If you go to see the new movie version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods," which opened on Christmas Day, you're likely to leave with the little ditty "Into the Woods" stuck in your mind. There are more sophisticated melodies in the score, ones that carry dreams and sorrows and the deeper lessons of the show's interwoven fairy tales. But they're complicated and require thoughtfulness and practice to learn and sing.
"Into the Woods" is an irritating little nursery tune, in 6/8 time and made of just a few pitches. The lyrics, however, change every time it appears in the score, so when you find yourself singing it, what comes out is nonsense: "Into the woods, da-dah, da-dah ... into the woods, da-dah." Listen to it here. The theme is sung by Red Riding Hood at 4:06, Jack and his mother at 10:19, the Baker at 13:00, the ensemble at 13:55.
It's definitely ear worm material, but as the title song, it accompanies the main characters as they bravely set off in search of a better life. As in conventional fairy tales, they encounter obstacles, use their wits and courage, and are rewarded with a happy ending. But the movie's not over at this point. There's another thirty or forty minutes to go, and in the "ever after" part that follows the happy ending, things fall apart and end up maybe even worse than before. Because, well, giants.
It's not the way we want stories to go. We like a beginning, a middle, an ending with a clear resolution. "No One Is Alone," the sum-it-up song at the climax of "Into the Woods," is about learning to judge between contradictions, because that's what it means to be human.
At Christmas we had Luke's birth narrative for Jesus, the story about the wonder of the shepherds and the courage of the mother and father laying their newborn in a manger. But when the twelve days of Christmas are over and we arrive at Epiphany, the happily ever after turns into a mess. The magi find Jesus and present their gifts, but Mary and Joseph must pack up the gold, frankincense and myrrh, bundle up the baby, and leave for Egypt in a hurry. The wise men take a wide berth around Jerusalem and go home another way, for their own safety. And back in Bethlehem mothers weep for the innocent children slain by King Herod. No giants in the story, but some harrowing nights and probably a swamp as well.
We like to tell the manger story in a pretty way, in 6/8 time with heavenly, peaceful sleep. But that's only the beginning of the story of a God revealed as fully human. In the middle comes a muddle, contradictions, even tragedy. And that's good news for us. We are not alone.