Editor’s Note: Today’s post is from Allison! You can find out more her on her own blog, Eclectic Alli, or on the Guest Monsters page.
* A quick note: This is written in reference to the American Playhouse recorded version which features nearly all the original Broadway cast, not the more recent movie telling.*
“You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad; you’re just nice.”
The Witch from Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into The Woods, is a highly complex character. In many ways she serves as a voice for monsters and villains – raising a voice to another side of the story.
When we first meet her she explains to the Baker and his Wife about the curse she placed on their house, and how they can lift it. At this point she is a hideous bent figure, and we discover that, in addition to placing a curse, she stole Rapunzel from The Baker’s parents – a point that gets overlooked and ignored by the Baker but gives the Witch another role in the fairytale story.
You see, the Witch is a mother. She raises Rapunzel as her own daughter keeping her locked in a tower to protect her from the
“Don’t you know what’s out there in the world. Someone has to shield you from the world…. Princes wait there in the world it’s true. Princes, yes, but wolves and humans too. Stay at home, I am home, who out there could love you more than I…. Stay with me, the world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child.”
When she finds that Rapunzel has, by her perception, betrayed her by seeing the prince, the Witch gets angry and casts them both away in her anger.
The fairy tales in the first act end as could be expected, as the narrator says, “all that seemed wrong was now right, the kingdom was filled with joy, and those who deserved to were certain to live a long and happy life. Ever after.”
The Witch, being among the villains of the first act doesn’t get this happy ever after. The breaking of the curse has returned her youth and beauty. She encounters Rapunzel and invites her to come with her, the only family the witch has, so that they can be happy together. But Rapunzel refuses and the witch discovers that she has lost her powers. Not only is she now completely alone, but she has none of the powers she once had.
Early in the second act the Witch encounters Rapunzel again. This time they talk. Rapunzel is clearly unwell, explaining how the Witch’s treatment of her has made it so she will never be happy. The witch notes that she was only trying to be a good mother, but then chases after Rapunzel, wanting still to protect her from the Giant that is about.
With the arrival of the Giant’s Wife the characters are faced with a real dilemma. Do they give her what she wants, try to stop her, or see if they can trick her by giving her someone else. The Witch is quick to step up and try to do whatever is required to pacify the Giant’s Wife, offering up Cinderella’s step-sisters, the Steward and ultimately being the one to follow through with the idea of sacrificing the Narrator.
But when Rapunzel appears again the witch steps in one more time, trying to protect and save her. But once again Rapunzel runs away and finally meets her end under the Giant’s foot. And in that moment there is clear heartbreak as the Witch finally, truly, loses all she has left. With this final loss the Witch sets on a mission to really bring things to an end, to find Jack and give him to the giant. She has nothing left to lose, nothing left to hold her there, but no way to escape.
“This is the world I meant, couldn’t you listen. Couldn’t you stay content, safe behind walls, as I could not. No matter what you say, children won’t listen. No matter what you know, children refuse to learn. Guide them along the way, still they won’t listen. Children can only grow from something you love, to something you lose.”
Just shortly later she is able to remind us all, through her words to Little Red Riding Hood, that we too often are ready to put people into categories of “good and bad” to sort them and assume, to overlook the pain that someone who is labeled a “bad guy” may be hurt.
“This is terrible, we just saw three people die.”
“Since when are you so squeamish, how many wolves have you carved up?
“A wolf’s not the same.”
“Ask a wolf’s mother.”
And, ultimately, this is the Witch’s role through the story. She is a voice for the gray areas that exist in the world – a voice to the reality that a villain character may well have more to them.
The other characters are liars and thieves, as the Witch says, they take the situations they are in and do what they must do in order to survive, or to get their wish. The Witch has done the same, but has the misfortune of being a Witch – being willing to stand by her truth and take actions that may be less than popular.
This is far from my first time writing about Into The Woods… and there may well be more to come.