All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned from ‘Into the Woods’

By Megan Willome

19 lessons

When I was a little girl, I devoured my mother’s copies of “Andersen’s Fairy Tales” (the one with the green cover) and “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” (the one with the red cover). I read the Grimm’s tales most often. So when I saw the musical “Into the Woods,” which preserves the horror in the originals, I felt right at home.

Even though I hadn’t been onstage since high school, I tried out when our theater held auditions for “Into the Woods.” The audition sheet listed three categories of roles: Male Roles, Female Roles and Bovine Role, aka the cow, Milky White. I am the only person who checked the box next to Bovine Role, and I am sharing the role with another woman. Yes, I am half a cow. In the finale I come out as Snow White. So basically, I moo and yawn, and my last name is White.

After I got the part, I reread my copy of Grimm’s “Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs” and noticed this gem. After the dwarves stumble over a bush, thereby dislodging the poisoned apple and awakening Snow White from deathly slumber, the story says, “she opened her eyes, threw up the cover of the coffin, and sat up, alive and well. ‘O dear, where am I?’ cried she. The King’s son answered, full of joy, ‘You are near me.’”

That is disturbing on so many levels. The poor girl has been poisoned by a relative, buried alive in a glass coffin by seven forest dudes and has no idea who this joyous King’s son might be or whether she even wants to be near him.

But disturbing is what fairy tales are all about. Sisters who hack off a heel or a toe to fit into a slipper. A mother who hides her daughter in a tower, then banishes her to the wilderness while carrying twins. A grandmother and a girl in a stylish red cloak who survive an attack by a cunning canine. Sounds not unlike recent headlines to me. Real life is Grimm.

We all want a happy ever after. We try to choose the right major, the right job, the right mate, the right preschool, the right college and so on. Are we ever happy for more than a handful of minutes?

The entire second act of “Into the Woods” is devoted to what happy ever after actually looks like (hint: not that happy). After each character receives his or her wish, each feels discontented, like we all do the day after Christmas. The princes have cheated on their true love with other princesses, which sounds like the kind of thing I read in the tabloids while waiting in the checkout line. When the curtain closes, a new family is formed from the survivors of four separate ones, much like the plot to many a feature film. The last two words of the musical are the same as the first two: “I wish.” And so the cycle of wishing and getting and wishing starts all over again. The horror is that it never ends.

After weeks of rehearsing this brilliant collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, I think it’s basically the answer to the eternal question, “What is the meaning of life?” I believe if we all looked to this musical for wisdom, then therapists would lose clients. Pharmaceutical sales would plummet. Self-help books would languish on shelves at Dollar Tree.

Back in 1989, a Waco-born author named Robert Fulghum wrote a book titled “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” His list of 19 lessons went viral before going viral was a thing. So I offer my own list of lessons. Because all I really needed to know, I learned from “Into the Woods.”

  • “Nice” is a four-letter word, and nice is different than good.
  • It’s everyone’s fault.
  • No one is alone, but not everyone is on your side.
  • Those and/or dilemmas are the moments that define you.
  • Sweet little girls can be bloodthirsty.
  • A wolf has a mother too.
  • Years of forced manual labor may cause you to actually enjoy cleaning.
  • You decide alone what is right.
  • Charming and sincere are not the same.
  • Don’t punish people who hurt you because punishment will find them … somehow.
  • Honor each other’s mistakes.
  • If you know someone who can talk to birds, keep them around. It’s a handy skill.
  • What we really want is something between a dream and a nightmare.
  • Maybe those worthless beans are magic — who knows?
  • Running away makes you feel undefined.
  • Trying to be the perfect wife/mother/child leads to an unhappy ever after.
  • Wishes grow, just like children.
  • And children will listen, but not always when you want them to.
  • Finally, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a cow for a friend. Moo.