I just saw Into the Woods. I’ve loved the musical for ages, and have been agonizing about its transition to screen. Fortunately, I think the changes from stage to screen have nicely updated some aspects of the original I struggled with.
The movie cuts out a couple songs intrinsic to the plot of the original musical. One of the biggest changes is the removal of “Agony II.” In the first performance of “Agony,” Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince sing a duet about the women they’ve fallen in love with.
It’s a hilarious song; in both the musical and the movie, the actors playing the princes chew the hell out of the scenery, wallow in self pity, and generally do everything in their power to showcase the unmitigated arrogance of these less-than-charming princes. By the time “Agony II” rolls around, the princes have won their brides, grown bored of matrimony, and moved on to other fairy tale maidens in need of rescue.
They’re cads. Both of these Prince Charmings are arrogant jerks, more in love with the unattainable nature of Rapunzel in her tower, the maiden fleeing at midnight, Sleeping Beauty behind her briar, and Snow White in her glass coffin. When Rapunzel and her Prince flee the terrors of a Giant invading their kingdom, he’s not able to protect (and not exactly thrilled about having to), and she gets smushed. Just like her mom, the Witch, warned her would happen. After all, in “Stay With Me”, she warns Rapunzel that
Why could you not obey?
Children should listen….
Someone has to shield you from the world.
Stay with me.
Princes wait there in the world, it’s true.
Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too.
Stay at home.
I am home.
Her cajoling is mingled with a punishment; in both the musical and the movie, the Witch banishes Rapunzel as a punishment for wanting to grow up. Unfortunately, in the musical the Witch’s warning also proves prescient; Rapunzel’s Prince is not truly her prince. Rapunzel’s life in the world beyond her tower is short, marked with disappointment and fear. The Witch was right. She mourns this fact in musical’s version of “Last Midnight,” where she sings
I’m not good, I’m not nice,
I’m just right.
I’m the witch.
You’re the world.
I’m the hitch, I’m what no one believes.
I’m the witch.
The Witch emerges as one of the victims in Into the Woods, with her bad rep as undeserved as that of the Giant who the remaining characters must kill in order to protect the kingdom and their homes from destruction. Later, the surviving members of the company sing
Witches can be right, giants can be good.
You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.
Despite stealing a baby and locking that child in a tower for years, the Witch is right. The tower is safer than the world, and Rapunzel needed protection. As soon as she left her mama’s house, her heart got broken and she got stepped on by a giant.
In many ways, this echoes Gena’s observations in “Pride and Possession” in Disney’s Tangled. The musical argues that the Witch is not an abuser; instead she’s a world-weary Cassandra, whose cruelty is really tough love. The world is too harsh for girls like Rapunzel, sheltered and in need of protection. The Witch was right.
However, by removing the reprise of “Agony”, the film version dramatically changes the significance of “Last Midnight.” Instead of death and betrayal, Rapunzel rescues her Prince from blindness, finding him at the edge of the swamp the Witch had intended as Rapunzel’s new prison. Braving the snakes whose bodies she can see and the gross, unseen depths of the water, the film’s Rapunzel goes to her blinded Prince, and, crying into his eyes, heals the injuries the Witch had inflicted. Later, when the Witch tries to force Rapunzel to flee the kingdom with her, Rapunzel insists on remaining with her Prince. They ride off together; Rapunzel doesn’t die; they survive the Giant together.
Rapunzel’s survival in the film underscores a dramatic shift in the role of the Witch. In the musical, there are a few allusions to the Witch’s Mother, who curses the Witch with power+ugliness every time the Witch loses her magic beans. They’re fascinating snippets. For example, while mourning Rapunzel’s death in “Lament” the Witch sings
This is the world I meant.
Couldn’t you listen?
Couldn’t you stay content,
Safe behind walls
As I could not…
We never learn why the Witch rejected her Mother’s walls, and what connection that rejection had to her Mother’s punishment of the Witch for losing the magic beans.
In contrast, in the movie the arbitrary nature of the Witch’s Mother’s rules are made crystal clear: the Witch can choose between ugliness+power OR beauty. The above quote from “Lament” isn’t included in the film, so we don’t get this tiny reference to the Witch’s disobedience. Instead, we’re left with no story at all; the Witch’s punishment is harshly inexplicable. For me, that changes the significance of “Last Midnight,” because now, when the Witch calls on her own Mother to come rescue her, it’s…. really sad. The Witch’s been driven by her grief and fear into the arms of a parent determined to clip her wings, a parent who punishes the accidental loss of magic beans with pain and rewards their recovery with a return to living dollhood. I don’t see Rapunzel’s survival as reducing the complexities of Into the Woods. I see it and its implications as revealing more about who the Witch herself is — as both a daughter and a mother.