Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods is a musical based, in part, on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Jack Zipes, one of the most important and most published of contemporary folklore scholars, has said about such things, "Folk and fairy tales as products of the imagination are in danger of becoming instrumentalized and commercialized" (Breaking the Magic Spell [Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002], 2). With the new big-budget Disney film version looming at the end of 2014, Zipes's warning seems more than ever to apply to Into the Woods. However, the history of the musical suggests that the inclusion of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales had more to do with desperation than exploitation.
In "A Fairy Tale Musical Grows Up," Stephen Holden writes, "Originally the Sondheim-Lapine team attempted to create a picaresque fantasy using totally original characters." But as Sondheim himself says, ''I don't know how Frank Baum invented The Wizard of Oz or Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland. . . . Jim [Lapine] and I were able to invent a couple of underlying structures, but nothing came to fruition. Then Jim came up with the idea of bringing together a group of established characters from different milieus into one situation and having them concatenate. Then he came up with the idea of having them be characters from fairy tales" (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/07/19/specials/sondheim-tale.html).
In addition, the assumption behind the notions of commercialization or exploitation is that the underlying structures and messages of fairy tales are violated or simply omitted. Instead, Lapine and Sondheim did their best to discover and foreground those structures and messages. As Sondheim told James Lipton, "If there’s any outside influence, it’s Jung. . . . In fact, we spoke to a Jungian analyst about fairy tales" ("The Art of the Musical" originally appeared as an episode of the television series Inside the Actors Studio and then was excerpted for The Paris Review 142 [Spring 1997], http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1283/the-art-of-the-musical-stephen-sondheim). Carl Jung's emphasis on deep structure, on the patterns and archetypes of myths and folktales, makes him, perhaps, the ideal guide for a passage through the dark places of fairy tales.
The main stories that Sondheim and Lapine borrowed from the Brothers Grimm were "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," and "Little Red Cap," more commonly known as "Little Red Riding Hood." There are, of course, a number of changes to the tales, but the most typical has to do with "Little Red Cap." In the Grimms' version, the wolf eats both the girl and her grandmother, but they are rescued by a passing hunter who "did not shoot but took some scissors and started cutting open the sleeping wolf's belly" (The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, trans. Jack Zipes [New York: Bantam Books, 1992], 104). Both victims emerge alive, something that is unlikely to happen outside of a fairy tale (or musical). Into the Woods substitutes the Baker for the hunter as a means of connecting the stories but doesn't change the message. James Lapine also used the little-known ending of the story in constructing Red Riding Hood's character, ''Little Red Ridinghood I thought of as Ramboette, because in the Grimm version of the story she and her grandmother go back into the woods and lure the wolf into a trough of water and drown him. What interested me was her brutality" (Holden). It is a second wolf, the grandmother lives in the woods, the drowning of the wolf is the grandmother's plan, but there's no doubt that the old woman and young girl share in the brutality.
The other folk tale that is specially important to the plot is not from the Grimms at all. "Jack and the Beanstalk" is a traditional English fairy tale, and the inclusion of "Milky-white" as the name of the cow, plus the description of Jack as a thief and not as the son of a knight trying to retrieve what was rightfully his father's, identifies the version as that of Joseph Jacobs from English Fairy Tales. (The other one, by the way, can be found in Andrew Lang's The Red Fairy Book.) Jack is smarter and more heartless in the fairy tale, or at least he understands that bulls don't give milk, and he doesn't think of Milky-white as a friend. Finally, there are two other stories from the Brothers Grimm that receive brief mentions in the play when the two princes go looking for additional princesses. They are "Brier Rose" and "Snow White." There's even a reference to J.R.R.Tolkien and his misspelling of "dwarfs" as "dwarves" when the princes discuss why they can't reach the new princesses they've found (Libretto http://theatre-musical.com/intothewoods/libretto2.html).
Ironically, Into the Woods comes closest to the truth of folk tales when it is furthest from the actual stories. The very notion of going into the woods is at the heart of fairy tales. The forest is a dark and magical other world, filled with marvelous adventures, terrible challenges, and life or death resolutions. The witch with a house in the forest is one of the most enduring and powerful archetypes in literature. To enter her hut and garden is to enter the underworld and confront death. This is true for the Grimms, for Baba Yaga in Slavic tales (e.g. "Vassilissa the Beautiful" in Pilkington Fairy Tales of the Russians and Other Slavs [Forest Tsar Press, 2010]), and for Sondheim and Lapine. Often in such stories, the witch is not evil but neutral, a great power who can be placated or offended. As the witch sings in her "Last Midnight" number, "I'm not nice,/ I'm not good,/ I'm just right" (Sondheim and Lapine, Into the Woods, Brandman Productions Inc. 1990, DVD).
The journey into the forest is a journey to understanding. Sondheim's songs clearly mark the stages of that journey, and as the songs are repeated and altered in the course of the musical, we see how much the characters have learned and changed. We see how much they have gained and the terrible losses they have suffered, and this too is true to the nature of fairy tales, which do not all end happily, and even when they do, do not end happily for everyone. Death comes randomly and unfairly. Love appears to offer more than it can possibly deliver. Children won't listen. But fairy tales also send the message of what is arguably the central song of Into the Woods, "No One Is Alone." So, the grim journeys come to a warm ending—as fairy tales should. And as, more often than not, they do.