The plot of Into the Woods is novel indeed. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have intertwined the stories of various familiar fairy tales with an original story of a childless Baker and his Wife, who are the focus of the story by attempting to reverse a curse on their family in order to have a child. Thus creating a single, even bigger fairy tale. In Act One, the characters set out to achieve their goal of living “Happily Ever After” through familiar routes. Cinderella goes to the Ball and captures the heart of Prince Charming, Jack climbs the Beanstalk and finds a land of Giants and Gold, Little Red Riding Hood survives her clash with the wolf at Grandma’s house, and Rapunzel manages to escape her tower with the aid of a handsome prince who climbs her long hair. The Baker and his wife must enter the woods to assemble the ingredients for a potion required by their neighbour, the Witch, to remove a curse preventing them from having a child. In their search, the Baker and his wife meet up with Jack, Red Riding Hood, and the Wolf, as well as Cinderella, Rapunzel, and their respective Princes.
These characters are all busy with their own fairy tales, but each possesses one ingredient for the potion. Those ingredients are: A Slipper As Pure As Gold, which the Baker’s wife gets from Cinderella, A Cow As White As Milk, which the Baker buys from Jack in exchange for the fateful magic beans, A Cape As Red As Blood, which the Baker gets from Little Red Riding Hood in exchange for freeing her and Granny from the Wolf, and Hair As Yellow As Corn, which they get from Rapunzel. The ingredients are gathered, and the spell works, stripping the Witch of her power, but restoring her beauty. By the end of Act One, the curse is lifted, Jack kills the giant and is rich from stolen gold, the Wolf is killed, each damsel gets her respective Prince. At the end of Act I, all characters seem poised to live “Happily Ever After”, but do they?
In Act Two, all the characters must deal with what happens after “Happily Ever After”. As they face a genuine threat to their community, they realise that all actions have consequences. They are forced into the Wood to escape the giant’s wife, who has come down to earth on an errant beanstalk to get revenge for her husband’s untimely demise. After a good deal of squabbling, some characters are killed and the Baker decides it’s time they take responsibility. They realise that their lives are inescapably interdependent, but it is also that interdependence that is their greatest strength, so the group finally bands together to dispose of the giant’s wife. Like all fairy tales, there are some overt messages in all this that we are invited to take home with us.