Into the Woods really has to be experienced first and analyzed later, because there’s no way to piece together some consistent philosophy while the musical assaults you with enormous shifts in tone and perspective. Like many fairy tales, in fact, what seems to be important in the first act (getting a baby) is hardly of any consequence in the second—consider how the incest themes of the Thousandfur stories disappear when the plot starts to mimic Cinderella. Meanwhile, the figure that drives the second act (the giant) is barely set up in the first (we only obliquely hear about Jack’s exploits), much like the sudden appearance of characters like the prince in Snow White. On the other hand, the story’s volatility sometimes acutely contradicts the fairy tale tradition. Wives, fathers, and mothers are only supposed to die at the beginning of the story, for example, and a witch who becomes beautiful should really either lose her beauty or be killed off by the end of the story—poetic justice is completely scrambled. It’s as though the musical has the pieces, appearance, and structure a fairy tale needs, but refuses to act like one.
Of course, to say something like “acts like a fairy tale” implies that we know what their “true” function is, which leads me to what I thought was the most interesting way that Into the Woods interacts with the fairy tale tradition. Sure, self-referential genre humor (e.g. picking up the cow) immediately grabs attention, and the imposition of realistic reactions (“you can talk with birds?!”) makes for an entertaining show, but what’s most fascinating is how the characters themselves seem to have to learn the Bettelheim-style lessons they are supposed to be teaching the audience. The baker is overwhelmed with fatherhood issues, the witch has to reconcile interpersonal relationships with morality—hell, nearly all the characters have to cope with loss. But the musical as a whole doesn’t communicate these lessons to the audience; instead they’re kept within the fairy tale characters. Is this simply the product of an era when the entire genre has already been dissected and criticized to death—can we now sit back haughtily and subject these characters to the psychological underpinnings of their own stories? No, I think the revival of some playfulness at the end of the musical lets us know that nothing cruel or permanently depressing is going on here. It is a tribute to fairy tales rather than a fairy tale itself, and consequently must portray all sides of society’s interaction with these endearing and infectious stories.