So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to be referring to the stage version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical-to-end-all-musicals. Having now seen the movie, I was actually surprised that I liked it, but my heart was eternally won by the original Broadway recordings and the various stage productions I’ve seen over the years.
Here’s the thesis: all of the main themes of Into the Woods are about sex and it’s trappings, the desire for it, pursuit of it, changes and consequences that come along with it. This seemed so readily obvious to me that I never even thought to talk about it, but I haven’t seen anybody else say it either. So I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here: Into the Woods is just all about getting your freak on, right?
Considering where this splendid play is drawing its source material from, this is almost inevitable. The fairy tales of central Europe 1 are stacked to the rafters with sexual imagery and commentary about people’s sex lives. My favorite example is a bit absurd, but worth sharing. In one of the older versions of the tale that has become “Little Red Riding Hood” called “The Grandmother“, we get this lovely little passage about a third of the way in (emphasis mine):
“Good day, grandmother. I have brought you a hot loaf and a bottle of milk.”
“Put it in the pantry, my child. Take some of the meat that is there, and the bottle of wine that is on the shelf.”
While she was eating, a little cat that was there said, “For shame! The slut is eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood.”
Yeah, that’s all that cat shows up to say; she just has to make it clear what the girl’s actions are supposed to be reflecting about her character. This shit shows up all over the place in old stories2. Sometimes it’s straight up raping a sleeping girl until she’s pregnant in some of the versions of Sleeping Beauty. Sometimes it’s just the incesty overtones from a dude trying to marry his daughter in Allerleirauh.
So Sondheim and Lapine are starting from source material that’s got a lot to say about sex, but you know, they dive in whole hog themselves. Sometimes, it must be said, they’d don’t have far too go. Little Red Riding Hood has already got a bunch of overtones of sexual predation in it, and the commentary from the Wolf during “Hello Little Girl” seems pretty blatant to me (as always, emphasis mine):
Think of those crisp, aging bones
Then something fresh on the palate
Think of that scrumptious carnality
Twice in one day…
So I know that ‘carnal’ can be sort of broadly applied to an base desire, but written by a modern hand for modern ears, it’s certainly intended to read as sexual. As an aside, some productions play this side up more than others. I’d especially like to call attention to the costume design used in the PBS America’s Playhouse version3. Look at that wolf, with his leather jacket, rippling muscles and, what the fuck, are those genitals? This play probably birthed a thousand nascent furries.
And if you’re thinking that this is just about the predation of an innocent, I’d like to direct you to Red’s refrain after the Baker saves her:
I had been so careful,
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited-
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, “Come in!”
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared-
I love that Red get’s excited by the Wolf’s bared teeth. She’s been taken in but it’s because she’s given in to a temptation, which was the Wolf’s whole bag. Red’s come through this relatively all right, and learned a lot about the kind of company she keeps. “…though scary is exciting, /Nice is different than good.”
But LRRH is low hanging fruit, it was already about sex. So let’s look at Jack and his beanstalk. Jack’s encounters with the giants happen off screen, but we get his account of it after the fact. Let’s skip over the fact that he say’s “giant breast” merely to keep this high brow, and look at the lines just after:
And you know things now
that you never knew before,
Not till the sky.
Only just when you’ve made
A friend and all,
And you know she’s big
But you don’t feel small,
Someone bigger than her
Comes along the hall
To swallow you for lunch.
Just like Red’s song, Jack talks a lot about new knowledge that comes from his experience. His journey is one of discovery, which he plays out with a member of the opposite sex, and he seems to think of the giantess as a person rather than a monster. I also like how the giant’s reaction can be read as finding them in flagrante delicto.
At the end of the song, Jack sums it up nicely:
And you think of all of the things you’ve seen,
And you wish that you could live in between,
And you’re back again,
Only different than before,
After the sky.
Surely you can look at this as him standing on the cusp between adulthood and childhood and wishing he could have the best of both, but his mentioning of feeling different than before makes it clear that he’s crossed a threshold, something important is different. That something, that difference, may well be his virginity.
So, let’s move on to Cinderella. This one isn’t hard either. Cinderella wants desperately to go to a ball, to get out from under her restrictive and hateful step-mother’s thumb, and she sort of stumbles into being the object of affection for the charming Prince4. After the third night, we get her lovely song “On the Steps of the Palace” describing her moment of reflection when she’s trapped by the prince’s ploy.
This song is entirely a pondering of a question: should she let this relationship continue, to advance to a more serious level, or run away from it? She’s amenable to letting him “catch” her but is more worried of his response when he finds out who she really is, which she’ll admit that she doesn’t even know.
Why not stay and be caught?
You think, well, it’s a thought,
What would be his response?
But then what if he knew
Who you were when you know
That you’re not what he thinks
That he wants?
And then what if you are?
What a Prince would envision?
Although how can you know
Who you are till you know
What you want, which you don’t?
Whereas Jack and Red seem to be caught between childhood and adulthood, Cinderella is caught between the world of the slut and the prude. She wants to leave her cloistered life, to have experiences, and wants the prince but isn’t sure she is, or can be, the thing5 that she thinks the prince wants. Interestingly, her choice is the “no choice” option, where she manages to maintain the princes’ pursuit, and thus the pleasure of being desired, without actually getting caught yet.
This is the point where we ought to talk about Rapunzel, but she’s so tied up with the Witch that I’m going to roll her into that section.
So we come to the Baker and his wife. Although their stories seem to be inextricably tied at first, they’re really dealing with two different things. The Baker, who wants a child, spends act one trying to cure his impotence. Remember, it’s his tainted bloodline that’s keeping his wife from getting pregnant. Their childlessness is “his problem” that he feels he must solve. It’s during this act as well that we see him dealing with trying to solve his figurative impotence. He starts out very firm on the stance that he must solve this problem on his own and reacts to every attempt by his wife to help as if its an insult, because he feels like she’s emasculating him.
He comes around on this issue by the time they sing “It Takes Two”, which is notable that the pair’s rather chaste relationship suddenly starts to heat up. The Baker’s wife suddenly actually starts to express interest in him, and he in her. The events of the woods rekindle what seems to have been a rather dead bedroom for the two of them, and perhaps its this that leads to the resolution of their baby-making problem.
And then we have the Baker’s wife’s own tale. Even in act one, her eye is wondering, pestering Cinderella for tales of excitement and splendor from the ball. She’s especially interested in the prince and his charms, more so even than his future wife. Then in Act 2, when everything’s gone all to hell, she get’s her moment in the woods, with the prince.
They meet, they kiss, fade out to another scene, and then back, he bounces off and she’s left alone. This is when we get “Moments in the Woods” as the Baker’s wife contemplates her brief affair. The laments how boring her life is with the Baker and child, how she loves them but wants more:
Must it all be either less or more,
Either plain or grand?
Is it always “or”?
Is it never “and”?
But she knows it’s not sustainable. She can’t live in the woods, can’t have a life of moments. She resolves not to put it all behind her though and not forget it. The implication is that the verve she felt from the affair is part of what makes life back with her dull Baker worthwhile.
Just remembering you’ve had and “and”,
When you’re back to “or”,
Makes the “or” mean more
Than it did before.
And then she get’s squished by a giant lady.
Finally, we have the Witch. Oh lord, the Witch. Allow me a quick aside to mention how much I love Bernadette Peters. I’d listen to that woman read the phonebook and be entertained. She is both slots one and two on my Guilt-Free-Three.
But, about the character, yeah. OK, focus Scott. Yeah, the Witch.
The Witch has issues, issues that cause a ton of trouble for herself and others. As a mother, the Witch prefers to lock her daughter away from the world, not as punishment, but to protect her. We get some insight into how she views the world in the song “Stay With Me”:
Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?
Someone has to shield you from the world.
Stay with me.
Princes wait there in the world, it’s true.
Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too.
I think the choice of wolves is important here. The Witch knows the forest and the Wolf is the forest’s resident sexual predator. She puts Princes, humans, and this predator into the same line, equating them. This is how the witch views the world, full of dangerous men with their penises. Note her choice in the prologue that when the Baker’s father steals from her he is “robbing me, raping me.” She brings this up again in “Last Midnight”:
I’m the hitch.
I’m what no one believes,
I’m the Witch.
You’re all liars and thieves,
Like his father,
Like his son will be, too-
Oh, why bother?
The witch has a fixation on men and views them as dangerous and immoral. If I was the type to do so, I’d peg her as a former victim of abuse (or close to someone else who was) who’s taken on a lot of fear of men as a representation of her attacker. Sexual assault seems to loom large over how she views the world.
Note that it is especially hurtful to her for Rapunzel to spurn her for the love of a man6. She scolds her adopted daughter, guilts her, gives her one last warning about the world and then tosses her out into it, as if the touch of a man has tainted her or created some irrevocable divide between them.
I think that covers the largest set of story-lines. Maybe I’ve spent this whole time just restating the obvious, but sometimes that’s a reasonable exercise. Maybe I’m just dirty minded, but I certainly can’t help that.
So yeah, Into the Woods? All about sex.
- Traditionally associated with the brilliant linguists, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm ↩
- Makes sense, we modern enlightened authors didn’t invent sex or talking about it. ↩
- Which was a reuniting of the original broadway cast, but I don’t know how much things like costume and set changed between Broadway and this recording, which is why I’m calling out the TV version here ↩
- Well, he has charm for a Prince, I guess. ↩
- Read: bad girl who does sex ↩
- I mean, what do you think was going on during those nightly visits from the Prince? ↩