We understand something, we humans: woods are never just woods. Sensing the breaths and rustlings inside, we have learned to marvel at and to mind—at times, to fear—the exhale of otherness that meets us when we stand on the sparser side of a wall of trees.
In storytelling and specifically old Anglo-Saxon fairytales, woods are a place of transformation, a world apart where loss is faced and pain shifts its shape. Always a thin place, woods guard a realm in which the spiritual mingles confoundingly with the temporal. We feel our humanness differently there; no one who goes in comes out the same.
Writers have used different words and images to describe this transformative theater over the years. Katherine May uses “wintering” in her book of the same name, and Kierkegaard used the three stages of existence. Scripture speaks of Jesus being drawn into the desert, Jonah into the guts of a sea creature, and Mary into what we must assume were nine full months of unplanned pregnancy as well as literal, physical transformation.
And for Stephen Sondheim, it was still the woods.
I often think of Sondheim’s Into the Woods as a sort of musical theatre translation of the Christian bible. It must sound blasphemous at worst and silly at best, but I suppose it has something to do with the fact that not one lyricist or composer in the world of 20th century musical theatre captured over and over again the nuances, hilarity, and downright mess of what it is to be a human being the way that Stephen Sondheim did. And I guess I think pretty much the same thing about the bible and its sprawling cast of I-couldn’t-have-made-these-people-up-if-I-tried characters, as far as books and characters go.
In how he manicured a turn of phrase or composed a polyphonic harmony, this man touched on the staggering subfloor of our reality: that some undeniable, ineffable truth connects the experiences of every person, that it indeed informs the experiences of every person, and so perhaps we are not very different after all.Janie Townsend
While I am just as much an enthusiast of Sondheim’s other masterpieces—Company (1970) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) specifically—Into the Woods (1986) may be the epitome of his ability to behold and critique and praise and confess to what living in our humanity really is up close, doing so with cerebral precision and the visceral understanding of heartbreak that people can only feel when they’ve had to grow up. Subjective realities and objective Truth alike are given voices in the stories of these characters, just as they have while they sing around and inside of us every day. Somehow—through spiritual gifting and responsibility, I am convinced—Stephen Sondheim was able to harness the most universal and yet personal experiences we humans can have and write them into a single piece of art. In how he manicured a turn of phrase or composed a polyphonic harmony, this man touched on the staggering subfloor of our reality: that some undeniable, ineffable truth connects the experiences of every person, that it indeed informs the experiences of every person, and so perhaps we are not very different after all.
Sondheim died late last year, as you might have heard. He was old and unwell, and left behind people who love him and a treasure trove of sublime dramatic and musical work. Trying to describe the gift of his portfolio and how he was the only person equipped to say things just the way he said them, I could write about Into the Woods in its entirety. I could write about what he contributed to the arts, or I could dissect his truly superior talent as a writer and composer in as formulaic a fashion as possible, all the while knowing I am not nearly qualified to do so. I could skip down endless rabbit trails here, so I’ll narrow down my description of what we have because we had Stephen Sondheim putting pen to page to stage.
Go listen to “No One Is Alone.”
Pull up whatever streaming service or internet browser you choose. Search “no one is alone into the woods” and make sure to choose the recording by the original cast—none of that condensed-for-theatrical-release, film score stuff (it’s not that I’m not a fan of the movie or Meryl Streep, whom I basically worship in fact—but I’m a snob, too).
Just listen to it. And then keep reading.
This song is perhaps the tenderest encouragement, the most loving rebuke, and—if any such thing exists—the wisest of any American proverb I have ever heard.
You see, we forget to think this way, you and I. We try so hard to remember that everyone else is a loved person, a significant person. We try so hard to have empathy for all the humans in our space—our kids, wailing over something that seems a trifle to us, or that one guy who decided to turn left at the last second and is now straddling two lanes and blocking traffic with his truck—and sometimes we just can’t.
No cure or antidote for our creeping self-centeredness exists, other than humility and the presence of one another. Without these, we do our best and so often don’t have the radical vulnerability to simply say it isn’t enough. We lose our tempers. We miss out on ideas and nuances and growth. We take sides even when there really ought not to be sides for the taking. We judge others. For the more righteous of us, we judge others for judging others and still blindly perpetuate the buzz of masses playing judge, jury, and executioner. We forget to spare such judgment even for ourselves. In summary, we forget that every person who lives and breathes, or almost does or once did, is sacred.
Because life is sacred. Because, as best we can guess, God crafted us and breathed life into us out of his want for nearness and creativity and work and dwelling with us. And so we are not only sacred, but loved.
And no one truly loved by such a constant companion as their Creator can ever be truly alone, so no one is alone, nor is anyone ever meant to believe such an exceptionally brilliant, crushing lie.
And we do forget. And Sondheim probably did, too. But he was one of us who wrote it down. Because it is crucial that we do not forget.
That, above all else, is what we have to thank him for.
Into the Woods, and more broadly, what Stephen Sondheim saw in the world and how he shared it through his art, has such a unique anchor in my heart. It taught me young—certainly before I would understand it for myself—that we’re only ever journeying, constantly reentering whatever transformation, whichever wilderness God beckons us into where he might meet us afresh. It reminds me on every listen that I am probably overwhelmingly normal, whatever my feelings, thought spirals, or flaws, and that adults have been terrified of being adults and parents and leaders for much, much longer than I have been afraid of such things.
Through this story of growing up and wishing and losing, of giving up and chasing after and swallowing what you have to swallow in order to do what’s right, I remember what it felt like to fail and find redemption the first time, and I submit myself to having to do it all again. I remember that no one who ever loved me can possibly be lost to me. I remember my friend Ethan, who was in that musical with me in high school, and who ended his life years later despite having been immersed in all these good and beautiful lessons which could not save him.
But maybe they can save something in you.
Listen to “No One Is Alone” and hear what’s true about you—because God loves you, because someone else loves and sees you, too, I am confident. Because you exist.
And then give the gift of knowing people are not alone to someone else. By how you see them, regard them, judge them. This is the greatest gift and legacy any artist can leave us, I believe: to have taught us to see better and love more freely.
This, above all else, is what we have to strive for.
Equal parts children's fiction writer, musical theatre expert, and emo pop-punk music aficionado, Janie Townsend can always be found among good stories. Along with her unmistakable voice, she contributes a haunting yet playful narrative tone to The Orchardist's music in the form of meticulous vocal arrangements.