Ridinghood
7. A Very Nice Prince (1.46) Cinderella and Baker's Wife
8. First Midnight (1.12) Company
9. Giants In The Sky (2.20) Jack
10. Agony (2.26) Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince
11. It Takes Two (2.47) Baker's Wife and Baker
12. Stay With Me (2.40) Witch and Rapunzel
13. On The Steps Of The Palace (2.34) Cinderella
14. Ever After (2.19) Narrator and Company
15. Act II Prologue: So Happy (3.48) Narrator and Company
16. Agony (2.15) Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince
17. Lament (2.03) Witch
18. Any Moment (2.14) Cinderella's Prince and Baker's Wife
19. Moments In The Woods (2.42) Baker's Wife
20. Your Fault (1.38) Baker, Jack, Little Red Ridinghood, Witch, Cinderella
21. Last Midnight (3.05) Witch
22. No More (4.11) Baker and Mysterious Man
23. No One Is Alone (3.44) Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Baker, Jack
24. Finale: Children Will Listen (5.09) Witch and Company
The orchestra in the original performances was as follows:
Marilyn Reynolds: Concert Mistress
Laura Corcos: Violins
Karl Bargen, Mazine Roach: Violas
Eileen M. Folson: Cello
John Beal: Bass
Lesley Scott: Flute, Piccolo
John Moses: Clarinet
John Campo: Bassoon
Wilmer Wise: Trumpet
Richard Hagen: Horns
Paul Ford, Scott Frankel: Keyboards
Robert Ayers: Percussion