Into the Woods

The fairy tale has always exerted a powerful pull on our psyche. That’s why re-envisioned fairy tales by such writers as Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey, and Gregory Frost in his Fitcher’s Brides are popular. One of my favorite musicals is Into the Woods. The writing is fantastic and the cast of the 1991 television performance (including Joanna Gleason, who won the 1988 Best Actress Tony for it) was spectacular.

A large part of the charm of the show (at least for a writer) is how Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wove together several well-known fairy tales into a single narrative. A Baker and his Wife go on a quest to lift a curse from their family, tying together the tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. One by one, the characters go into the woods, that archetypal metaphor for the darkest parts of human nature. There their paths cross as they face the evil in the world and the worst in themselves.

The tales are woven seamlessly, the lyrics are witty, and the emotion is true. It is fun and funny while being true to human nature. It is no wonder that it won Best Score and Best Book Tonys in 1988. But also, as I writer, I enjoy premise of the (much darker) second act. This is a look at what happens after “happily ever after.”


What happens is that happily ever after isn’t what any of them expected, and even though they had achieved their wish, they now wish for something else. When an angry giant attacks the land, they all get thrown together to try to stop it.

Another twist that appeals to my writerly heart is when the characters decide to sacrifice the Narrator to the giant. They reason that since he is the only person “outside” the story, he is expendable. He argues that he is the only one who knows how the story ends, so he is essential. When he dies, the characters are left on their own to make decisions for the first time in their lives.

The musical is a study in the law of unintended consequences. The pursuit and attainment of seemingly harmless wishes (to go to the ball, to have money for food, to have a child) have disastrous repercussions not just for the wisher but for those around them. As the cast sings in the show – “Wishes come true, not free.”

One of these unintended consequences is the lessons we teach our children by what we say and do. Anyone with children in their lives knows all too well that nothing escapes children’s sharp eyes and ears. They see and emulate everything. The writers of Into the Woods (a show definitely NOT for young children) are acutely aware of the powerful effect our actions and our stories have on our children. Stories are magical, a spell woven with words rather than potions. One of the final admonishments of the show is a piece of advice every writer should take to heart: “Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell. Children will listen.”

What fairy tales still haunt your dreams? And what lessons did you learn from them?


  1. I’ve seen a case of “be careful of the tale you tell, that is the spell in my own life” but children weren’t involved. One of my tales is about a protag who suffers brain damage, and later gets better when kind aliens implant issue into her brain to stimulate normal function. years gone by, when my husband got his Parkinson’s, he got a deep brain stimulation which does involve rods implanted into the brain.

    But the saying that also comes to mind is, be careful what you wish for, you might get it. And wishes do not come through because even though you got the new situation, it brings its own set of problems.

    thanks for sharing!

    Barbara of the Balloons (Popple)

  2. Thanks for sharing, Popple!

    And yes, even when you get your wish, life is never perfect. That was one of the other points of the show. It was, in some ways, a lesson in being not being greedy and being grateful for what you have.


  3. Nancy Keim Comley says

    Anyone who has ever sworn in front of a child over the age of one has learned, they hear and repeat everything. Especially in front of grand parents.

  4. Nancy – I’ve seen that first hand! Children are little sponges, sucking in words, gestures, and attitudes both positive and negative. It behooves us all to act appropriately around them!

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