What ‘Into the Woods’ can teach us about surviving COVID-19

The message for us in this moment is clear: If we can learn to see beyond ourselves and work together, we can slay this giant in our midst.

Broadway has been dark since March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the longest shutdown in its history.

With theaters shuttered from Broadway to the Beltway, musical theater fans have an opportunity to revisit old productions.

Until this week, I hadn’t listened to Sondheim’s Into the Woods since 2014, when Disney adapted the 1987 Broadway musical into a feature film.

The movie, to the surprise of no one, least of all the composersanitized some aspects of the musical, from its sexual subtext to its dark and violent second act.

Hearing the original cast album again this week, as racial and economic unrest continue to boil over and a novel coronavirus pandemic stalks the land, I am finding new meaning and relevance in Into the Woods, and even a prescription for surviving this moment.

For those needing a brief refresher, in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s show, new and familiar storybook characters go questing in the woods in Act I and achieve their goals: Cinderella marries her prince, Jack climbs the beanstalk and steals the giant’s gold, and the childless Baker and his Wife conceive a child.

Then, in Act II, things fall apart. No one lives “happily ever after” in this postmodern fairy tale.

To be fair, few characters in folk literature do. As Sheryl Flatow reminds us in the liner notes to the LP, the most gruesome moments in the show – the blinding of Rapunzel’s prince and Cinderella’s stepsisters – come straight from the original source material.

Still, the violence in Act II is shocking, the more so because it represents such a dramatic shift from the lighthearted tone and witty wordplay of Act I (“We’ve no time to sit and dither, while her withers wither with her”).

“Wake up. People are dying all around us,” says the Witch, as a second giant, seeking revenge, begins a murderous rampage.

This giant is an enemy the likes of which the characters in Into the Woods have never faced – an immutable, implacable force of nature that respects no borders (“Nothing but a vast midnight, everybody smashed flat!”).

Desperate, the common folk turn to the Royal Family for help, but the government proves utterly incompetent – first ignoring credible, early warnings of the threat posed by the giant and later fleeing the castle like Louis XVI when danger finally arrives at their doorstep in the form of a giant’s boot.

As a result of this failure of leadership, the people, confused and frightened, turn on each other in a destructive orgy of blame and sacrificial violence (You’re responsible! You’re the one to blame. It’s your fault.”)

The result is chaos, followed by even more death.

The parallels to our current situation are unavoidable. “There has to be a clear coherent sustained communication, and that has absolutely not happened,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University told The New York Times last Saturday. “We’ve had just the opposite and now it’s hard to unring a whole series of bells.”

As the Times went on to observe, some of the country’s most prominent leaders have soft-pedaled the severity of this crisis, refused to wear masks or adhere to social-distancing guidelines, and called for the reopening of states while the virus has continued to spread.

“With no clear message from the top, states went their own ways.”

The same thing happens to the characters of Into the Woods, until they finally coalesce as a community and work together to slay the giant who poses an existential threat to their society.

As the survivors Cinderella, the Baker, Little Red Ridinghood, and Jack sing in the show’s penultimate song (“No one is alone”):

Just remember:
Just remember.
Someone is on your side.
Our side.
Our side.
Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side –
Our side …
Our side –
Maybe we forgot:
No one is alone.
Hard to see the light now.
Just don’t let it go.
Things will come out right now.
We can make it so.
Someone is on your side,
No one is alone.

The message for us in this moment is clear: People are dying all around us. But if we can learn to see beyond ourselves and work together – wearing masks, adhering to social distancing, avoiding unnecessary travel – we can slay this giant in our midst.

Into the Woods reminds us that, even in the darkest midnight, “no one is alone.”

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