National Commentary

‘Into the Woods’ is An AIDS Parable

nfbenton-mugStunningly pleasing to the ears, eyes and intellect, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award winning Broadway play from the 1980s, “Into the Woods,” is now a much-deserved hit in its movie version, Oscar-bound with stellar performances by Meryl Streep and a host of other stars.

Putting two superstar artistic geniuses – Sondheim and Streep – in the same production sends it soaring above an uncommonly fertile season for motion pictures, and even though it is a Disney film, few punches are pulled, really, in presenting this often funny but ultimately dark cautionary tale.

In what is, in the stage version, the beginning of Act Two, an assembly of famous fairy tale characters having arrived deep in the woods – Cinderella, Jack (of the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and their ancillaries – as well as a witch (Streep) and a baker and his wife looking to conceive by doing the witch’s bidding, can’t settle for the good things they wound up with at the end of Act One.

They sing together as Act Two opens, “I never thought I could be so happy!” But soon they start wanting more, each in their own way, such that some of them comment shortly after, “Wishes may bring problems, such that you regret them.”

Everything is downhill from there, with the arrival of a nasty giant that Jack’s planted seeds permitted to arrive, but moreover, human foibles of greed, licentiousness, betrayal and excess lead to death upon death until almost no one is left.

While this cautionary tale, as with many fairy tales of old, carries this unmistakeable message, there is still another level to it. So argues Ester Bloom writing for the online blog Talking Points Memo last week.

She contends convincingly that the book by James Lapine and lyrics by Sondheim are a slightly-disguised parable about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

The musical is the third most popular being performed at high schools since its inception, but most of those are “junior versions” that exclude Act Two. Bloom writes, “Sex and death are at the heart of the show..for a reason: Stephen Sondheim, a gay man working in theater in New York City, created the show in the eighties at the height of the AIDS epidemic.”

“The characters are plucky, independent and appealing; although they commit various sins in order to reach personal fulfillment, we root for them and want them to succeed. And they do. They get laid, get married, get pregnant, get rich. Yet, after the curtain rises on Act Two, they (and we) learn that unintended consequences descend even on those who don’t deserve them,” she wrote.

Indeed, this interpretation becomes evident to anyone who lived through the AIDS epidemic, as I did, and the 600,000 mostly young gay male lives it took in the U.S. (I called it the U.S. gay world’s “AIDS Dark Age” in my book, Extraordinary Hearts. It ran from 1974 when the HIV virus likely began spreading invisibly in the context of a growing counterculture-induced excess in urban gay scenes, through 1981 when people started getting sick and dying, to 1996, when Time magazine named as its “Man of the Year” Dr. David Ho, inventor of the “cocktail” that ended the epidemic’s automatic and horrid death sentence.)

It’s just not Sondheim’s style to simply come out and say this is what the play is about. He wants his work to have a more universal appeal, not like the explicit AIDS themes of the Academy Award-winning Tom Hanks tour de force, “Philadelphia,” Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America,” the Tony Award-winning “Rent,” or Larry Kramer’s recently revived and acclaimed, “The Normal Heart.”

But in just this way, however, Sondheim embraced the AIDS epidemic within the broader world of universally human shortcomings.

So, he contended, AIDS is not unique to gays. AIDS does not set gay people apart, it is a consequence of things that make us all human and fallible.

This defines a great artistic achievement by which gays could be healed from all that and fashion a new self-esteem based on something much better.