The Terrible, Wonderful Liminal in Into the Woods

By Marisa Suescun

In February, we put Colby, our dog of seven years, to sleep. The five days that preceded his death – the time after we decided to put him down and before the appointed day – were at once deeply melancholic and celebratory. We were mourning in advance the passing of our sweet and loyal (and unwell) friend, and also savoring him in the evanescent present – indulging him, attending to him, giving him a grand send off. Colby had chicken at every meal, extra tummy rubs, an extended romp chasing squirrels up trees in the backyard of my mother’s house. It was, to borrow a phrase, our quite literal moment in the woods.

“Who can live in the woods?” Sondheim’s cautionary line, delivered via the Baker’s Wife – a lesson she learns right before dying. Indeed. Among other things, it’s exhausting to constantly hold dual realities. But Sondheim knows also that there’s richness to plumb for those willing to go there, even for a moment, and this is the conviction of Into the Woods that most moves me.

One could argue that Into the Woods is about many things – the complicated nature of getting what you wish for, the evocative act of wishing itself, the subjective and self-appointed line between self-preserving and opportunist.

For me, it is most of all about the liminal. It is about the transitory in-between moments in life that undo us, that upend our beliefs or penetrate our core, and leave us on the other end a changed person in the same clothes. It is about the rare passage of time that we are prescient enough, not just after the fact but in the moment, to know to experience as a passage.

The liminal is at once a terrible and wonderful place in Into the Woods. This is perhaps most true for Jack, who contends not just with woods but a world at the top of a beanstalk that only he has witnessed.

Giants in the Sky (Jack)

If the woods give rise to a sexual awakening for Little Red Riding Hood (more on that later), for Jack the fantasies are of an outsized nurturer.

“And she gives you food and she gives you rest,
And she draws you close to her giant breast,
And you know things now that you never knew before.
Not ‘til the sky.”

The image of the lady giant drawing Jack to her breast contrasts with that of Jack’s own mother, a familiar figure seen from an unfamiliar height – “the roof, the house, and your mother at the door.” These are the two notions of motherhood that Jack must grapple with as he occupies the liminal space of the beanstalk – the ample, luminous, volatile sky mother and the economical, pragmatic, predictable earth mother. In the sky, the man giant comes to eat Jack for lunch, and Jack resorts to stealing and scrambling down the beanstalk. Down below, when starvation looms, Jack’s mother has him sell his scrawny, beloved cow for both more and much less than she’s worth – a theft of its own kind.

“And you think of all of the things you’ve seen
And you wish that you could live in between.
And you’re back again, only different than before.
After the sky.”

Jack, like so many characters in this play, wishes for the best of both worlds. He wants the exhilaration without the danger, a maternal tenderness that is also fiercely protective. The thrill of discovery before the inevitability of greed. (The dog, before the illness.) The earth and the sky.

I Know Things Now (Little Red Riding Hood)

I enjoy the clarity and earnestness of Eleanor Grant’s lovely rendition here. I wanted to find a good version of a child singing this song, as, like with Jack, the story of Little Red Riding Hood is a coming-of-age one.

Sondheim, in all his brilliance, draws wonderful musical and lyrical parallels between the two songs. Note that Little Red’s bridge, like Jack’s, has a crescendoing, stream-of-consciousness quality as she describes the frightening part of her transformative journey – in this case, being swallowed by the wolf. “But he drew me close, and he swallowed me down, down a dark slimy path…”

Little Red’s depiction of “when everything familiar seemed to disappear forever” echoes Jack’s recollection of the moment he fears being eaten by the giant – “and it’s then that you long for the things you’ve known, and the world you’ve left, and the little you own.”

Jack goes down to solid ground, and Little Red goes up “into the light, and we’re back to the start” (again, echoing Jack’s “and you’re back again, only different than before”) – at which point the music shifts to the original melody, in its tidy 4/ 4 time, and the lyrics shift back to the material world:

“And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t known before.
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood; they will not protect you the way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers,
And though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.”

Like Jack, Little Red is contending with the complication of discovery, the way it casts contradictory shadows on previously clear paths. Three times in this song she speaks of the coupled emotions of “scary” and “exciting,” in the same way that Jack calls the giants “terrible” and “wonderful.” It’s a Sondheim trademark to expose the paradoxes inherent in growth, one reason his coming-of-age songs rarely descend into the hackneyed.

Still, young Little Red keeps striving, as we all do, to frame her experience neatly, to come at it from a place of understanding. While she starts off singing that she should have followed her mother’s advice to not stray from the path, she ends by celebrating the power, extolled by her Granny, to be brave and prepared for the unexpected.

“Now I know, don’t be scared.
Granny is right, just be prepared.
Isn’t it nice to know a lot?
And a little bit, not.”

I love how Sondehim gives her this little moment of youthful bravado in the penultimate line, followed by youthful vulnerability to close it out. Classic Sondheim – generous, unsentimental, and unmistakably apt.

On the Steps of the Palace (Cinderella)

Cinderella has perhaps the most overt – and overtly funny – defense of the liminal here, in this case the pitch-slathered steps of the palace. She is a character constantly seeking; she opens and closes the show with, “I wish.” In the first act, Cinderella spends much energy running to a ball to dance with a prince, and then equal energy running away when he pursues her.

“It’s your first big decision,
The choice isn’t easy to make.
To arrive at a ball is exciting and all;
Once you’re there, though, it’s scary.
And it’s fun to deceive
When you know you can leave,
But you have to be wary.”

Cinderella neither believes in herself as a princess, nor does she trust that to be the life that she really wants. The seeking of the fantasy – the enactment of “I wish” – is “exciting,” but the threat of actually living that fantasy is “scary.” The exact dichotomy Little Red grasps, though for different reasons, after her encounter with the wolf.

Cinderella is in the midst of one of those rare moments that you know to be pivotal in the moment. She tells herself to “stop and take stock while you’re standing here stuck on the steps of the palace” (the alliteration of the “st” blend here is delicious and witty and, to use a Sondheim term, apposite – it’s a restless, fitful sound). Yet she also knows her time to contemplate is fleeting; indeed, that inaction would actually signal startlingly decisive action, that of staying with the prince: “And whichever you pick, do it quick, ’cause you’re starting to stick to the steps of the palace.”

This is the thing about the liminal that Sondheim captures so aptly (and wittily) with Cinderella’s song. The window of time to linger in the in-between is by definition brief and ever waning, yet the possibilities are, for that enclosed moment, unusually expansive.

Cinderella is about to go home and “avoid the collision” when she realizes she could do something better:

“You know what your decision is,
Which is not to decide.
You’ll just leave him a clue.
For example, a shoe.
And then see what he’ll do.”

While Jack may wish that he could live in between, Cinderella, in a moment of clever inspiration, actually pulls it off. The prince has tried to checkmate her into a decision, and she coyly finds the unprotected escape route. Preserving “I wish” and “I have.” For the moment.

Moments in the Woods (Baker’s Wife)

Ah, the Baker’s Wife. (And ah, Joanna Gleason.) This is in my mind the most sophisticated of the liminal songs in Into the Woods. It is not an adolescent’s coming-of-age song, but a mature woman’s song of middle aging. With wit and spunk and grace.

One of the notable things about this song that often gets overlooked or understated (I think because the Baker’s Wife promptly dies after the song, a tragedy that does eschew a certain messiness of the mundane) is the fact that the Baker’s Wife gives a defense here of adultery. It is a nuanced, smart, and compassionate defense, and very decidedly a defense of a moment’s indulgence held contained in its place. The Baker’s Wife comes to a place at the end of the song where she feels that a little tumble in the woods with a prince won’t hurt her marriage – that, in fact, it would deepen it.

“Why not both instead?
There’s the answer, if you’re clever…
Must it always be either less or more, either plain or grand?
Is it always ‘or?’ Is it never ‘and?’
That’s what woods are for. For those moments in the woods.”

For the Baker’s Wife, the woods represent a departure from (though not a rejection of) her everyday world – a world she values and tenderly protects, even as she longs for the romance of the unfamiliar, of a mystery still to unfurl. In the first act, the Baker’s Wife relishes the changes she sees in her husband through their venture in the woods. She tells him, “You’ve changed, you’re daring, you’re different in the woods.” The couple indulges in their moment in the woods, a sweet, almost-shy courtship of sorts:

“We’ve changed. We’re strangers.
I’m meeting you in the woods.
Who minds? What dangers?
I know we’ll get past the woods.
And once we’re past,
Let’s hope the changes last.”

In Act One, the Baker’s Wife and her husband wish for the changes wrought by the liminal to carry forth into their shared everyday world. And it could be, if the curtain closes for good after Act One, “and happily ever after.”

Act Two is for the darker themes to emerge. In “Moments in the Woods,” the Baker’s Wife returns to this notion of a life marked by the momentous and unexpected – but comes to a different conclusion than her slightly younger self.

“Oh, if life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you’d had one.”

There’s a likable pragmatism to the Baker’s Wife here. She indulges in a romantic, cinematic notion of life, and in the next breath waves her idea off as not only foolish but counterproductive. Like Cinderella, the Baker’s Wife notes both the thrill and danger in “get(ting) what you wish,” but unlike Cinderella, she doesn’t ultimately try to prolong her stay in the woods. If the young woman possesses the drive and spark to go after her wish, the mature woman possesses the wisdom to celebrate the act of wishing. More than a clever conceit that buys some time (leaving the one shoe), the Baker’s Wife has come upon an approach to living her life that allows her to cherish the “and” while sustaining (nourishing, deepening) the “or.” And so she takes decisive action, knowing precisely what to take with her and what to leave behind.

The sophistication, economy, and beauty of her final stanza brought tears to my eyes when I first heard it – mostly out of appreciation to share this earth with the brilliant and attentive soul that composed it. With a furry blond dog sleeping on the couch beside me, in his final few weeks of life.

“Let the moment go.
Don’t forget it for a moment, though.
Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’
When you’re back to ‘or’
Makes the ‘or’ mean more
Than it did before.
Now I understand. And it’s time to leave the woods.”