Collective Irresponsibility

Sondheim’s Into the Woods is real stand-out Broadway. Its playful motif makes the moralized plot palatable and fun to watch, but the profound complexity and layered story keep your grown up mind thinking. Sondheim combined four different classic stories: Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood, with a baker and his wife whose desire to have a child acts as the catalyst for the storyline.

I’ve written up a synopsis that you can (hopefully) read at the bottom of this post, or you can check out the one on wikipedia. It was too long to put in the post.

For me, the clearest message is that nobody ever meant for the problem to occur, but they got a little lazy, a little misprioritized (I just made that word up), and got a little greedy. Coupled with their own human weaknesses, they all collectively neglected each other and victimized the giants and then suddenly had to deal with them. In the end of the play, the giant’s wife wants to avenge the wrongful death of her husband by killing Jack, putting everyone in the dilemma of choosing between his life and hers.

Bernadette Peters was the witch on the OBC.

Nobody ever meant to do this, but no one stopped it from happening either. And what’s more, no one person could have made this mess alone. Everyone together did this by chasing their wishes down. No one is really sorry for what they did in the end either- the witch is never given back the stolen beans, but no one considers her because she is the witch. In fact, when everything starts unraveling they ultimately blame her for the wreck because she raised them. Don’t feel too bad for her though, she is the image of the abusive parent. Rapunzel never belonged to her and she knew it, keeping her trapped in a tower and punishing her harshly when she tries to live a normal life. Red Riding Hood’s wolf ends up killed because she was thoughtless and didn’t follow directions or think about what she was doing anyway.

Right now, I am seeing several such situations that are kind of at the brink of disaster and I don’t feel very guilty but I am wondering where it will all turn up. How do we stop things like the housing bubble from happening? It took many years of collective irresponsibility to produce the multiple messes that I am witnessing right now, and I wonder if anyone had known what was coming if we would have done any better than we did or if we would have just created a different mess.


Act I has everyone wishing for something and chasing it down. Cinderella wishes she could have a chance at happiness, Jack and his mother wish they were able to support themselves, Red Riding Hood wishes for bread to bring her Granny and the baker and his wife wish they could have a child. Rapunzel’s wishes are never really voiced, but the witch wishes for the baker and his wife to fetch some items: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Later events reveal that she will use them for a spell and needs the couple to collect them as she cannot touch the objects. In return, she will lift a curse of barrenness she placed on their household so that they can have their longed-for child. It seems the baker’s father once stole some rampion from her garden to feed his pregnant wife and bargained their baby away to the witch for it (and the story of Rapuzel unfolds). What the witch didn’t know was that he had also stolen magic beans which had been enchanted so that if she ever lost any, she would be cursed with old age and ugliness.

Thus informed, the baker and his wife go into the woods to search for the list, meeting all the characters along the way– trading beans to Jack for the cow, trading regular shoes for the single gold slipper to Cinderella when she loses its mate on the palace steps, and acquiring the cape from Red Riding Hood for rescuing her from a wolf. (At some point, Rapunzel’s hair also comes into the couple’s possession, but the witch has touched it making it no good for her magic spell and they use a substitute.) The act closes with everyone seemingly getting what they wished for: Cinderella marries the prince and leaves her nightmare abusive home. Jack becomes wealthy from the stolen goods he found at the giant’s home, the witch uses the collected objects to remove the curse and restore her youth and beauty, and the baker and his wife have the child they wanted. Rapunzel meets her prince, goes through the story of having her hair chopped off and going to the desert to bear twins, before finally reuniting with her prince and marrying him. When the witch finds her and tries to convince her to come back to be her family again, Rapunzel refuses and the witch attempts to curse her, then learning that her magic powers left her when she cast the spell to regain her youth and beauty. This half of the story closes with two basic messages. First, the narrator’s line “And it came to pass that all that seemed wrong was now right and those who deserved to were certain to live a long and happy life.” Second, unnoticed by the characters, one of the beans was carelessly thrown away in the scramble to collect the four items for the witch, resulting in a second bean stalk that grows up behind the cast as they all sing obliviously on about how everything is fine for them now.

Act II starts out with people blissfully starting to wish they had new things to wish for. They’ve met their objectives and are already growing dissatisfied. This does not last long, however. Before they finish the first number, a huge crash destroys their village and they all realize that there is a giant in their land. Everyone scrambles around trying to deny the presence of the giant, or blame the destruction on someone else or hide and many people are killed until the few remaining characters finally calm down and decide to work together to form a plan. Sondheim’s intended moral was that the giants in our lives that come along are everyone’s fault and no one’s at the same time, and that cooperating together is the only way to conquer them.


1 Comment »

  1. I love the concise summary! It seems no matter what the circumstances that arise in life, meaning and context for them can always be found in Into the Woods.

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