Movies

The Surprising Jewish Message Behind ‘Into the Woods’

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It’s earned over $100 million at the box office so far, charting the best debut of a Broadway-inspired musical ever, so Disney’s Christmas Day release of “Into the Woods” looks on track to become a record-breaking hit. As a Stephen Sondheim fan, I would agree that “Into the Woods” is a terrific musical (and for those concerned, fine for kids; mine had the soundtrack memorized in preschool, and they’ve seen the Broadway production, the Shakespeare in the Park version, and now the movie). As someone with a Masters degree in Media Analysis who writes on Jewish topics, I also see “Into the Woods” as quietly, subversively Jewish. Here’s why. 

Stephen Sondheim is Jewish. Wealthy, assimilated, grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City Jewish. (Sondheim’s first Broadway job was writing the lyrics to “West Side Story.” When offered the assignment, he reportedly responded, “But I don’t know any Puerto Ricans. I don’t even know any poor people.”) In the book, “Stars of David” by Abigail Pogrebin, Sondheim confessed he also didn’t know how to pronounce “Yom Kippur” until his “West Side Story” collaborator, Leonard Bernstein, set him straight.

Still, I contend that just because he didn’t grow up listening to “Kol Nidre,” or consciously set out to write a musical infused with Jewish themes, that doesn’t mean “Into the Woods” isn’t, at heart, a Jewish show.

Sondheim is often asked how being gay influences his work. I find it a silly question, because it’s the equivalent of wondering, “How does you being you affect what you do?” Is it possible to create something that isn’t influenced by you?

My husband says it’s obvious Sondheim doesn’t have kids because he wrote a song called “Children Will Listen.” I say it’s obvious that Sondheim is Jewish because he wrote “Into the Woods.”

I’m not referring to the fact that parenting and family is the overarching premise of the whole show. Despite the prevalence of Jewish mother and “oy, my meshuganah family” jokes, I suspect other cultures also have families and mothers.

Is The Baker’s Wife a Jewish mother? She’s willing to do anything (“There are rights and wrongs and in-betweens,”) to have a child of her own and, in the meantime, she bullies and bosses her hen-pecked husband. Is Jack’s (of beanstalk fame) mom a Jewish mother? She does, “Wish my house were not a mess/I wish my son were not a fool/I wish the walls were full of gold/I wish a LOT of things.” (My kids have a tendency to sing this to me when it looks like I’m at the end of my rope.)

But, again, I’m guessing the sentiment applies to more than just Jewish mothers.

The real Jewish soul of “Into the Woods,” in my opinion, is the sense of overcoming unexpected, seemingly random disaster via a sense of community (Mourners’ Kaddish, anyone?).

If I were doing a feminist read of this text, I’d be obliged to point out that much of the tragedy that befalls various characters (especially women) seems to come as a result of growing up, developing sexual feelings, and acting on them. As the show premiered on Broadway in 1987, Sondheim was frequently asked if it was an AIDS metaphor. He was adamant that it wasn’t. It was merely a dramatization of the fact that $%&! Happens. To Everyone. Without much rhyme or reason or even, “Somebody to blame/Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy/If that’s the aim/Give me the blame.”

Sadly, what I consider the most Jewish song in the score, “No More,” has been cut from the movie, except as a brief instrumental. The Baker, physically and emotionally exhausted, has turned his back on everyone, attempting to run away from his shattered life, moaning:

No more giants
Waging war.
Can’t we just pursue out lives
With our children and our wives?
‘Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore….
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?

(That last line could have come directly from my own Jewish mother, who is perennially reminding me that no matter how good things are, they will inevitably go wrong. And no matter how bad things are, they can always be worse.)

And then there’s the Baker’s plaintive refrain:

Where are we to go?
Where are we ever to go?

The way (Jewish) actor Chip Zien emphasized the second “we” (“Where are WE ever to go?”) in the Broadway cast-album always made me think it was a shout-out to persecuted Jews around the world, and overall support for the existence of a State of Israel. (If anyone knows differently, kindly don’t disillusion me.)

I may be stretching a bit. But, the fact is, any work of art will speak to different people in different ways. To me, “Into the Woods” is as much a story of the Jewish people as it is of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, and a pair of Prince Charmings.

How about you?

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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