Character Study: The Baker's Wife
The Baker’s Wife from Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods is one of the most emotionally and morally complex characters in the musical theatre canon. It would be wise for any actor attempting the role to study the score, for a better understanding of her distinct musical voice can shed a great deal of light on the character’s innermost thoughts, desires, and beliefs.
But before we begin our analysis, we're going to need a basic understanding of the three main motives of 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. (For an analysis of the score as a whole check out my earlier post.)
Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods.
Now that we have a basic idea of how the score is built, let's take a closer look at the Baker's Wife herself. Her first solo number, “Maybe They’re Magic,” serves the dual purpose of determining her moral outlook and establishing her musical identity. “If you know what you want than you go and you find it and you get it,” she explains and in so doing exposes herself as a woman who values her own needs above the dictates of society. Her music reflects the same sense of pragmatism. The melody is quick-paced, encompassing a small intervallic range. Rather than waste time and energy on a flowery, drawn-out melody, she makes use of a few succinct phrases. In a single number, the Baker’s Wife has become a force to be reckoned with: a woman with the determination to get what she wants and a no-nonsense musical sensibility to match.
Further inferences regarding her character can be drawn from the duet “It Takes Two.” 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,” but this is not a case of associative music or motivic development. It is a quote. Hidden in the trees, the Baker’s Wife overheard the Prince list his many attributes. 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. In this case, a closer examination of her musical language can provide valuable insight into her emotional state.
By the end of Act I, the Bakers have received everything they wished for and more. And yet, they will soon discover that all actions have consequences. In their case, the consequences could prove deadly. At the beginning of Act II, a giant descends from the sky seeking retribution for the murder of her husband and wrecking havoc on their kingdom. The Bakers and others flee to the woods and, in a moment of panic, sacrifice the narrator to the giant.
Without a narrator to guide the story, the fairy tale structure 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 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.
So in the end, what can the music teach us about this incredibly complex character? Well for starters, the musical economy of "Magic They're Magic" reveals a woman who takes no prisoners. She knows what she wants and she's not going to waste any time getting there. And though she does end up straying from the path a bit, she still maintains a strong sense of self. A weaker character would not have had the strength to return to her own musical language after a romantic tryst with a handsome prince in the woods. But the Baker's Wife does. And in so doing, she displays an incredible strength of character.