Once upon a time, as these remixed Brothers Grimm fairy stories go, the infertile Baker’s Wife makes one of those apparently simple yet Faustian bargains. Her neighbor the Witch (a role originated by Bernadette Peters on Broadway) reveals that the Baker and his family are cursed (it’s a part of that Rapunzel thing). To reverse the spell and become pregnant, the wife must take her husband Into the Woods – over to the dark side – to collect four items. Suddenly we’re in Fertility: the Musical!
All hideous warty witchy wants is a white cow, a red cape, some yellow hair and a golden slipper. What could go wrong? Well, remember, all the Wizard of Oz wanted was a broomstick but the coward neglected to mention to Dorothy and her pals that they would have to kill the Wicked Witch to retrieve it. Oops!
The wife’s desire for a child is so all-consuming that the resulting quest for the four ingredients launches a movie about conflicting wishes, moral quandaries and unexpected consequences. The musical relies on the chain of songs to tell the story without pausing for dialog or showy business. There’s no Mickey and Judy reminding us that we’re putting on this performance in a barn – this is sophisticated stuff.
From Streep to Depp as the Wolf (he comes in one size: big and bad), the cast is universally genius, although critics seem to be picking and choosing favorites in a way that diminishes the ensemble’s beauty. Streep – the perennial Oscar nominee is bound for a supporting nod here — relishes playing the enchantress that upends the Baker’s marriage. She sings her witch into Shakespearean depth, as if one of Macbeth‘s crones got her rightful spot to move the plot further while pushing aside the Lord and Lady and their puny human problems. Both Blunt and Kendrick sing beautifully and soulfully – these are not just tunes but deep expressions of feeling: ambivalent, overwhelming, frightening, and occasionally deceitful.
Chris Pine (yes, the Star Trek reboot captain) deserves the notice he’s getting as the feckless Prince that woos Cinderella to a not-so-happily-ever-after. His duet, “Agony,” with his brother, Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) is a rollicking charm-off that echoes Lancelot’s crowing narcissism in Camelot‘s “C’est Moi.” But this Prince Charming’s role is critical, the idea that he is just a pretty face and good manners, and not painted any deeper adds to the resonance of his seductive duet with the Baker’s Wife, “Any Moment.” Chunks of the seize-the-moment, damn the consequences song could be quoted here but let’s stick with “Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods; only feelings.”
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Having debuted on Broadway in 1987, following a run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986, the musical, riding on Lapine’s brilliant book, carries with it the mournfulness of the AIDS epidemic that raged while it was being composed, polished and produced. Going Into the Woods, or the pines, or the rambles, could bring moments of bliss where right and wrong didn’t matter, only feelings. But not everyone was making it out of those woods alive. Some would become casualties, and others would survive, saddened and sobered, with an altered sense of life’s fragility. Death was a high price to pay for a “shimmering and lovely and sad” moment in the woods — and that’s no fairy tale.