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Summary of Into the Woods

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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.

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The film begins by introducing several characters in quick succession, all singing about something they want. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) cleans her stepmother's house as she sings about her wish to go to the king's festival. Young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wishes his cow would give milk. The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) wish they could have a child. Cinderella's stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters Florinda (Tammy Blanchard) and Lucinda (Lucy Punch) mock her for wanting to go to the festival. Jack's Mother (Tracey Ullman) wishes her son had more sense and she had more money. Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) goes to the Baker's shop wishing for some bread and treats for her grandmother; though she has no money to pay for them, she eats many pastries while she skips around the bakery. Cinderella's stepmother pours a bowl of tiny lentils into the fireplace and tells Cinderella she can go to the ball if she can pick up every last one. Cinderella calls on her bird friends to help her with the task and they fly down the chimney. Meanwhile, Jack's mother says that because her milk has gone dry they have to sell the cow (Tug), who he calls Milky White and treats as a friend. Little Red continues collecting food in the bakery, gathering more and more for herself. The Baker's Wife is sweet and loving towards her but the Baker calls her a thief; he isn't much of a parental type. Little Red continues on, into the woods to her Grandmother's house. When the lentils are back in their pot, Cinderella tells the birds to fly back to the sky, then goes to help her stepsisters prepare for the ball. One stepsister slaps Cinderella after she ties her hair too tight. There is a knock at the bakery door; they have run out of bread (after Red Riding Hood's visit) but the patron doesn't care and blows the door off. It's the Witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door; she promises the Baker's Wife she will be able to bear a child if she follows her orders.The Witch tells them that when the Baker was a child, his father would sneak into her garden and steal greens to appease his pregnant wife's cravings (which is part of the Rapunzel fairy tale). In a flashback, the Witch catches the Baker's father in her garden; she promises to take his wife's unborn child in exchange for the stolen vegetables, revealing to the Baker that he had a sister (later revealed to be Rapunzel, although they never interact). She tells them that the reason she is cursed with ugliness is because the Baker's father also stole magic beans from her garden, which she promised her mother to never let out of her sight. When their baby is born, she steals the child and hides her away; the Witch also curses the Baker to have a barren family tree (which is why his wife cannot get pregnant). She reminds the Baker that when his mother died, his father deserted him.

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Two years later Sondheim received a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1994 he answered with another award-winning musical, Passion. Based on an obscure Italian movie, the work features a love triangle between Fosca, an ugly, frail woman; Giorgio, a handsome Italian army officer; and Clara, Giorgio's beautiful mistress. After being assigned to a regiment in Parma, Italy, Giorgio meets the tormented Fosca. The two develop a rapport based on their mutual interest in literature, but their friendship quickly takes a new turn when Fosca declares her obsession and love for Giorgio. Repulsed by Fosca, Giorgio is nonetheless unable to rid her from his mind. Fosca pursues Giorgio relentlessly; when Giorgio finally admits that he too is in love with her, the two consummate their love. Fosca dies shortly thereafter, while Giorgio, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is admitted to a hospital. Audiences and critics alike had mixed reactions to Passion. Nation critic David Kaufman remarked, "A dark tale of an obsessive love that is cut short after it finally finds its perfect object, Passion is archetypal Sondheim in its content." Calling the work "passionless," Kaufman concluded that it "emerges as more of an elegant chamber piece than a full-scale musical." Similarly, Ben Brantley in the New York Times noted that Passion "isn't perfect…. There's an inhibited quality here that asks to be exploded and never is." But Robert Brustein of the New Republic declared the musical "Sondheim's deepest, most powerful work…. Passion is a triumph of rare and complex sensibility, fully imagined, fully realized." Despite its mixed reception, the show won several Tony awards, including best musical and, for Sondheim, best original music score (Leithauser, Brad, 2000). In 2000, upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Sondheim granted an interview to New York Times magazine writer Frank Rich. When asked to critique his own work, Sondheim said: "Verbosity is the thing I have to fight most in the lyrics department…. ‘Less is more’ is a lesson learned with a difficulty." He later added: "I'm accused so often of not having melodic gifts, but I like the music I write. Harmony gives music its life, its emotional color, more than rhythm."

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Definitely, the tales collected by the Brothers had been kept alive by German peasants who worked as cowherds, woodcutters and wood-carvers and had little chance to change their station in life. Their dietary staple was coarse black bread and as basic an idea as a well-stocked pantry seemed magical. The tales are laced with images of gold — golden eggs, feathers and leaves — although the peasants who told the tales rarely saw this precious substance in any form. While we observe the presence of many moral lessons in the good and bad characters and strong contrasts between good and evil in the tales, the Grimms stated that “although there is a moral in the stories, that was not their object and if it is there it easily grows out of them like fruit from a perfect blossom without any help from man.”

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Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman, "Fairy Tale," in A Handbook to Literature, Prentice Hall, 2003, pp. 203-204.

Leithauser, Brad, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway," in New York Review of Books, February 10, 2000, pp. 35-49.

Lovensheimer, Jim, "Stephen Sondheim and the Musical of the Outsider," in Cambridge Companion to the Musical, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 181-96.

McLaughlin, Robert L., "‘No One Is Alone’: Society and Love in the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim," in Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 27-41.

Sondheim, Stephen, and James Lapine, Into the Woods, Theatre Communications Group, 1987.

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