(Michael Schulman’s article appeared in the New Yorker 12/14.)
For the past year or so, a certain segment of the population—musical-theatre fans who were children in the eighties and thought they were too good for Andrew Lloyd Webber—has experienced a punishing range of emotions about the new movie “Into the Woods,” based on the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical of the same name. The emotions include anxiety, rage, anticipation, possessiveness, nostalgia, suspicion, denial, and dread. More than once, I’ve heard the show’s own lyrics used to explain how “Into the Woods” devotees feel about the adaptation. “Excited and scared,” as Little Red Riding Hood has it.
As a member of this small but fervent demographic, I’d like to explain why we’ve been so tense. Part of it is that “Into the Woods” is easy to get wrong. The musical weaves together fairy-tale figures like Cinderella, Jack (of the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Rapunzel and the witch, and more than one handsome prince. Two new characters, a baker and his wife who’ve been cursed with barrenness, help to tie everything together. By the end of Act I, everyone’s wishes have come true: Cinderella gets her prince, Jack gets the giant’s harp, the baker and his wife get a child, and so on. In Act II, it all falls to pieces. A second giant goes on a killing spree. The princes cheat. The couple resorts to blaming and bickering. The characters question their original wishes and what they stole and whom they sold out to fulfill them. Nobody quite lives happily ever after.