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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

Character Study: The Witch

I've always felt that the Witch is one of the more interesting characters in Sondheim's Into the Woods. Although she is ostensibly the villain of the show, she has these moments of incredible vulnerability (more on that later). Not to mention, she is actually one of the only characters to consistently tell the truth. In a show where "everyone tells tiny lies," it is no insignificant thing for a character to be so truthful. Considering the complexity of the character, I think it is well worth our while to take a look at her musical language and see if it can give us some insight.

Meryl Streep as the Witch in the movie adaption of Into the Woods.

The bean motive (one of three major musical motives in the Woods score) is scattered throughout the Witch’s musical language. This should come as no surprise as the beans play a crucial role in her personal narrative. Originally grown in her garden, their theft is the cause of her hideous appearance and is the inciting incident for the entire show. In fact, Sondheim establishes a specific variation of the bean motive that is exclusively associated with the Witch. Her variation takes on sinister quality due to an aggressive double dotted rhythm. This variation is first established in the Witch’s rap, can be heard during her entrances and exits throughout the show, and appears in the introductions to “Stay With Me” and “Lament.”

Whereas most of the characters of Into the Woods give voice to their deepest wishes at some point in the opening “Prologue,” the Witch notably keeps her innermost thoughts private. Her visit to the Bakers sets in motion a plot that will ultimately bring her the youth and beauty she so ardently desires, but even this personal agenda is not made obvious until the climactic moment when she takes the potion and is transformed. However, this superficial wish for youth and beauty masks a deeper, more human desire – the need for a family. The Witch is rarely able to articulate this wish, and yet her musical language voices the thoughts that she is otherwise unable to express.

At a crucial moment in “Stay With Me,” Sondheim prominently features the major second interval – a musical idea that is strongly associated with the concept of wishes throughout Into the Woods.

“Stay with me,” she pleads, “Stay at home. I am home.” All of these phrases are sung with a major second. The Witch’s increasingly desperate use of this interval reveals her true nature. This is her wish. More than anything else, she craves human companionship. The Witch may not have an “I wish” moment in the same sense as Cinderella or Jack or the Bakers, but by featuring the major second so prominently at this moment, Sondheim has, in effect, allowed her to musically express her deepest desire.

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