Once Upon a Time

Last week I went to see Into the Woods at the cinema.  This was not just a normal night out at the pictures. No, this was a Big Deal.

Let me come clean. I’ve loved this fairy-tale musical with a proper ache for years and years and years. It was one of the Wood-y touchstones for Sue Heap and I on the day we met, thinking about where the Very Littles might live. I know the songs so well that it was like having a personal secret revealed when I heard Red Riding Hood singing ‘I Know Things Now’ on the radio the other day.

If you don’t know it, Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairy tales by Stephen Sondheim which goes beyond the usual happy ever after. It has a cast of witches, giants and bakers all trying to make their own way or bring up their children. It brings fairy tale characters to life with all the complication, argument, fear and joy that real life brings.

To add to this, I’d just played Jack (as of And the Beanstalk) in a fabulous community panto, so this particular story in the film seemed more than usually familiar. I found myself sympathizing with Jack as he banged on about magic beans, giants, harps and hens to his disbelieving mother, and thinking that stories are a bit like beans – magic beans. A tiny thing which, given warmth, light and a lucky sprinkling of rain, can grow into something enormous and take you up into a spectacular, unknown sky. But of course you have to believe in them at their bean-like beginnings – which is when they are often at their most plain, brown and unpromising.

Teresa Heapy as Jack in panto
Me as Jack, complete with the perfect pantomime cow, mysterious pedlar and the all-important magic beans!

I’ve often turned to Into the Woods when I’ve found myself in difficult or unknown times and found it full of comforting and startling truths.   So I was, of course, in a right old flood of tears at the end in the cinema – but found it was for different reasons than when I first saw it in my teens, or when I last saw it, before I had children.

Perhaps this is because Into the Woods has fairy tales at its heart – stories that seem to expand, like water-soaked crystals, with sparkling relevance to your life whenever you encounter them. Fairy tales are about survival, love, evil and kindness; about brave, wicked, and foolish characters all continually trying to find the path, make their fortune, tell their story.

So maybe it’s the chance to revisit these fairy tales that is so important to me. It’s these age-old stories that echo down my spine:

‘Into the woods

to mind the wolf,

to heed the witch,

to honour the giant,

to mind,

to heed,

to find,

to think,

to teach,

to join,

to go to the festival!’

But what Into the Woods also does is to give each of the cast of these tales a voice (which the plot-driven originals often don’t).   And in its wonderful collision of characters, it makes you feel that that, on any journey through their everyday Woods, a hero or heroine can always count on friends or family to help them through the forest, push through the dark trees, and find their way out.

Along with the odd pantomime cow, of course.

‘Into the woods…

then out of the woods –

and happy ever after!’