Songs from Musicals: #29, “Children Will Listen,” from Into the Woods

Honorable mentions: “No One Is Alone,” “Giants in the Sky”

The farther away from my English degree I get, and the longer I spend teaching English, the more I find myself thinking about genre. This is one of my great weaknesses, a reason why I don’t intend to go back to school for an English graduate program; imagine being the guy whose theory is out of date and spends all of his time considering genre. Not that genre doesn’t matter – genre matters more than I gave it credit for doing when I was 20 – but genre studies tend not to be terribly flashy or insightful.

Here comes a genre study.

No, it’s okay. I promise that I’m not going to sit around talking about the “fractured fairy tale” that everyone did in fourth grade. I’m not that far gone yet. But at the end of the musical, like it does at the end of any good fairy tale, the moral shines through. And the moral of this show is, of course, “Children will listen.”

This is not a show with many children, and like Grease, the children in the show tend to be played by adults rather than by actual kids. Red Riding Hood makes it out of the Wolf’s stomach; Jack, despite accidentally wreaking havoc on the community by upsetting a giant, survives; the Baker’s Son, while motherless, still has a father. Bad things happen to them, but like children seem to, they bounce back. Red Riding Hood says that she “knows things now, many valuable things, that I never knew before.” Jack has a similar experience, recognizing the importance of the small things that he left at home once he looks down from the sky. The children in this show are forced to leave their innocence behind in a significant way. Whether or not that’s an improvement is a question for viewers – and parents – to decide for themselves.

Fairy tales are possibly for children. People are introduced to fairy tales when they are little, but that doesn’t mean that they are for children; one could make a similar argument about the Bible, or the Pledge of Allegiance, or any other text which carries deep symbolic meaning. The morals in fairy tales are supposed to apply to adults and children alike, although the stakes are much higher for adults. The moral of “The Three Little Pigs” – work hard to ensure security – or “Little Red Riding Hood” – be on your guard for liars – sound like the premises of commercials for Charles Schwab or Pacific Life, not the ideas behind a story told to preliterate tykes.

Maybe the reason that fairy tales are supposedly for children comes from the morals themselves; they are galling. Moralizing adults are, by and large, obnoxious, and thus it feels much less obnoxious to moralize to people who supposedly need the advice. I enjoy how Into the Woods ends conventionally – the whole cast comes together, reminds us of the introductory number, provides the moral for the fairy tale – but also with cheek, for there is an in-your-face lesson to be cemented in the final five minutes of the show.

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