Sunday, March 29, 2015

Into the Woods and the disregard of “Show, Don’t Tell” in musicals

This week, the movie version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods came out on home video. First, I just want to say that I think Disney did a great job of adapting the musical to the screen. Sure, there were some changes, but I think most were justified and worked.

Also, I noticed recently that during Jack’s song “There are Giants in the Sky,” the melody from the Witch’s “Stay With Me” makes an appearance (a song we haven’t heard yet in the musical). But it’s deeper—“Stay With Me” is a song about the witch wanting her adopted daughter to be close to her, and the melody shows up in “Giants in the Sky” at the exact moment that Jack sees his mother at his house. One of the reasons why I like Into the Woods so much is that these little melodic moments happen throughout the musical.

Now that’s out of the way, there was one thing that bothered me as I watched the movie (and this applies to the musical, too): numerous times Sondheim disregards the basic creative writing guideline “Show, Don’t Tell.” In other words, people in Into the Woods are singing exactly what they feel fairly often (“Agony, beyond power of speech,” “And you’re really scared that you’re all alone, and it’s then that you miss all things you’ve known,” “And he made me feel excited, well, excited and scared”), instead of just showing us what they feel by their actions. And this from one of my favorite pieces of art?!?

So, I present three reasons why Sondheim can disregard “Show, Don’t Tell” in Into the Woods and get away with it:

  1. It’s a musical. Characters are allowed to tell what they are feeling through a song in ways that wouldn’t work with dialog. That’s what songs are for: presenting feelings (though it helps to be creative; think of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid—it’s classical example of creative broadcasting of emotions in first person).
  2. We know these fairy tales, but the versions we know don’t include explorations into the character’s psyche. In other words, we already know the showing part. So we don’t mind the character just telling us, as it’s something extra.
  3. Because the characters in fairy tales (and by extension, Into the Woods) are allegories of real life people and situations, we are already doing the work of mapping what happens in the story (getting eaten by a wolf) to what that might signify in real life (getting abused or raped, etc.). That already takes a lot of brainpower (not to mention processing the music, too), so having characters say something straightforward, like “I really got scared,” makes the task of mapping to real life easier.
Moral of the story: add music (and a little creativity) and maybe “Show, Don’t Tell” isn’t all that sacred.

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