"Into the Woods" was one of the first major works to use the conceit of putting well-known fairy tales into the same milieu, an idea that has since been used with considerable success by the comic series "Fables," and the TV show "Once Upon a Time," among others. The four items needed by the Witch tie together four plots into a single braid, an idea which works well in my opinion, and devices such as the Baker being the man who buys Jack's cow being rather clever.
(For those not familiar with the musical, the first act ties together the stories of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) with an arc in which the Baker (James Corder and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who are the second generation of the Rapunzel story, deal with the Witch (Meryl Streep) in order to be able to have a child, also a classic myth trope. In the second act, things go south as the Giant’s Wife (Frances de la Tour) devastates the kingdom seeking revenge on Jack, and the characters’ community is torn apart by loss and bickering as to who’s to blame.)
The plot actually has considerable philosophical depth, not only with the frame metaphor of the Woods being the place of transformation, where the "hero's journey" begins. I also like the losses of innocence experienced by Red Riding Hood, Jack, the Baker and his Wife, and Cinderella. There is also the question of the transience of satisfaction once the hitherto unattainable has been gained, as personified by the Princes (more so in the stage version than the movie).
We particularly liked Meryl Streep as the pivotal character of The Witch (although Bernadette Peters, who played the role on Broadway, is still THE Witch,) and Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. All the actors did their own singing, according to the credits, and did very well, handling Stephen Sondheim’s occasionally challenging music deftly. Sondheim’s score for “Into the Woods” is rather more tuneful than say “Sweeney Todd,” or “Assassins,” and there are many powerful "motivs" such as the "Into the Woods," theme, "Agony," and "Children Will Listen," all of which usually stick with me for days after hearing a performance.
Due to limitations on practical staging, the typical stage version is played in front of The Woods, with a few set pieces that move on and off, and you never actually see the Princes' castle, either of the Giants, or some of the other locations opened out for the film, which did expand it quite a bit. (On the other hand, I appreciate bits of stagecraft in theatre such as having the presence of the Giant Wife indicated by her broken spectacles on stage--.) I did think the scenery additions were an enhancement, and liked it that they kept themes such as never seeing the Giant’s Wife fully.
Your mileage may vary, but I would class "Into the Woods" as highly recommended for fans of musical theatre.
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