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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

Character Study: Cinderella

Before we jump straight in with an analysis of Cinderella's musical language in Sondheim's Into the Woods, we need to make sure we're all on the same page when it comes to the score itself. If you haven't already, I highly recommend taking a look at my full score analysis for Woods . But if you don't have the time (or maybe you already read it but need a refresher) here's what you need to know. There are three main motives in the Woods score. First we have the "wish" motive. This is an ascending major second interval and if you know the score, you'll recognize this as the very first musical idea of the show: Cinderella's opening "I wish." The second major motive of Into the Woods is the "beans" - a five note musical idea that corresponds to the five beans given in exchange for Milky White. And the third major motivic idea of the show is the royal fanfare. This musical cue is often heard when the princes are entering or exiting the stage. These three motives - the wish, the beans, and the fanfare - are the backbone of the Woods score.

Kim Crosby as Cinderella in the original Broadway Production of Into the Woods.

Throughout Into the Woods, Cinderella’s musical language can give us a very good idea of how she is feeling. For example, her indecisiveness is clearly indicated in the accompaniment of “A Very Nice Prince.” 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.” 1 Thus the unsettled nature of the accompaniment mirrors Cinderella’s emotional uncertainty.

The same is true of her famous solo “On the Steps of the Palace.” This is precisely the type of song that has led critics to criticize Sondheim over the years—not particularly melodic, short phrases, unusual intervals, unclear harmonic structure—and yet, 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.

The birdcall itself, with its particular motivic origins, can tell us a great deal about Cinderella. This melody is derived from the royal fanfare – one of the three fundamental motives from which the score is built. In fact, a great deal of Cinderella’s musical material is taken from the fanfare. Even her opening statement (“I wish! More than anything”) is a combination of the fanfare and the wish motive. The fanfare is a crucial part of Cinderella’s musical vocabulary, appearing in one form or another in the “Prologue,” “Cinderella at the Grave,” “A Very Nice Prince,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” and in the Act I conclusion of her narrative. Moreover, it often signals her entrances and exits throughout the show. Thematically, the reasons for this strong association between Cinderella and the fanfare should be obvious. It is her dearest wish to attend the royal festival, she is pursued by a royal Prince, and ends Act I having become royalty herself.

Although her music is saturated with references to the royal fanfare, Cinderella rarely uses the bean motive. This too makes a great deal of sense from a thematic standpoint. For the duration of Act I, Cinderella’s storyline rarely intersects with the narrative of the beans. Thus, it seems appropriate that her musical language is confined to the fanfare and wish motives and does not extend to the third major motive of the show.

Cinderella may dwell almost exclusively on the royal fanfare throughout Act I, but the events of Act II force her to reevaluate her decisions and by extension her musical choices. This introspection leads to an extraordinary shift in her musical identity. Significantly, Cinderella exchanges the fanfare for the beans in her final solo number, “No One Is Alone.” The beans appear in the countermelody of the piece and in inversion as she explains “people make mistakes.” By adopting the bean motive, Cinderella effectively rejects her royal identity and embraces a new kind of family.

More than any other character in Into the Woods, Cinderella experiences a great transformation in her musical identity. Her earlier pieces were characterized by choppy phrases, harmonic instability, and an obsession with the idea of royalty. In comparison, “No One Is Alone” is perhaps the most melodically expressive piece in the entire show. Cinderella has finally found her voice.


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

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