The True Story behind “Into the Woods”


Over the crowded Christmas season, I took a day to head to the local theater and watch Disney’s new release “Into the Woods.” The Meryl Streep-headlined musical is an adaptation of the popular 1986 stage production, which was crafted by theatrical legend Stephen Sondheim.

I quite enjoyed Hollywood’s take on the work and was expecting most of my friends to feel the same way. So imagine how stunned I was to get a text Sunday afternoon that said “Saw Into the Woods. Hated it.” Another friend chimed in a few days later – “I nearly walked out of theater.”

Had we seen the same film? Had the holiday spirit blinded me from the shortcomings of Disney’s adaptation? A quick scan of reviews online found similar mixed reactions, ranging from elation to pure hatred. Admittedly, I never viewed “Into the Woods” to be one of the pillars of musical history, but I was a tad shocked by the polar-opposite reception I was hearing.

Further consideration led me to understand the disdain, though. Generally, musicals fall into the category of comedy or tragedy, but “Into the Woods” is a full-on crash collision of both genres, and the result – to the untrained eye – can be a real mess. Those expecting the film to follow the straight-and-narrow path Red Riding Hood was suppose to take were left feeling cheated.

It’s also the reason the musical, which has become a popular choice at many grade schools for fall or spring productions, has produced a “junior version” that promptly ends after the first half with the classic fairy tale ending of Cinderella finding true love and all the other character scenarios working out perfectly.

The underlying secret to “Into the Woods” not only explains the story being a clash of genres, but also draws reason to its unorthodox conclusion. Sondheim’s story is less about fairytales than the rise of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s America. Yet, Sondheim is so subtle with these themes in the storytelling, you could quickly look over this premise.

The Broadway crowd is use to overt presentations of the challenge of AIDS in the 80s. Famed productions “RENT” and “Angels in America” both deal very frankly with the subject, yet “Into the Woods” rather brilliantly sidesteps confronting the topic directly. This more metaphoric approach has actually benefited the musical, as it can be highly adaptable to broader themes audiences can take away from it.


For Sondheim, his production of “Into the Woods” came at a time when living in New York must have been absolute hell. 1987 marked a real peak for concern surrounding AIDS, especially in a city like New York that was massively affected.

As a gay man, Sondheim more than likely carried the perception that late 60s and 1970s America were a truly fairy tale, like the first half of “Into the Woods” presents. The civil rights boom mixed with a post-Woodstock era of sexual freedom took a stranglehold on the city. This wasn’t just the case for the gay community, but for society at large. The culture felt more open and connected than ever before, and the disillusionment of the Vietnam War and Watergate perhaps caused more to enjoy in personal pleasures in order to avoid horrific headlines.

As a Broadway performer during the 1970s once told me, “You’d get off for lunch and maybe you’d see someone cute in the hall while on your way out. You’d find a vacant room and have sex, then grab a bite to eat in whatever time you had left and head back to work. Seriously. That’s how it was some days.”

But the choices of one decade carried consequences in the following one, as they did for the characters of “Into the Woods.” In the Sondheim musical, just as everything seems to have worked itself to a happy ending, a giant approaches. The “giant” in reality was the AIDS virus, ready to latch on to New York and many other metropolitan areas.

The witch at one point in the musical screams, “People are dying all around us,” a line deleted from Meryl Streep’s script. The quote undoubtedly represented the same world Sondheim was subjected to in the 1980s when he wrote it; most of the gay population in New York – some of who were undoubtedly Sondheim’s friends – was dying in droves by the day. By 1989, the year after the show opened on Broadway, more than 100,000 people had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United States alone, and over half of those diagnosed had died.

The film adaptation does, however, stay true in one aspect to the production’s conclusion. By the finale of “Into the Woods,” characters have died, relationships have ended and families have been broken apart. Those who have survived are forced to form their own small family, much like the men and women who survived AIDS after so many they knew had passed away.

All of this carries little relevance to today’s audience, who sees AIDS through a modern lens. The virus is now largely manageable in most of the modern developed world and is viewed only severely when seen in third-world countries unable to afford or carry treatments that can combat it.

No, for most of the folks who watch Meryl Streep putting on a show for two hours in theaters, “Into the Woods” will either be seen as a mess of a film or a decent one that features “a fairy tale with a twist.” A quick glance at history, however, will give a different perspective on why this musical is important and still carries so much weight, even if a happy ending isn’t in the cards for any of its characters.


Posted on by Alex Beene in Entertainment, Entertainment Inspirations, Featured, Movies

Add a Comment