Words by Diep Tran
Back in May, a video of Heather Headley (a Tony Award winner who originated the role of Nala in The Lion King on Broadway) went viral. In the clip, Headley was rehearsing for the musical Into the Woods. She plays the Witch, singing to her daughter Rapunzel (played by Shereen Pimentel, who is Afro Latina). In the song, the Witch explains why Rapunzel has to stay in her tower, singing, “Stay with me / The world is dark and wild / Stay a child while you can be a child.”
Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is set in the world of Grimm fairy tales. Despite the fact that I’ve seen Into the Woods many times, I’d never really sympathized with the Witch as a character. Her song, “Stay With Me,” was one of my least favorite in the musical. In previous versions, where she was always played by white women, I saw the Witch as the evil, overprotective, Mother Gothel-like figure. Yet the video—where Headley is beating her chest, visibly pained—showed a new dimension to the character. Here wasn’t an evil stepmother. Here was a Black mother telling her Black daughter that the world is cruel, and she is just trying to protect her. And we as the audience cannot disagree with her: We’ve seen the headlines.
Into the Woods, first performed on Broadway in 1986, is currently being revived on Broadway (June 28 through Aug. 21). It stars pop singer Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, Patina Miller as the Witch, and Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo as Cinderella. That production is based on a version that Headley starred in back in May, when New York City Center did a limited two-week run of the musical (also starring Bareilles)—which I was lucky enough to score a ticket to considering that the show immediately sold out.
In the past 10 years, I have seen Into the Woods four times on stage, and watched both of the film versions many times—a total of six different treatments of the same musical. (If you cannot see the new Broadway production, I recommend the version that was filmed for PBS in 1991.) I can safely say that this newest version of Into the Woods is by far my favorite. It is the most diverse out of all the Into the Woods I’ve seen and consequently, the most meaningful.
On its surface, Into the Woods seems like something made up in a Disney pitch meeting: It follows a baker and his wife, who have to go on a quest to retrieve, “The cow as white as milk. The cape as red as blood. The hair as yellow as corn. The slipper as pure as gold.” They have to do this to break a curse that the Witch placed on the Baker’s family, after the Baker’s father stole from her garden years prior. On the way, the couple meet other fairy tale characters who are also going into the woods on their own quest: Cinderella to the ball, Red Riding Hood to her grandmother, Jack to sell his cow.
The musical may sound overly precious, but what separates Into the Woods from anything the Mouse could have cooked up is its brutal honesty. It’s also why when Disney tried to adapt Into the Woods into a film starring Meryl Streep, they took out a lot of the musical’s sharpness and brutality. Spoiler alert: In the musical, the characters get their wish, but like the proverbial monkey’s paw, their wishes don’t make them as happy as they imagined. Because these characters aren’t just symbols, they are people. And to be a person is to be happy one moment, sad the next, never standing still, never truly content. You can meet your Prince Charming one moment, and become disappointed with him the next. You can love someone but still push them away. The people you love will die. Happily ever after doesn’t exist, instead adulthood is learning to exist in the quotidian after.
I began my relationship with Into the Woods in 2012 when I saw Amy Adams play the Baker’s Wife in New York City’s Central Park. That 2012 production has stayed crisp in my mind as the production to beat. After all, what can be more magical than seeing Into the Woods in the actual woods (granted, it’s a city-constructed woods, but still).
But that 2012 version, like the other four I saw following, had an all-white cast. What set 2022’s version apart was its diversity. Even though I’ve seen that musical so many times that when I hear the word “agony,” my brain translates it to, “AGONY!!!!”, seeing actors of different races helped me to understand the musical in a new way, and on a deeper level. Seeing people who looked like me, my family, and my friends on that stage, I saw my own lived experience in this fantastical musical. It made me realize: Into the Woods is about intergenerational trauma.
Into the Woods acknowledges, on a metatheatrical level, that fairy tales are the stories that parents tell their children to give them some kind of structure to the world. But those tales are a lie, and part of growing up is realizing that your parents lied to you as a kid to protect you, and that the world is more complicated than in a storybook. The world is also more diverse than in a storybook.
In 2019, when Disney announced that it had casted Halle Bailey as Ariel in its live-action version of The Little Mermaid, a backlash immediately followed with some claiming that Disney ruined their childhoods by not hiring a white actress to play a fictional, cartoon mermaid. Within that backlash is an unspoken admission: historically, Disney’s princesses were always white. In a study of 140 girls worldwide, when a Swedish sociologist asked those girls to draw a princess, they drew a white woman, with girls in India, Fiji, and China saying that dark-skinned girls could not be princesses and were not as beautiful. As one researcher noted, America has “colonized children's imaginations of what a princess is.”
The same has been true of Into the Woods where, even if the characters are fantasy and fictional and can be played by anyone, they are historically cast with white actors. It speaks to an unfortunate and unimaginative assumption: whiteness is universal.
The rare exception was the 1992 production from East West Players, an Asian American theater company in Los Angeles, who produced Into the Woods with an all-Asian cast. But even that production acknowledged that it was deviating from the norm, with actor Nobu McCarthy saying to the Los Angeles Times, “We’re doing Into the Woods to show that all musicals do not necessarily have to be portrayed by blond-haired and blue-eyed people.”
Much has changed since 1992, and even 2012 when I first saw Into the Woods. Crucially, Hamilton happened and helped disprove the notion that only white actors could tell universal stories, and that only white actors were heroic and desirable. It’s becoming increasingly common for BIPOC actors to be cast in genres and roles they have been historically shut out of, such as the period romance Bridgerton, playing Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked, or as the leads in a Sondheim musical.
Of Into the Woods’ most recent casting, production director Lear deBessonet says, “Part of the intent as a whole is to make work that reflects the world, that reflects the city that we're in.” In a pre-show conversation in May, she told me, “I think one of the things that has really come to light during the pandemic is how many parts of the [theater] industry have been historically exclusive … and that, without really intentional steps, isn't going to change.”
DeBessonet also talked about why she chose Into the Woods, because she wanted to extend a “wide invitation” to the people of New York, especially those who don’t typically go to the theater: those who are young, poor, or from historically marginalized communities. With its fairy tale structure, Into the Woods is the perfect “starter” musical for those who have not seen a musical. And in casting it with a diverse cast, it sent a clear message: fairy tales are for everyone. And musicals are for everyone. What can be more universal than having the world reflected on stage?
When that clip of Heather Headley went viral in May, I was not the only one who was extremely moved by that image of a Black woman singing to her daughter. As theater professor Eunice S. Ferreira wrote on Twitter: “Seeing this through the eyes of a Black mother…it’s a different song. The depths of a mother’s love…first time I felt the character’s love and justified fear for her child and not the neurosis or ego of an overprotective mother.”
Having the Witch played by a BIPOC actor goes perfectly with the original message of the musical, while deepening it significantly. As deBessonet, a mother herself, told me, “One of the questions of the show is how do we tell stories across generations: What do we tell our children? What sense do we make of the world? And particularly, how do we talk to them about the things that are so hard in life?”
Another theme of Into the Woods are the things that children inherit from their parents. Parents pass on fairy tales to their children but they also pass down personal baggage and trauma. A central character who embodies that theme is Cinderella, yet she was always the least interesting character in the musical to me. She was always so annoyingly passive, so blandly good: Why does she choose to stay and suffer at the hands of her family? Why does she want so little, to just go to a ball?
I saw Denée Benton play Cinderella in May, and in her performance, a line stood out to me that I had heard before but never listened to until now. It’s when Cinderella is at her mother’s grave, where she sings, “I’ve been good and I’ve been kind, Mother / Doing only what I learned from you / Why then am I left behind, Mother / Is there something more that I should do? / What is wrong with me, Mother?”
I understood Cinderella for the first time in my adult life. As sung by Benton (and I imagine also when Phillipa Soo, who is Asian American, performs it on Broadway), this Cinderella was a frustrated, marginalized woman, who has been told her entire life to keep her head down, work hard, and to not make any trouble. She dares to want to go to the ball even though she’s been told she is not allowed to want anything. I understood her;, in fact, I’ve been her. Most Asian Americans have been told that, and that is partially why we are still trapped by the model minority myth.
Happily ever after doesn’t exist, instead adulthood is learning to exist in the quotidian after.
By casting a BIPOC actor in the role, Cinderella’s arc becomes clearer: she goes from a girl trapped by the expectations of her family, to a woman who finally learns to make a decision for herself and say, “Mother cannot guide you / Now you’re on your own … You decide what’s right / You decide what’s good.” Cinderella realizes that perhaps, everything her parents told her was a lie. Cinderella as a marginalized woman of color (who are society’s house cleaners), may not have been the intention when creating this new Broadway production. But what a wealth of interpretations, what depth, that casting can create.
When we go into a theater, or watch any piece of entertainment, we are bringing ourselves into those seats. We are bringing the headlines we’ve read that day, the worries that are clouding our brain, our memories that might cause us to cry as we’re sitting in those seats, even if we don’t quite understand why we’re crying. It’s that subconscious light of recognition. A white Cinderella lamenting about always having to be “nice, kind, good, nice” resonates differently than a Black Cinderella or an Asian Cinderella singing those same words, because of what’s happening in the world beyond the woods.
Even though I had seen Into the Woods before and been moved by it, I don’t think I’ve truly really seen it, because I never saw myself or the world I lived in inside of those trees. Even my sister, who had seen the film but never understood Into the Woods until I took her to the City Center production, remarked after seeing it, “I should be careful what I say around my daughter.” In those fairy tale stage mothers, she saw herself. As this new revival of Into the Woods shows, no matter what kind of mother you are, what ethnicity, children will listen.
Published on June 22, 2022
Words by Diep Tran
Diep Tran is a culture critic/reporter/editor based in New York City. Her loves include musical theater and period dramas. She interviewed Keanu Reeves once and got him to admit he was Asian. Twitter: @DiepThought