“Once Upon a Time” There Lived an ‘Objective’ Observer: An Analysis of the Role of the Narrator in Into the Woods

Every fairytale begins with “once upon a time,” however, it is not always clear who says this well-known phrase in every story. In Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, the character of Narrator is an integral part of the story because, in speaking this timeless phrase, the Narrator conjures the story of the musical into existence. Sondheim’s Narrator seems insignificant at first glance, only helping the interwoven fairytales come together into a cohesive story throughout the musical, but his portrayal in specific productions of Into the Woods shapes that production’s meaning, message, and mood. In this way, the depiction of the Narrator has the greatest influence out of any other character on the production concept of the musical, especially on unconventional productions like the 2014 revival of Into the Woods performed in Central Park.


To place the Narrator into context, the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods from 1989 had the Narrator played as a stately older gentleman in a suit and tie who communicates directly with the audience presenting the story of the musical to them. In this production the Narrator is an intermediary between the audience and the story, he “tells the story [he] is not a part of it.” In this way, the Narrator holds a less active role in the story compared to the other characters. He is only lit onstage when he speaks his interjections to the audience showing his separation from the true action of the story that the other characters are a part of. However, in this production, the actor playing the Narrator also plays the role of the Mysterious Man, a character presented as knowing more than the other characters in a narrator-esque fashion. This double casting defies the typical way we think about narrators as being on the outside. By having one actor playing both characters, we see the importance of an objective observer in the process of storytelling. The Mysterious Man acts as a facilitator for the whole plot of the musical, helping gather the ingredients for the witch’s potion, and the Narrator instigates the plot in the first place. The other characters become totally lost when they give the Narrator to the Giant in act two. The Narrator of the OBC facilitates a classic fairytale structure with the rest of the characters at the center of the plot. The production ends with the characters gaining perspective and knowledge on one of the musicals main themes: the power and importance of relationships.


The 2014 production of Into the Woods in Central Park takes an entirely different approach to the character of the Narrator causing the show’s production concept to drastically change. This production begins with a young boy entering the outdoor set that looks like an overgrown playground. The New York Times review of the show describes the opening moments as:

An “interpolated prologue of recorded voices, which appear to be engaged in one of those recriminatory parent-child arguments you hear in Lifetime movies and ads for family service agencies. Our young Narrator has evidently run away from home and is sleeping rough, with provisions that include a knapsack of toys like a troll doll, a Homer Simpson doll and a big black, fuzzy spider.”

The young boy is the Narrator. He is frightened of his surroundings, and to pass the time, he begins to tell a story to himself using his toys as the characters. As he introduces the audience to the different toys, Homer Simpson for the Baker, a spider for the Witch, and so on, they appear on stage and begin the story. The characters’ appearances match pieces of the toys he has chosen for them, for example, the Witch has spider-like dreadlocked hair and long black fingernails, and she walks with two tree branch-like canes so she appears very sinister and animalistic, quite like the large, black, furry spider the Narrator has chosen for her. The Narrator’s attention, shown through pointing as well as through his physical location in the set which is constantly changing due to his childlike energy and enthusiasm, causes action to begin in different parts of the set. The audience comes to understand that the story is only happening in the Narrator’s mind because the characters mimic his gestures as he introduces them to the audience as his imagination conjures them into existence. An example of this is the horse-like nature of the princes, which is started by the narrator when they are introduced and is then carried on through the rest of the musical, as well has the Narrator prompting Little Red to ask for more and more cookies in the opening number. The narrator also interacts directly with many of the characters when he adds props to the show as he finds them, such as Little Red’s basket and his frog umbrella that becomes part of the beanstalk. The Narrator is actively creating a world for the story to operate in.


This production also highlights the influence of the Narrator’s character on the production concept by playing on the parallels between the boy Narrator and the young characters of Jack and Red Riding Hood. The child lens of the Narrator makes the production almost more about the relationships of the children in the show than those of the adult characters. At the end of “I Know Things Now,” Red Riding Hood and the Narrator both look over their left shoulders at the same time toward where Granny and the Baker have chased the dying Wolf offstage on the line “And a little bit, not.” This equates their feelings of not wanting to fully know the true evils of the world, and it places them on the same level as children who have already seen a lot for their short years of life— Little Red being eaten by the Wolf and the Narrator’s troubling relationship with his father—without completely understanding the trauma that they cause. This final line of the song and the parallel between the children shows that they want to retain some innocence of their childhood even after acknowledging that they have experienced many terrible things and therefore “know a lot” about the world.


At the end of act one, the narrator sings the finale with the rest of the cast and then gets into his sleeping bag under the set and goes to sleep. When the lights come up, the sleeping bag is still there with the frog umbrella covering where his head would be. We see this sleeping body throughout the whole second act, insinuating that the second act is a nightmare that the Narrator is having. This construction is extremely clever as the second act parallels the first, but with a dark twist, just like how the things you think about just before bed get twisted into nightmares when you fall asleep. As act two begins, we see the Narrator find a toy that looks just like him, and he tentatively begins the story again. In this act he has become a character in his dream and therefore in the story he created. He begins to follow the main party of the Baker, Baker’s Wife, Little Red, Jack, and Cinderella as they attempt to get through the woods, and he is no longer always onstage and narrates far less. The Narrator has lost his assurance in the story and we see him more clearly as the young boy that he is, frightened and alone, just like the characters he has created to keep him company.


When the characters turn on him and want to offer him to the Giant, he says the same lines that the OBC Narrator does, frantically telling the characters that they “need an objective observer to pass the story along” to which Little Red responds “some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.” In this version, rather than the Witch saying that line, as she does in the OBC, Little Red takes the line, making it a more personal attack on our young narrator because she is a character who we have already seen is similar to the Narrator. It is also ironic because the Narrator has not been in charge the whole second act, so we know he doesn’t like the way the story is being told either.


In the finale of act two, the Baker is spoken to by the ghost of his wife who tells him to tell his son the story of how everything happened. The actor playing the Baker then leaves stage and returns in modern clothes calling for his son, the Narrator. The Narrator, who in a blackout has crawled back into his sleeping bag as if he never left, runs into his arms. They begin to start to tell the story again, this time together, helping each other along the way with the details. The Narrator shows his father where in the set events took place as they reconnect with the information he has learned from his nightmare, that “no one is alone.” In the final moment of the show, all the characters exit, and the Narrator runs on one final time to say, “I wish,” clearly a moment of reflection on what he has learned in the woods. This culmination, as compared to the OBC’s Cinderella’s delivery of the line, creates a perfect end to this production’s take on a child’s imaginary game come to life. He ends the show because he created the story, and he will take the story with him when he leaves.  It was the Narrator who learned power and importance of relationships through the characters in this production rather the characters themselves learning that important lesson.


The OBC shows the importance of an objective observer to help a fairytale run smoothly, whether it is an entirely separate Narrator or an elusive Mysterious Man. The Narrator structure in the OBC production shows how quickly a fairytale storyline can falter if there is no one helping it along and the storyteller loses control of the action. The Central Park production shows how a young boy’s fantasy can both run away with him and teach him important lessons about family and relationships. Without the Narrator in either performance, the production would lose a huge aspect of its concept, that it is a story being shared with the audience and that we are never truly objective from the stories we tell. While both productions use the same text and lyrics, they are visually and functionally utterly different. In the OBC the audience sees the changes that take place for the characters due to the action brought about by the Narrator telling their story, while in the Central Park production, we watch our young boy Narrator learn the hard lessons brought about by the story and change because of it instead of changing the characters who’s stories he tells. The final messages of the productions are fundamentally the same, that “no one is alone,” but the difference is who learns this lesson the most: the fundamental distinction between the productions and the reason why the Narrator is influential to the production concepts of Into the Woods.



Works Cited:

Brantley, Ben. “A Witch, a Wish and Fairy Tale Agony (Published 2012).” The New York Times, August 25, 2012, sec. Theater. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/10/theater/reviews/into-the-woods-by-stephen-sondheim-and-james-lapine.html.


Into The Woods (1987), 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqCsQCsinK4.


Into the Woods Live in the Central Park (Complete), 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YanlCN899bY&t=1s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *