‘Do you know what you wish?
Are you certain what you wish
Is what you want?’
It’s ironic that Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a 1986 musical which is a deconstruction of fairy tales and the ‘happily ever after’ approach, should be released by Disney, a company which specialises in ‘happily ever after’.
On one level, Sondheim’s musicals are coolly intellectual. He doesn’t shy away from difficult themes. He has written musicals on the dark side of the American dream (Follies, Assassins); on loneliness and isolation (Company); on the bitter-sweet nature of middle-aged love (A Little Night Music); on artistic creativity (Sunday in the Park with George); and on murder and cannibalism (Sweeney Todd). Through all of these runs a theme of the need for, and difficulty of, emotional connection. ‘Only connect.’
His musicals are often built around a brilliant central concept: the musical as kabuki (Pacific Overtures); the chronologically ‘backwards’ narrative of Merrily We Roll Along; or, in this case, fairy tales. He’s interested in narrative structure, and in how stories are told as much as the content, since stories are subjective reinterpretations of what happened: how they are told reshapes reality. (What is truer? The event or the memory—the story one tells? Can an event take place without someone in a tree to observe and remember it? And how does that affect how people live?) The audience is expected to appreciate this ingenuity on an aesthetic level, as connoisseurs. (Sondheim is a man who likes puzzles; he co-wrote The Last of Sheila, which is almost pure Ellery Queen with its multiple solutions and linguistic clues, while the detective writer of Sleuth is partly based on him.)
If we accept Schiller’s division of writers into the naïve (natural, unselfconscious, unmeditative, writing only from inspiration) and the sentimental (conscious, meditative, calculating and craftsmanlike), Sondheim is unquestionably the latter. But there is nothing sentimental (in the modern sense) about his work. Instead of the simple big emotions of a Lloyd Webber crowd-pleaser, Sondheim’s emotional world is complex and nuanced: adult. His characters are individuals, introspective sophisticates who dissect their emotions, and grapple with adult issues: love, lovelessness, vulnerability, regret, longing for the past.
One of the masterstrokes of Into the Woods is that these adult emotions are placed in the fairy tale, one of the most simple—or at least non-complex and unthreatening—forms; certainly in its Disney iteration, which is well-crafted superior entertainment, but often lacks complex characterisation or themes. Hence the howls of outrage from IMDB reviewers who went into the cinema expecting a Disney movie and got Sondheim instead. There’s not a happy ending! It’s immoral! It encourages moral relativism!
Instead of the black/white morality of Disney, there are no out-and-out goodies or baddies, but flawed people who lie, cheat, and steal, who make mistakes and wrong choices, and whose actions have repercussions and consequences—and what might seem the ‘right’ (the pragmatic or the necessary) action may not be the moral one. It depends on perspective.
Witches can be right,
Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right,
You decide what’s good.
Someone is on your side. (Our side.)
Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side—
Maybe we forgot:
They are not alone.
No one is alone.
The film is not perfect, but it’s far and away the best adaptation of a Sondheim musical. The film does suffer from its structure. In the musical, the two acts are separated by a year: Act II deals with what happens ‘Happily Ever After’, and gives the characters time to become disillusioned; the movie has no intermission or even a break within the film itself. Moreover, the film lacks the tour de force breaking of the fourth wall at the start of Act II and the Baker’s song ‘No More’, all of which affect character and thematic development.
Now bring on the Disney family friendly Assassins!
– Nick Fuller