Inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment, the musical intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales and follows them further to explore the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests. The main characters are taken from the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, tied together by a more original story involving a Baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family, most likely taken from the original story of Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm. It also includes references to several other well-known tales.
All begin journeys into the woods: Jack's mother sends a reluctant Jack to the market to sell his beloved Milky-White; and Cinderella decides to escape to the festival, first visiting her mother's grave and receiving a beautiful dress and shoes ("Cinderella at the Grave"). Little Red Riding Hood goes to her grandmother's house and is stalked by a hungry wolf along the way ("Hello, Little Girl"). The Baker's Wife helps the baker con the sad Jack into selling Milky-White ("I Guess This Is Goodbye") for five beans that his father had stolen from the witch, telling Jack that they're magic. The Baker, feeling guilty about telling Jack they were magic without knowing, sends his Wife home with the cow ("Maybe They're Magic"). The Witch has locked Rapunzel, who has hair "as yellow as corn", in a tower to shield her from the outside world ("Our Little World"). When Little Red Riding Hood arrives at her grandmother's house, she is swallowed by the Wolf, who has also feasted on her grandmother. The Baker (who has been following her) slays the Wolf, saving Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, and she rewards him with the red cape ("I Know Things Now"). Jack's mother is angry that Jack was duped, returning only with the beans, and tosses them aside, not knowing they really are magic and will grow into a beanstalk that will reach the heavens. Cinderella leaves the festival before the "First Midnight."
The Baker's Wife spots Cinderella's pure gold slippers, but she is also taken with Cinderella's Prince ("A Very Nice Prince"). Milky-White runs away, with the Wife in pursuit. Jack, meanwhile, returns from the giant's home with five gold coins, hoping to repurchase Milky-White ("Giants in the Sky"). The Wife confesses that she has lost the cow – a setback. The two Princes sing of their endless longing ("Agony"). The Wife fools Rapunzel into letting down her hair and steals a piece. The Mysterious Man appears and gives Milky-White back to the Baker. The Baker realizes that his Wife has helped considerably, and admits the need to join together in their quest ("It Takes Two").
Jack then arrives with a hen that lays golden eggs and attempts to buy Milky-White, but she has died. The Baker's Wife meets Cinderella again, and almost succeeds in getting one of her shoes. As the second midnight begins, the Witch discovers that the Prince is visiting Rapunzel and begs Rapunzel to return to her ("Stay with Me"). The Witch angrily cuts off Rapunzel's hair and banishes her to a desert, and her Prince is blinded while trying to escape from the Witch. The Mysterious Man gives the Baker money to buy another cow, and Jack, sarcastically convinced by Little Red Riding Hood, who now has her new wolfskin cape and a knife for protection, returns once again to the Giant's home to steal a magical harp.
Cinderella's Prince is giving another festival and spreads pitch on the stairs to try to capture and identify her ("On the Steps of the Palace"). The Baker's Wife arrives and attempts to trade her remaining bean for Cinderella's one remaining slipper; Cinderella throws the bean aside but, needing two shoes, trades shoes with the Wife and flees. The Baker arrives, and they have now met all of the Witch's demands before the end of the third day. Jack's mother reports that a dead Giant has fallen from the beanstalk. As the third midnight approaches, the Witch discovers the cow is not pure white – it has only been covered with flour. However, the Witch revives Milky-White, and the items are fed to her by the Baker and Wife. Jack milks her, but when he lifts the goblet and turns it upside down, he reveals there's nothing in the cup. The Baker and his wife look speechless; they count out the items they had gotten and the Baker's wife reveals that she plucked the hair from Repunzel. The witch furiously tells the couple that it would not work because the Witch had touched the hair of Rapunzel they had used in the potion (which explains why she needed the Baker to get the ingredients for her, instead of getting them herself). The Mysterious Man appears and tells the Baker to use the hair-like strands on the husk of corn, which he used to compare with the stepsister's hair. The new potion works. The curse is reversed, also breaking a spell that had afflicted the Witch, and she becomes youthful and beautiful, although she loses her magical powers.
Cinderella's Prince searches for the maiden whose foot will fit the golden slipper. The stepsisters mutilate their feet trying to cram them into the slipper, but Cinderella appears and becomes the Prince's bride. The Witch explains that the Mysterious Man is the Baker's father, who abandoned him but the Man dies before the Baker can talk to him. Rapunzel finds her Prince and restores his vision with her tears. Another beanstalk grows from the final bean Cinderella threw away. They all live happily "Ever After" ("Ever After").
Suddenly, everyone in the Kingdom is knocked over by an enormous crash, and enormous footprints have destroyed the Baker's Home and the Witch's Garden, leaving her only a few beans spared. The Baker and his Wife decide that they must tell the Royal Family, despite the Witch's insistence that the Royal Family can't do anything about it, and safely escort Little Red Riding Hood to her grandmother's house after her mother was killed by the giant. Jack decides that he must slay the Giant (as he knows how from his previous experiences) and Cinderella learns from her bird friends that her mother's grave was disturbed and decides to investigate. While everyone else is drawn back into the woods for various reasons, the two Princes have grown bored with their marriages and now lust after two new princesses: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty ("Agony" Reprise).
The Baker, his Wife, and Little Red get lost in the Woods and find the Witch, and the Royal Family and the Steward, who reveal that the castle was destroyed by the Giant. The Giant then appears, and everyone is shocked: the Giant's a woman! The Giantess is the Widow of the Giant that Jack killed by chopping down the beanstalk, and she wants to kill him in revenge of her husband. To satisfy the widow's thirst for vengeance, everyone offers her the narrator as a sacrifice, until they realize how lost they would be without him. Nevertheless, the Witch throws him into the Giant's arms and he is killed. Jack's mother finds the group and aggressively defends her son, angering the Giant's widow, and Cinderella's Prince's steward clubs Jack's mother to make her be quiet, inadvertently killing her. The widow leaves to search for Jack, and Rapunzel runs underneath her and is trampled, to the horror of the Witch and her Prince ("Lament").
The Royal Family leaves to hide in a Hidden Kingdom, the Witch decides to sacrifice Jack to the Widow, and the Baker and his Wife decide they must find him first and split up to search. While Cinderella's Prince seduces the Baker's Wife ("Any Moment"), the Baker finds Cinderella and convinces her to join their group for safety. The Baker's Wife realizes her error and decides to return to her happy life with the Baker and their son ("Moments in the Woods") just moments before being accidentally crushed by the angry giant. The Witch finds Jack, who had found the Baker's Wife's body, and wants to give him to the Giant's widow, causing an argument – the characters blame each other for their predicament before they all blame the Witch ("Your Fault"). Disgusted, the Witch throws away the rest of her magic beans on the ground causing her mother's curse to reactivate and make her vanish to parts unknown ("Last Midnight"). The Baker, grieving after his Wife's death, leaves his child with the others. He is then visited by his father's spirit, which convinces him to face his responsibilities ("No More") because the alternative of leaving them behind is worse than his current problems.
The Baker returns to the group and helps them plan to kill the giant, using Cinderella's bird friends to peck out the Giant's eyes at an area smeared with pitch, where Jack and the Baker can finally deliver a fatal blow. Cinderella, after leaving her unfaithful Prince, helps comfort Little Red Riding Hood upon realizing that her grandmother has succumbed to the giant's reign as well, while the Baker explains to Jack his inability to say what is really morally correct ("No One Is Alone").
Everyone helps to slay the Giant's widow, and each of the previously deceased characters returns to describe the lesson they learned. The Baker's Wife returns (in the form of a spirit) to give him one final lesson: tell their Child the story of the Woods, and the Baker becomes the Narrator of the tale. All the characters seem satisfied, except for a final "I wish" from Cinderella ("Finale: Children Will Listen").
Into the Woods started at Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, where it opened on December 4, 1986 and ran for 50 performances. Many of the performers from that production were in the Broadway cast. John Cunningham, who played the Narrator, Wolf and Steward was replaced by Tom Aldredge, who played the Narrator and Mysterious Man. LuAnne Ponce, Little Red Ridinghood, was replaced by Danielle Ferland. Ellen Foley as the Witch was replaced by Bernadette Peters.
Original 1987 Broadway production
Into the Woods opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on November 5, 1987, closed on September 3, 1989, and played 764 performances. It starred Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Kim Crosby, Ben Wright, Danielle Ferland, Chuck Wagner, Merle Louise, and Robert Westenberg. The original production won the 1988 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, and the original cast recording won a Grammy Award. Joanna Gleason won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (original score) also won the Tony Award.
Peters left the show after 5 months due to prior commitments and was replaced by Phylicia Rashad, who was later replaced by Nancy Dussault. In 1989, Betsy Joslyn took over for Ms. Dussault, then left to join the national tour, and Ellen Foley returned to the role of the Witch at the end of the run.
Tenth Anniversary benefit performances of this production were held on November 9, 1997 at The Broadway Theatre (New York), with the original cast.
1988 National United States Tour
The national tour began on November 22, 1988 with Cleo Laine playing the Witch, replaced by Betsy Joslyn in May 1989. Rex Robbins played the Narrator and Mysterious Man, Charlotte Rae Jack's Mother, and the Princes were played by Chuck Wagner and Douglas Sills. The tour played cities around the country, such as Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Los Angeles, California, Atlanta, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
1990 London production
The original London Production opened on September 25 1990 at the Phoenix Theatre and played until February 23, 1991. It was directed by Richard Jones, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, and produced by David Mirvish, with costumes by Sue Blane and orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. It starred Clive Carter, who was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award. Some story aspects and one song that were cut from the original production were added to the London production. The song "Our Little World" was added. This song was a duet sung between the Witch and Rapunzel giving further insight into the care the Witch has for her self-proclaimed daughter and the desire Rapunzel has to see the world outside of her tower.
1991 television production
2002 Broadway revival
The 2002 Broadway revival, directed by James Lapine and choreographed by John Carrafa, began previews on April 13, 2002 and opened April 30 2002 at the Broadhurst Theatre, closing on December 29, 2002 after a run of 18 previews and 279 regular performances. It starred Vanessa L. Williams as the Witch, the recorded voice of Judi Dench as the Giant, and cast including John McMartin (Narrator), Stephen DeRosa (the Baker), Gregg Edelman (Prince/Wolf), Christopher Sieber (Prince/Wolf), and Laura Benanti (Cinderella).
The plot was retooled, with a subplot added involving The Three Little Pigs restored from the earlier San Diego production. Other changes included the addition of the song "Our Little World," a duet between the Witch and Rapunzel that was part of the London production; Jack's cow was a puppet with a live performer inside who dances; "The Last Midnight" was sung by the Witch as a menacing lullaby to an infant held hostage. There were two Wolves rather than only one, sung by the two performers who also play the Princes.
The revival won the Tony Awards for the Best Revival of a Musical and Best Lighting Design.
2007 London Revival
A revival at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio in Covent Garden had a limited run from June 14 - June 30, 2007. This is the second Sondheim musical to be staged by the company, following 2003's Sweeney Todd.
Other productions and adaptations
The musical has been adapted into a child-friendly "Junior" version for use in middle schools. Act II is completely edited out, as well as the not-so-child-friendly elements from Act I. In addition, the show is shortened to fit in a 60-80 minute range.
|Role||Original Broadway production|
2007(Royal Opera House)
|Witch||Bernadette Peters||Julia McKenzie||Vanessa L. Williams||Beverly Klein|
|Narrator||Tom Aldredge||Nicholas Parsons||John McMartin||Gary Waldhorn|
|Cinderella||Kim Crosby||Jacqueline Dankworth||Laura Benanti||Gillian Kirkpatrick|
|Baker||Chip Zien||Ian Bartholomew||Stephen DeRosa||Clive Rowe|
|Baker's Wife||Joanna Gleason||Imelda Staunton||Kerry O'Malley||Anna Francolini|
|Jack||Ben Wright||Richard Dempsey||Adam Wylie||Peter Caulfield|
|Jack's Mother||Barbara Bryne||Patsy Rowlands||Marylouise Burke||Anne Reid|
|Little Red Riding Hood||Danielle Ferland||Tessa Burbridge||Molly Ephraim||Suzanne Toase|
|Cinderella's Stepmother||Joy Franz||Ann Howard||Pamela Myers||Elizabeth Brice|
|Florinda||Kay McClelland||Elizabeth Brice||Tracy Nicole Chapman||Louise Bowden|
|Lucinda||Lauren Mitchell||Liza Sadovy||Amanda Naughton||Lara Pulver|
|Cinderella's Father||Edmund Lyndeck||John Rogan||Dennis Kelly||Martin Nelson|
|Cinderella's Mother||Merle Louise||Laura Benanti|
|Mysterious Man||Tom Aldredge||John Rogan||John McMartin||Martin Nelson|
|Wolf||Robert Westenberg||Clive Carter|| Gregg Edelman & |
|Rapunzel||Pamela Winslow||Mary Lincoln||Melissa Dye||Christina Haldane|
|Rapunzel's Prince||Chuck Wagner||Mark Tinkler||Christopher Sieber||Nic Greenshields|
|Grandmother||Merle Louise||Eunice Gayson||Pamela Myers||Linda Hibberd|
|Cinderella's Prince||Robert Westenberg||Clive Carter||Gregg Edelman||Nicholas Garrett|
|Steward||Philip Hoffman||Peter Ledbury||Trent Armand Kendall||Byron Watson|
|Giant||Merle Louise||Eunice Gayson||Judi Dench (voice)||Linda Hibberd|
|Snow White||Jean Louisa Kelly||Megan Kelly|
|Sleeping Beauty||Maureen Davis||Kate Arneil||Jennifer Malenke|
|Milky White||Chad Kimball|
The show covers multiple themes: growing up, parents and children, accepting responsibility, morality, and finally, wish fulfillment and its consequences. William A. Henry III wrote that the play's "basic insight... is at heart, most fairy tales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong — which is to say, almost everything that can — arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions. Stephen Holden writes that the themes of the show include parent-child relationships and the individual's responsibility to the community. The witch isn't just a scowling old hag but a key symbol of moral ambivalence. She is also the only character in the show who always tells the truth. James Lapine said that the most unpleasant person (the witch) would have the truest things to say and the "nicer" people would be less honest. In her words, "I'm not good; I'm not nice; I'm just right.
The score is also notable in Sondheim's output because of its intricate reworking and development of small musical motifs. In particular, the opening words, "I wish", are set to the interval of a rising major second and this small unit is both repeated and developed throughout the show, just as Lapine's book explores the consequences of self-interest and "wishing." Sondheim also wrote the first act almost completely in iambic meter. This specific meter is abandoned in the second act, a symbol of the abandonment of the traditional fairy tale storyline. The dialogue in the show is characterized by the heavy use of syncopated speech. In many instances, the characters' lines are delivered with a fixed beat that follows natural speech rhythms, but is also purposely composed in eighth, sixteenth, and quarter note rhythms as part of a spoken song. Like many Sondheim/Lapine productions, the songs contain thought-process narrative, where characters converse or think aloud.
Sondheim drew on parts of his troubled childhood when writing the show. In 1987, he told Time magazine that the "father uncomfortable with babies [was] his father, and [the] mother who regrets having had children [was] his mother."
1987 Broadway production (all awards for 1988)
Broadway 2002 revival Tony Awards:
Drama Desk Awards: