There are significant similarities between legends, folk stories, fables and fairy tales. The one primary element that tends to differentiate the fairy tale from these other literary genres of morality is that the real action the fairy tale typically takes place in the forest. While folk tales are usually grounded in reality by way of setting, most fairy tales move from reality into the realm of supernatural once the characters move into the woods (Tatar 34). It is certainly not insignificant that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine chose to title their musical retrofitting of fairy tales Into the Woods. It is not just that the woods represents where the natural order is upended; the woods are also symbolic of the movement toward primal instincts, emotions and desires. Little Red Ridinghood establishes how this theme will be central to the story when she sings a song all about desire:
The primal desires that fairy tales are meant to address are full realized in Red's song when she contemplates that even though she doesn't know what her journey will bring her, that's not necessarily a bad thing. And after all, she knows she will be back home before dark. Therefore, the musical centers the importance of the forest itself as the site where desire and the expected realization of those desires can be met after an exciting journey there and safe passage home.
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The woods is a very common component of the structure of the fairy tale and is featured as a prominent symbol in everything from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel to name just two of the most famous in which the woods plays a vital role. When fairy tale characters find themselves in a dark forest, the mystery the represents the dualism of knowledge. Knowledge in itself is neither good nor bad; it is all in the way it is utilized. This dualism is ideally represented in Into the Woods because the musical genre is also a representative of dualism. It is neither opera, nor play, but a fusion of both that is unique in the performing arts. Sondheim and Lapine have taken the unique properties of musical theater and used it effectively to create a situation in which the woods as a keeper of secret knowledge and hidden desires can mean something different to each person depending on what he or she is looking for. During the course of the two acts, both new and familiar fairy tale characters discover that they must enter into the woods to accomplish something and, once there, they must be willing to take a risk. The musical separates itself from straight prose drama by introducing an element of the unreal into even the most realistic of settings. Once a person bursts into song, it really does not matter how much realism has been constructed through dialogue, scenery or set construction, the audience is naturally conditioned to accept the intrusion of the unreal. This is directly analogous to what takes place during fairy tales.
The woods also serve as the fairy tale's location where the moral lessons are to be gained, and in those lessons will also be keen observations into the nature of humanity. The mystery of the forest enforces natural fear and when the more fear becomes manifest the more likely humans are to revert to primal instinct. Of course, the most primal