Into the Wondrous 'Woods' Again

On Seeing Stephen Sondheim’s Masterpiece Then and Now

Children May Listen: The Public Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ features a child as narrator.
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Children May Listen: The Public Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ features a child as narrator.

By Wendy Salinger

Published August 24, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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In 1992 I moved out to Long Island, near the ocean, commuting to the city to my job, to work on the memoir that would help me lift the curse on my own family. Things were not what they seemed, it turned out. I had to go deeper. My father died in 1983, but like Sondheim’s Mysterious Man, he wouldn’t stay put. I had to dig him up and bury him again. I’d known him as a devout Episcopalian, but I found out he was Jewish — his line a long and distinguished one.

It took me 10 years to write that book, and 10 years of therapy. And just a year ago, almost to the day, in August, the therapist who helped me undo the spells of childhood died. She was little more than halfway through the woods.

Tonight, as the second act of “Into the Woods” takes hold, I find that the changes that have taken place in me have only made Sondheim’s musical more meaningful. Deeper, richer. I’m always surprised by how dark Act 2 is. Sadder and sadder. Relentless. The story won’t let go until it blesses us.

People start dying: Jack’s Mother, Rapunzel and the Baker’s Wife, whose last words to her husband are to wish him dead. She’s buried in the Giant’s footprint, because this is a story about learning to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The first to die is the Narrator. Before the Witch throws him to the wolves, I mean to the Giant, I mean to the pit, he pleads his case: “You don’t want to live in a world of chaos.” But that’s where we are now. We haven’t just strayed from the path, the path has strayed from us. There is no path. The outside’s on the inside now. The frame is gone. The woods are in us.

The witch is our guide here, in the realm of Chaos — and our conscience. Maybe the choice she wants to make, to feed Jack to the Giant, is the wrong one, but she’s the only one who’s not afraid to act. She knows the only choice is to choose. “Wake up! There are people dying all around you. You’re not the only one to suffer a loss,” she tells the Baker, who’s mourning his wife’s death. Hardly the usual tone for a fairy tale.

In her final moments, she towers over the scene like Satan, the dark mirror image of the God (her mother) who cast her from the garden in the beginning and cursed her by aging her and taking away her beauty. Her last curse is to leave the others in the garden alone, “separate and alone,” bestial, “down on all fours,” scrabbling for the last of the cursed beans, the filthy lucre, she’s thrown them. She goes up in smoke (in the original production). Or descends into hell (tonight). Chaos has consumed itself. Chaos is dead.

The Mysterious Man returns. He gives his son, the Baker, the first sound piece of wisdom a parent has given all evening. All is not restored, as he’d promised at the end of the first act. The four who remain alive must make their own plan to confront the evil loose in the land.

Tonight, in the quiet moments between Cinderella and Little Red, just before Cinderella begins to sing “No One Is Alone,” I hear a few last, wakeful birds. The ringing of the locusts swells. I think of the world coming back into its proper frame: a stage in the middle of a park ringed by woods. Our little world. This enchanted isle.

The second act of my own life is well under way by now. I have a steady (if somewhat unorthodox) job, teaching literature to high school students and bringing them to the 92nd Street Y to meet writers. I live in Washington Heights, the last neighborhood in Manhattan still affordable for types like me. I’ve published a second book, but I’m still a struggling artist. There will always be more of us than of the other kind.

Now onstage, the Baker joins Cinderella, and both of them are singing to the younger ones. “Hard to see the light now. / Just don’t let it go. / Things will come out right now. / We can make it so.” I feel the power of the song — a masterpiece, in almost any performance — coming over me like a shadow stealing from behind, like the dark leafy branches of a great tree lifting me up.

Wendy Salinger directs The Poetry Center Schools Project at the 92nd Street Y. Her book of poems, “Folly River” (Dutton, 1980) won the first National Poetry Series award. She is the author of the memoir “Listen.” She’s currently finishing a sequel, “White Space: A Memoir of the Unconscious.”


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