Published on:

October 31, 2014

Ask a Wolf's Mother

By Saryta Rodriguez

I’ve always been a huge theater geek.  One of my favorite composer/lyricists is Stephen Sondheim, famous for such musicals as Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music.  I first encountered Into the Woods in high school; I was initially devastated to not have been granted the part of the Witch, who in my opinion has the best number in the entire show, and later delighted to discover upon joining the pit orchestra (on violin) that the score was every bit as exciting and innovative as the lyrics and dialogue were.  More recently, I had the pleasure of viewing Into the Woods at San Francisco Playhouse.  It was a truly fantastic performance, and has made me eager to return to SF Playhouse in the near future.

SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you do not want to know how Into the Woods ends. (However, I promise that even knowing the ending, you should definitely go see this musical if you have not already done so.  It will still be amazing and well worth the expense.)

   Into the Woods    on Broadway. Original 1987-1989 cast, starring Bernadette Peters as The Witch.
   Into the Woods   on Broadway. Original 1987-1989 cast, starring Bernadette Peters as The Witch.  

Into the Woods tells a complex story blending some of the most beloved and renowned Grimm’s fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.  The musical explores the two most essential of all human relationships: the parent/child relationship and romantic partnerships.  Within this framework, there are also allusions to classism:

Prince Charming to Cinderella, upon being caught cheating on her: “I was raised to be charming—not sincere.”
Prince Charming lyrics in Anything Can Happen in the Woods, to the Baker’s Wife: “Life is often so unpleasant; you must know that, as a peasant.”

With respect to animal liberation—and even human racism—this musical is at once subtle and direct.     Three aspects of the play, in my opinion, confront otherization in general and animal issues in particular: Jack and Milky White, Little Red Riding Hood vs. the Wolves, and all other characters vs. the Giant’s Wife.

Jack's best friend is Milky White, a cow, and from early in the musical his mother and others repeatedly make fun of him for this.  Later, when he acquires a harp from the Giants' home, Jack declares happily, "Now I have two friends: a cow and a harp!" (thus equating an animal with an inanimate object--and this from the character who loves animals).  Upon hearing the news that he must sell his cow at the market because his family needs the money, Jack sings to Milky White:

I guess this is goodbye, old pal. You've been a perfect friend. I hate to see us part, old pal. Someday I'll buy you back. I'll see you soon again. I hope that when I do, it won't be on a plate.

Little Red Riding Hood is not eaten by a wolf in this musical; rather, she learns through a close call to take better care of herself. “My grandmother gave me this knife, for PROTECTION!” she proudly proclaims.  Riding Hood proceeds to kill multiple wolves “off-stage,” so to speak, and wears a shawl made of wolf hide beginning about halfway through Into the Woods

In a scene in which all characters are arguing over what to do about the Giant’s Wife, who has come down a beanstalk demanding Jack be turned over to her because he stole several items from her home and ultimately killed her husband, Red Riding Hood suddenly displays apprehension towards violence:

The Witch: Since when are you so squeamish? How many wolves have you killed?
RRH: A wolf isn’t the same!
The Witch: Ask a wolf’s mother.

While Red Riding Hood worries about Jack being hurt, and even hesitates about using violence against the (human-ish) Giant’s Wife, she has not merely learned to defend herself but has come to delight in the slaughter of all wolves—whether they have attacked her or not—and consider her acts of violence against them legitimate.  The Witch, who by name if not by deed one would presume to be an “evil” character, surprisingly demonstrates compassion—while reminding audiences that yes, even wolves have mothers.

The primary conflict that arises in Into the Woods—whether to hold Jack accountable for his crimes or murder the Giant’s Wife before she can destroy the entire village—is ripe with otherization.  Jack, upon discovering a beanstalk resulting from a bean he discarded, climbs it and steals a golden-egg-laying goose from the Giants’ home.  He and his mother are poor, and he considers this an act of necessity; later, however, he returns up the beanstalk on a dare from Red Riding Hood (quite the little troublemaker, that one) and steals a golden harp to impress her and prove he’s not afraid.  Off-stage, we hear the Giant pursue Jack as he climbs back down the beanstalk and chops it down. The Giant then falls to his death. (We'll reserve the subject of Sondheim's having named the male giant Giant while referring to the female giant merely as Giant's Wife for another day.)

Upon the emergence of a second beanstalk resulting from a bean discarded by Cinderella, the Giant’s Wife climbs down to Earth, smashes up part of the village—including the palace—and presents the townspeople with an ultimatum: give me Jack, or I will destroy everything.

The townspeople, after wasting a substantial amount of time arguing about who was to blame for all of this, resolve to launch an attack against the Giant’s Wife and protect Jack.  Only the Witch sees anything wrong with this plan.  In that oh-so-awesome number, Last Midnight, the Witch calls everybody out on their Blame-Gaming and demands that Jack be turned over to her so that she can personally deliver him to the Giant’s Wife.

Townspeople: “NO!”
The Witch, mockingly: “No.
The Witch continues:  “You’re so nice.  You’re not good; you’re not bad.  You’re just…nice.  I’m not good, I’m not nice—I’m just right….I’m the Witch….You’re the world.”

The townspeople, knowing full well the extent of Jack’s crimes (and the role that others, such as Red Riding Hood, played in said crimes), nevertheless decide to protect him because he is “one of us.”  He’s a regular, average-sized human; the Giant’s Wife, by contrast, is big and scary and other-ly.  They are not doing the morally “right” thing here; they are doing the nice thing.  Personally, I can’t help but side with the Witch on this one.  Jack should have apologized to the Giant’s Wife and begged for mercy, leaving the rest of the townspeople out of it.  Instead, the poor Giant’s Wife, who only seeks justice for her fallen husband, is herself murdered; and the townspeople rejoice.

The genius of Sondheim with respect to lyrics and storyline (leaving aside his brilliant, rhythmically intricate compositions) is to address so many social issues at once without turning characters into lecturers or dialogues into debates.  So many points come across, in such rapid succession, that you hardly notice until mentally processing the show after the fact.  You get caught up in the moment, the music, the costumes, the fun; then, on the way home, you realize you have just witnessed a provocative social commentary unlike any other.  He teaches you while cleverly masking the fact that you are being taught, behind smoke screens of magical beans (greed), fur capes (speciesism), and giants (racism). 

My rating for Into the Woods: infinity stars.