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Into the Woods, on PBS
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A musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, which first opened in 1986 (and on Broadway in 1987). The Broadway production was taped in 1989 and aired in 1991 as an installment of PBS's "American Playhouse." I'm sure I must've seen a little bit of it on TV at some point, though I doubt it was as early as '91. I think I must've seen a rebroadcast, years later. But only a very little bit, just barely enough to let me know I really wanted to see the whole thing someday (largely because I was already a fan of Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason). I finally got it on DVD and watched it in 2012.

Anyway, there's a Narrator who introduces us to several characters from different fairy tales, and those tales get intertwined in this story. There's Cinderella, who wants to go to a festival held at the royal palace. (There's no fairy godmother here, but rather... I dunno. Like the spirit of her dead mother, I guess, which seems to inhabit a tree that grants her a wish.) There's a not-very-bright young man named Jack, whose best friend is his cow, Milky White. His father is absent (though it's unclear if he's dead or just gone), and Jack is forced by his mother to sell the cow, since it no longer gives milk (though he wishes he could keep Milky). There's Little Red Riding Hood, on her way to deliver bread and sweets to her grandmother. (Of course, she encounters a wolf along the way.) There's a witch (played by Peters), who has kept a girl named Rapunzel locked away in a tower her whole life. All these stories are fairly familiar. There are also a baker and his wife (played by Gleason), who are unable to have a child, because of a curse placed by the witch on the Baker's father years ago, for stealing beans from her garden. (I'm not sure if the baker and his wife are from any particular fairy tale.) Anyway, the witch promises to lift the curse (so the Baker and his wife can conceive a child), if they can bring her four items by midnight three days hence: a cow white as milk, a cape red as blood, hair yellow as corn, and a slipper pure as gold. So that's the setup, and Act One basically consists of the Baker and his wife attempting to obtain these items, from Jack, Red, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. But meanwhile, all those other characters have their own stories to deal with. Other characters we meet include two unnamed princes, who are brothers; one who falls in love with Cinderella, and one with Rapunzel. And there are various other characters. Anyway, everyone goes into the woods, each for their own reasons. (There's also a mysterious old man in the woods.)

Well, by the end of Act One, everyone (including the Witch) has gotten what they wanted (though I won't reveal the complicated and amusing paths the story takes to get to that point). And it seems like a fitting place to end the story. But then comes Act Two... in which everyone begins to regret having gotten what they wished for, or continue to wish for more, discontent with what they've gotten. But the main thing driving the plot of the second act is that a giantess shows up, the wife of the giant killed by Jack in Act One (though we never actually see any of Jack's adventures, we just hear him sing about them after the fact). Anyway, now the giantess wants revenge against Jack for killing her husband, as well as stealing from them. There's some question as to whether everyone else should turn Jack over to her so she'll spare them, or whether they should protect him. (There's also a lot of debate about who's really to blame for this problem.) I don't want to say how it all ends, but... there is a lot of darkness in this act. Very bad things, and a bittersweet ending, emphasis on the bitter.

Anyway. It's a very interesting story, which not only plays around (in both acts) with many facets of the fairy tales on which it's based, but also makes both the viewer and the characters themselves think about things on a deeper level. There are some difficult moral questions here, which I'm not entirely sure are ever adequately resolved. But at least it's better than just taking fairy tales at face value, when much of what happens in such stories makes no sense, or doesn't work in the real world, or is just plain wrong... but which is rarely if ever questioned in the original stories. So... "Into the Woods" is definitely a very serious and tragic play. But it's also hilarious... oh my yes, it is filled with humor (even in the much darker Act Two). And of course, it's also filled with incredible musical performances. Oh, and there's a bit of fourth wall-breaking, which is something I always dig. Well, I hope I'm not forgetting anything I wanted to say. But it's just a totally awesome production, on every level.

The play was adapted into a feature film in 2014.

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