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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

Into the Woods: Wishes, Beans, and Fanfares

Buckle your seatbelts, kiddos, because this is going to be a long one! Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is perhaps one of the most elaborately plotted musicals of all time. With four major intersecting storylines, a handful of side plots, and twenty separate speaking roles, how can we possibly be expected to keep up with it all? The answer, of course, can be found in the score. And what a score it is!

Incredible as it may seem when one considers the vast scope of the plot and its themes, Into the Woods is in fact built out of three motives. The first and perhaps most thematically significant is the “wish” motive. This motive is first established with Cinderella’s opening statement of “I Wish” and is thereafter explored extensively within the opening prologue and throughout the show as a whole. It is comprised of a single interval – an ascending major second – and while a musical idea so small may seem practically insignificant, it is in fact the backbone of the Woods score.

Equally significant musically if not thematically, the “beans” motive likewise weaves its way throughout the score. It is musically memorable - five notes for the five beans given in exchange for Jack’s cow, with an opening interval of a descending fifth. In the beginning, it is most often heard in connection with those characters whose lives are closely intertwined with the narrative of the beans: the Witch, Rapunzel (whose very life was given in exchange for them), the Bakers, and Jack. But by the end of the show, the consequences of those magic beans have touched the lives of every character and the score has become saturated with the motive.

The fanfare acts as the third and final motivic building block of the score. This motive is closely associated with the royal family, and can be heard most clearly at the various entrances of the two princes. However, as we shall see, the fanfare has a tendency to steal stealthily into melodies, wending its way into the heart of the show.

Much of the score relies on the development of these three motives. However, Sondheim also relies on accompanimental ostinatos and aural associations to unify the score. An orchestral ostinato – a repeated rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic pattern that repeats underneath the melody of the piece – accompanies nearly every number in the show. (Significantly, many of these are built on the interval of a major second – an excellent example of how the wish motive is developed throughout the score.) Aural associations are perhaps even more significant in terms of unification. Into the Woods is a highly repetitive score, but these repetitions are never arbitrary. Music is used as an identifier – once a musical idea is associated with a specific character, it can then be used to signal the entrance of that character, as music underscoring his or her dialogue, or even sometimes in a moment where the character is being referenced by someone else. In this way, the audience is better able to differentiate the various storylines.

These three techniques – motivic development, accompanimental consistency in the form of ostinatos, and musical cues based on aural associations – are the building blocks of the Woods score. With that in mind, let us take a closer look at the score and the various ways Sondheim employs these methods.

Act I

Sondheim doesn't waste time getting to the heart of the matter. The opening notes of the score include not one, but two major motives. “I wish!” Cinderella exclaims, “More than anything!” The accompanying melody for this phrase contains both the wish motive and the royal fanfare (See Fig. 4 below). The princes are not technically present in this moment, but appropriately, the fanfare, which will later be so closely associated with the royal family, is introduced here as Cinderella expresses her wish to attend the royal festival. Throughout the rest of the prologue, every major character, with the exception of the witch, gives voice to his or her deepest desires and in so doing each makes use of the major second interval, that ever-present wish motive. The beans, likewise, make their first appearance in the prologue. It is no surprise that they can be heard throughout the Witch’s rap since they feature so very prominently in her story.

The prologue serves many functions. It must introduce eleven distinct characters, establish their desires, set the action of the show in motion, and create a musical language through which of all this can be better understood. The following scene, “Cinderella at the Grave,” is our first break from the chaos of the opening – a scene that focuses on one character and one storyline. As the first of its kind, it must set the precedent for those that will follow. As the scene begins, we hear a familiar tune underscoring the narrator’s dialogue. It is Cinderella’s call to the birds, previously heard in the prologue. This then transitions into another reprise: the tune “I’ve been good and I’ve been kind, Mother” is clearly borrowed from her earlier exchange with her stepsisters (“Hurry up and do my hair, Cinderella.”) This then is our first major example of associative music. This repetition of two musical ideas that are strongly associated with Cinderella helps establish where we are in the narrative. This device will help to facilitate transitions for the rest of the show.

“Cinderella at the Grave” is also a particularly good example of how motives can be developed. The prologue firmly establishes the wish motive with its ascending major second. Here that major second is applied to the orchestral ostinato underneath Cinderella’s Mother’s music. As she discusses the nature of wishing, (“Do you know what you wish? Are you certain what you wish is what you want?”) the accompaniment oscillates between a major second and a minor second.

The focus then shifts from Cinderella to Little Red and we are greeted with the familiar melody of “Into the Woods.” Although one might think that the title song should belong to all of the characters, it is most often used in transitions to Little Red scenes. And since she is the first to introduce this number and the only character to sing it in its entirety on her own, it does, in a way, belong to her. The number that follows, “Hello, Little Girl,” is an excellent example of a device used by many composers – the use of stark shifts in keys, harmonization, and orchestral texture to illustrate the difference between a character’s inner and outer thoughts. In this case, a major key and bouncy rhythms characterize the wolf’s outward conversation with Little Red while his private intent to eat her is distinguished by sharp transitions to minor keys and a more chromatic melody.

The bean motive then makes its second major appearance in Rapunzel’s offstage vocalizations. Rapunzel and the beans are closely linked. Her life was traded as payment for their theft. Thus the beans define her musical identity. In fact, throughout the entire show, whenever Rapunzel sings alone, she only uses the bean melody. This restriction of her musical material illustrates the extent to which she has been damaged by her isolated life in the woods. In her captivity, she has been denied an identity of her own.

The introduction to “I Guess This Is Goodbye” contains yet another variation of the bean motive. This time the motive is played with an even rhythm in the strings. This particular variation will henceforth be associated with Jack. The beans have changed the course of his life, and now the motive is a permanent part of his musical vocabulary. Note though, that this particular variation of the bean motive is different from what we have heard before. The Witch’s version has a very distinct rhythmic profile that distinguishes it from Jack’s (See Fig. 5 below).

The following number “Maybe They’re Magic” demonstrates Sondheim’s continued efforts to rework familiar tunes (and lyrics) into the new ones. We have previously heard the lyric “if you know what you want” from Cinderella’s Mother at the grave. Now we hear it from the Baker’s Wife. In this case, there is no significant association between the two characters who have sung these words and this tune, but rather it is repeated for the sake of thematic clarity. The nature of wishes, the power of desire – these are some of the main themes of the show. The repetition of the idea signals its importance. Moreover, it is worthwhile to note that the contour of the melody is very similar to the opening of “I Guess This is Goodbye.” The further we delve into the score, the more economical it appears. Practically every theme is built out of those that came before. In fact, in a discussion of the musical themes of Into the Woods, Sondheim addresses this very idea:

They all have little echoes of each other. This turned out to be a very valuable decision, because Lapine really wanted many of the songs not to end, but to drift into dialogue. … This was a valuable choice, because when it turned out he wanted to truncate numbers and to keep them fragmentary, the fact that they all were related meant that you weren’t listening to a new tune truncated, you were listening to a variation of an old tune truncated. And that made it less unpalatable. 1

As the show continues, the aural associations become more and more clear. The fanfare announces every royal entrance. “Into the Woods” can be heard as Little Red skips into view. A transition to Rapunzel’s tower is accompanied by her personal rendition of the bean motive. Even numbers with new melodic material such as Red’s triumphant solo “I Know Things Now” reprise small pieces of familiar tunes. (In this case “mother said straight ahead” is lifted directly from her encounter with the wolf.)

By the time the Baker’s Wife encounters Cinderella in the woods, we have come to expect the undulating movement of the orchestral ostinatos that have accompanied most of the music up until this point. In that sense, the accompaniment in this scene is familiar, perhaps even expected. However, even an accompaniment can be used to illustrate the inner workings of a character’s thoughts. In this case, harmonic shifts make it difficult to pinpoint the tonic center. Sondheim explains that this effect intentionally “blurs the harmony, so you’re never quite sure where you are. You don’t know if this is a tonic chord or a dominant chord, and the unsettled quality was what I was working for.” Thus the unsettled nature of the vamp mirrors Cinderella’s emotional uncertainty.

“Giants in the Sky” and “Agony” follow quickly on the heels of “A Very Nice Prince.” The beans feature prominently in the first and with good reason – the beans actually trigger Jack’s entire adventure in the sky. The motive appears again and again in the melody (at “giants in the sky,” “when you’re way up high,” “big tall terrible awesome scary,” etc.) and in the orchestra where, of course, we are treated to Jack’s particular string variation of the motive. The beans also make an appearance in “Agony” as Rapunzel’s Prince imitates his love’s endless vocal refrain. And of course, it is no surprise that the fanfare should appear in both the princes’ introduction and in the melody of the duet.

In the following number, the Baker and his wife discover that their love has been rekindled by their experiences in the wood. Perhaps the most striking feature of this duet occurs when the Baker’s Wife begins to describe the change she has seen in her husband. “And then out here,” she sings, “You’re passionate, charming, considerate, clever.” This passage is borrowed from “Agony” and yet this particular borrowing of a previously heard melody is different than those that occurred before. This is not associative music or motivic development. It is a quote. Hidden in the trees, the Baker’s Wife overheard the Prince’s description of himself. By taking his words and then using them to describe her husband, we can see how high the Baker has risen in her estimation. He is the equal of a Prince in her eyes.

By this point, the bean motive should be instantly recognizable. Its appearance in the introduction of “Stay With Me” comes as no surprise, particularly since the narrative of the Witch and Rapunzel has been entangled with that of the beans from the beginning. However, it is remarkable that Sondheim has manipulated this motive to the point where we are not only able to identify the motive itself but also the character simply based on which variation of the tune we hear. In this case, the particular rhythmic manipulation of the bean melody allows us to recognize the Witch’s influence. The beans appear again within the sung portion of the piece (“Don’t you know what’s out there in the world,” “Stay with me the world is dark and wild,” etc.).

The beans are not the only motive to make an appearance in “Stay With Me.” At a crucial moment in the piece, Sondheim prominently features the major second interval. “Stay with me,” pleads the witch, “Stay at home. I am home.” All of these phrases are sung with a major second – an interval we have come to associate with the idea of wishing. The witch’s increasingly desperate use of this interval reveals her true nature. This is her wish.

The next number features a character whose wishes are not as transparent. “On the Steps of the Palace” is precisely the type of song that has led critics to condemn Sondheim over the years—not particularly melodic, short phrases, unusual intervals, unclear harmonic structure—and yet given a closer look, it can tell us quite a bit about the character’s emotional state. As was the case in “A Very Nice Prince,” the undulating, harmonically nebulous accompaniment imitates Cinderella’s indecisiveness. Moreover, in a tune that seems practically formless, we can find pieces of melodic ideas that were established earlier in the show. For example, Cinderella borrows the tune for the phrase “what if you are” from the melody of the birdcall – a tune that first appeared in the prologue and thereafter became a crucial part of Cinderella’s musical vocabulary. And the birdcall itself is derived from the ever-present fanfare.

These aural associations become essential as Woods races towards its chaotic Act I finale. The potion scene for instance involves the intersection of several major storylines, the significant revelation of the Mysterious Old Man’s identity, the climax of the Bakers’ plot, and the transformation of the Witch. With so much plot to manage, musical cues are necessary to maintain a sense of order and stability. For example, Jack’s bean variation accompanies his entrance. The bean motive sounds again at the mention of Rapunzel. The tune associated with the ingredients (“The cow as white as milk...”) is heard as the potion begins to work. Even the cow has associative music. “There are bugs on her dugs. There are flies in her eyes” plays as the cow is milked.

The same proves true for the Act I conclusion of Cinderella’s story. The stepfamily reprises their musical material from the prologue, but in a darkly comic twist, Sondheim subverts the context of the piece so that where the stepsisters once laughed, now they scream in pain. Cinderella’s Mother, likewise, is given a chance to reprise her musical themes. And the fanfare, of course, continues to announce the arrival of the Prince.

Perhaps then, it should not come as a shock when Act I closes with a joyful reprise of the title song. In an act that used music as its primary tool for bringing order to chaos, it seems fitting to end on a familiar note.

Act II

The second half of Into the Woods continues in the same vein as the first. However, whereas Act I often relied on aural associations and melodies containing small motivic kernels of other tunes, the second act places much more emphasis on full reprises (“Prologue,” “Into the Woods,” “Agony Reprise”). At first, the prologue to Act II is nearly identical to its counterpart in the first act – the characters’ wishes may have changed, but their music has not. “So Happy” appears to be a new idea, but in fact it is built upon the bones of past pieces, particularly the music of Cinderella and her mother. Moreover, the first four notes (coinciding with the lyrics “I never thought”) are actually the first four notes of “Into the Woods.”

The “Into the Woods Reprise” contains one notable deviation from the original. Sondheim has lowered the second scale degree on the final note of the lyric “Into the woods, it’s always when you think at last you’re through and then...” This happens again on “no reason then to hesitate” and as Cinderella proclaims, “The winds are strong.” Meanwhile the underlying accompaniment is much more chromatic in nature than its predecessor. This creates a sinister effect – signaling to the audience that not everything is as it should be.

And indeed shortly thereafter things go from bad to worse as Jack’s Mother, the Narrator, and Rapunzel are all killed within a matter of minutes. The Witch’s emotional response to these events, “Lament” is at first heavily drawn from “Stay With Me.” Once again, Sondheim alters a few of the lyrics but leaves the body of the tune intact. However, the Witch soon moves on to a new idea. She sings, “No matter what you say, children won’t listen.” In fact, this is the first truly new melodic material in Act II and thus indicates a shift in the narrative. Thus far, characters were able to remain firmly within a musical framework that was familiar and therefore comforting. Now they have encountered a powerful, new force for which they are emotionally unprepared. Old melodies cannot suffice in this new world.

Without a narrator to guide the story, the fairy tale structure of the show begins to crack. In an unsettling turn of events, Cinderella’s Prince encounters the Baker’s Wife in the woods and successfully seduces her. Before succumbing to his charms, the Baker’s Wife herself even recognizes how unnatural this is. She protests, “This is ridiculous. What am I doing here? I’m in the wrong story.” Notably, these words are sung to the tune of the Prince’s fanfare. She is so far out of her element that she cannot access her own musical vocabulary—instead, she borrows from his. In a show that rests so heavily on associative music, her loss of voice is startling.

At first, the following number “Moments in the Woods” simply continues in the musical language of “Any Moment.” The Prince bids farewell and the Baker’s Wife ruminates on these latest events, taking up the melody and the ostinato accompaniment that he had previously established. However, the tone of the music shifts at the precise moment when her thoughts change course (“Wake up. Stop dreaming.”) Even more significant, she then returns to her own musical language, borrowing a musical idea from Act I as she sings, “Back to life, back to sense, back to child, back to husband.” In this case, the tune corresponds with her previous mantra: “If you know what you want, then you go and you find and you get it.” She has found her voice again, and with it she has gained clarity.

However, the Baker’s Wife dies before she can share the results of this personal introspection, and the surviving characters are finally forced to face the consequences of their choices. “Your Fault” moves with a frenetic energy that echoes their desperation in this dark moment.

Striped to its bare bones, the underlying ostinato of “Your Fault” follows the basic movement of a descending major second. Note that while the interval matches the wish motive of Act I, the motion moves downward instead of ascending as usual. In this sense, even the accompaniment reflects the dark turn of events. Descending perfect fifths predominate throughout “Your Fault.” The descending fifth has strong associations with the bean motive (as its opening interval). Moreover, the bean motive in its entirety makes several appearances throughout the piece, often in moments when the beans are being discussed (ex. “I chopped down the beanstalk, right that’s clear”).

The following piece, “Last Midnight,” contains quite a bit of new melodic material. Sondheim utilizes a minor key and jarring intervals to create a sinister tone. Yet even amidst this seemingly unique material, Sondheim hints at previously heard tunes. “Had to get your prince,” the Witch admonishes Cinderella and in so doing she borrows a motivic idea from “On the Steps of the Palace.” (In this case, “had to get your prince” closely resembles Cinderella's “and without any guide.”)

Wishes and their corresponding motive are prominently featured throughout the rest of the act. “Please, no more,” pleads the Baker in the next number. This is another kind of wish – more desperate, more selfish. In his despair, the Baker phrases his new wish in the form of a minor second – a darker interval to express a darker wish. However, the Baker realizes that he cannot abandon his son as his father did. He returns. Consequently the wish motive returns to its proper intervallic form – a major second. It is noticeably present in the underscoring as Little Red and Cinderella discuss the moral implications of killing the giant. Moreover, an ascending major second forms the basic movement of the underlying ostinato of “No One Is Alone.” These characters may be wiser, but they are still in need of wishes.

The bean motive also makes an appearance in this number. It can be heard in the countermelody while Cinderella explains “sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.” Specifically, the countermelody takes the form of the “Stay With Me” bean variation. It is perhaps fitting that these two melodies fit together as both songs deal with loneliness and the need for human companionship.

As the act draws to a satisfying close, Sondheim reprises a number of pieces from both the first and second act. As the birds peck out the eyes of the giant, a frantic version of “Quick, little birds” can be heard in the orchestra. (Even birds have associative music in Into the Woods.) In the dialogue that follows, Sondheim even includes a musical gag, using the line “where are we to go?” from “No More” to underscore Little Red’s pronouncement, “Of course, we have nowhere to go so we’ll move in with you!” Sondheim then reprises the midnights, “No One Is Alone,” dialogue from the prologue, “Children Will Listen,” “Ever After,” and “Into the Woods” all before the fall of the curtain.

But of course, in the end, it all comes down to a single idea, the idea that has driven so much of the narrative. “I wish,” sings Cinderella. And the curtain falls.


1. Mark Eden Horowitz, Sondheim on Music (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003), 84.

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