One of Stephen Sondheim’s most recognizable musicals is Into the Woods, which you may recognize from the movie version Disney made in 2014. The story involves various fairy tale characters, in addition to two modern ones in the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, who go into the woods in a quest to get what they want and come out happily ever after (or at least singing a song implying so); the second half has them going back into the woods and reexamining their old desires. So just from this synopsis, I can expand on how the show uses the theme of journeying, how it is a remediation of other tales, and how it plays with Hypermediacy in its production.
The first act is a relatively simple tale of the characters’ journeys: it is plot friendly, about overcoming obstacles, poses only a slight moral dilemma, ends with all the characters, including the narrator, singing about how they have a happy ending (really, look at how joyful they all seem), and moralizes some simple tales that everyone has learned: “And we reached the right conclusions/ And we got what we deserved!”
Behind the happy-go-lucky surface, the philosophies of the protagonists are manically explained “To be happy, and forever,/ You must see your wish come true./ Don’t be careful, don’t be clever./ When you see your wish, pursue” The underlying belief of these characters is the exact same as what it was in the beginning: to be happy, pursue your wish, explained as “Into the woods/ To get the thing/ That makes it worth/ The journeying.” Although the characters have taken a physical journey, and killed the wolf, slain the giant, avoided making the decision to commit to a prince, and completed the witch’s task, they have not grown as characters since they have not changed, only their circumstances have. While this may be fine for a children’s show (as shown by the success of “Into the Woods jr” which is just the first act of Into the Woods) Act II is here to change that.
In the second half, the characters are forced to deal with their reckless desire to get what their wish. They go back into the woods because a giant is invading their realm, due to the various things that the characters have done – from Little Red taunting Jack to steal her harp, Cinderella carelessly throwing a magic bean away, and various other careless actions – and they eventually gather together and admit their blame in the present situation. Perhaps what makes act II about the journey and not the destination is the choices that the characters’ make: this is best exemplified symbolically when they sacrifice the narrator to the giant, signifying an end both to simple morals and having your decisions made for you.
Likewise, a good exemplar for how the characters grow as a result of their journey is Cinderella’s ability to finally make a decision. Whereas in Act I her happy ending came as a result of deciding that she would rather be the object of desire rather then follow her own volition, as shown by her realization “I know what my decision is/ Which is not to decide,” when leaving her shoe on the steps of the palace, in Act II she finally makes her own decision by leaving her prince and following her own desires, not his. Only after being forced to reflect in the woods, rather than follow one plot point to the next until they reach their prize, do the characters finally change and sing “Careful the wish you make,/ Wishes are children./ Careful the path they take-/ Wishes come true,/ Not free.” As such, the second act reflects on the danger in rushing recklessly through your journey to achieve your ends.
As previously mentioned, Into the Woods is a remediation, in which the classic fairy tale structure, themes, characters (remember that first image?), narrator, and morals, are put into a medium of a musical. This is significant because whereas a fairy tale is short, plot-based, and is told to tell a simple moral, this musical is almost the exact opposite: it is long, the second half is character-focused, and gives a more complex moral message. As such, it is able to both really reflect on and criticize the motivation behind the characters, both in the songs that illuminate their character and the whole second half that extends their story. Since the characters are humanized, and their stories interact in new ways, it forces us to really examine these tropes as characters, and to question just how reckless the message of fairy tales are.
It raises questions like “Does Cinderella actually like this prince and want to stay married to someone she knew for three nights, especially considering how desperate she was to go out of her old situation, how likely is it that she genuinely liked him instead of just accepted literally anything she could get?” and “Why should Jack not face any consequences for stealing from the giant,” and “How much can the prince actually love Cinderella after only dancing with her for three nights?” The answers that the musical raises are: She does not like him, Jack should feel guilt and lose someone important, and the prince just moved on to Sleeping Beauty when he got bored anyways.” As such, its remediation into a more contemplative art form allowed the show to critique the fairy tales it is based on.
In addition, many of the aspects of the musical directly mirror aspects of a fairy tale. There is the infamous first song, a 13 minute piece with several characters singing “I Wish” multiple times throughout, as well as a laundry list of things they wish for; this phrase is common in fairy tales, since the characters are literally only defined by what they think they want (Cinderella = wish to escape, Little Red = Go to Grandmother’s house, Rapunzel = explore the world). Furthermore, the title of the show, which is also the most repeated words in the cast album, is a reference to Fairy Tales, as the woods often represent a place of adventure. Finally, characters like the narrator and the witch are both remediation of the style of how fairy tales are told (simplistically) and the main villain in multiple tales.
Finally, the show plays on Hyper-mediacy: in the first half, the characters are almost caricatures, thus drawing attention to the fact that the audience is watching a play. And this works because it is supposed to be like a fairy tale, reflected by the simple, but unrealistic, world the characters live in and the set of the show. In the second they are presented as more real and having more complex motivations, thus making the show appear more transparent. Likewise, there are constant ironic references to Fairy Tale motifs, such as the three willow trees that bring them to the right path: the motif of three is common in fairy tales and allows Cinderella to find her way pack to her story; simultaneously, it reminds the audience that they are watching characters from a fairy tale, and so it makes the play more hyper-mediated in the same moment that Cinderella is able to find her story again. And finally, there is the infamous line “What am I doing here/ I’m in the wrong story!” sung by the baker’s wife in the middle of her climatic scene with the prince, thus drawing the audience out of the story while also illuminating the Baker’s Wife’s intelligence and her awareness of the social politics at play.