Josh Duggar and Into the Woods

Last week, the Internet exploded with the scandal of Josh Duggar (and thousands of others) using the affair-seeking site Ashley Madison.

Also last week, I listened to the soundtrack of Into the Woods for the first time. (And then about twelve more times between the Broadway and movie versions, because I go in loops like that. Don’t judge my listening habits.) So a fairy-tale sendup musical, strangely, became a frame for thinking about adultery, Christians falling from grace, and how our culture decides what’s right and what’s wrong.

IntoTheWoods

Like most fairy tales (ask basically any Inkling ever—I’ve read essays/chapters by Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton on this), Into the Woods makes some clear statements about morality, ones that I found super interesting given the media attention to the Duggar scandal.

One clear villain among all the gray characters of the show is the Wolf. When Red reminds him that her mother informed her to follow the path and never stray, he smoothly affirms the advice…sort of. “Just so, little girl, any path. So many worth exploring! Just one would be so boring!”

Of course, we all know that didn’t end well.

Meanwhile, a few scenes over, Prince Charming articulates the modern approach to morality while attempting to seduce the Baker’s Wife: “Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods, only feelings.”

So, is that what Into the Woods is doing? Glamorizing adultery? Probably not, because the Prince also sings this line to the Baker’s Wife, “Days are made of moments, all are worth exploring. Many kinds of moments—none is worth ignoring….One would be so boring.”

We heard those lines before? Oh yeah, back in the creepy song with the Big Bad Wolf. Guys, I’m not gonna go all literary-theory on you here, but when a writer repeats the exact same lyric for two characters, he’s trying to draw a parallel.

I would say, though, that while it seems that the Prince’s serial womanizing is rightly shown as really bad, the Baker’s Wife gets off pretty easy here. Instead of regretting her “moment” with Charming, she vows to remember it, deciding that it makes going back to her husband mean “more than it did before.” So…that’s a little confusing.

One note: Disney edited out the Prince and the Baker's Wife sleeping together, which happened in the original stage version.

One note: Disney edited out the Prince and the Baker’s Wife sleeping together, which happened in the original stage version. In case you saw the movie and thought, “Totally missed that.”

In the same way, it’s interesting to see the outrage that people are showing over the Ashley Madison leak…when those same people wouldn’t be outraged at the hundreds of romance novels and movies where a man who has fallen “out of love” with his wife finds solace with some other woman, his true “soul mate.”

Why the disconnect? Why is our culture okay with abortion, no-fault divorce, casual sex, abusive fictional porn, and more…but not Josh Duggar creating an account on a site that assists you in having an affair?

Maybe Into the Woods can give us a hint at that too.

As I was listening to the soundtrack, I found myself nodding along pretty much every value judgment the songs were making. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, here’s a review: you should stay on the one correct path rather than following whichever one looks most exciting. Adultery is wrong. Even small misdeeds like lies and thefts have serious consequences, not just for you, but for those around you (like, you know, ¾ of the cast dying by the end of the play). And running from your responsibilities just to gain freedom isn’t a good trade.

Good. Totally on board with all of this. 100%.

And then, in the moral-of-the-story song at the end of the show from the heroes who managed not to get squashed by giants, Sondheim offers up this crowning solution: “You decide what’s good.”

Excuse me, what?

There is literally nothing in the entire rest of the musical that leads to this conclusion. Nothing. (If the actual movie gives this line context that the soundtrack doesn’t, please, please let me know. I’ll feel better.)

The first time I listened to “You Are Not Alone,” I felt like saying, “This is ridiculous. I’m in the wrong story,” like the moral had been cut and pasted from a different tale onto this one.

Guys, the Wolf and the Prince decided what was right for them. And it involved eating a little girl and seducing whatever new pretty woman happened by. The musical made it quite clear that this was not a good thing.

Yet we still get the Baker wondering, “Who can say what’s true?” And I think, “Um, anyone who’s been listening to the past two hours of singing and fighting and dying!”

The problem is, there is no God in Into the Woods…just the Witch and the world. Just a glimmer in the darkness and a vague promise that “You are not alone.”

I think the musical got as much right as it did because there are morals built into our world, and fairy tales especially show that we believe certain things are right or wrong. We know who to cheer for. We know what choices make us sad and which ones are heroic and brave. You can’t create a good story without giving nods to the common law of morality inside all of us. It won’t hold together.

Prince Charming seducing the Baker’s Wife isn’t wrong because it makes us angry. We get angry because it’s wrong, and something in us knows it.

Josh Duggar cheating on his wife isn’t wrong because it makes us angry. We get angry because it’s wrong…only no one wants to really admit that.

Historically, coming to our own conclusions about morality is a really terrible idea. Cinderella’s “You decide what’s good” is basically Judges’ “And every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Read that book to watch the total degeneration of Israel. The Baker’s “Who can say what’s true?” is basically Pilate’s “What is truth?” Read that story to see a rational man with good intentions condemn an innocent man.

This is what happens when we decide what’s good.

In the same song, Cinderella and the Baker admit, “People make mistakes.” Although I think that’s a pretty generous way to describe the repeated moral failings of the flawed characters of the story, it’s true. Josh Duggar made a terrible mistake. I make terrible mistakes. So do you. We sin. We tell a little lie, steal a little gold, break a little vow…and we look back at the mess we’ve made.

And then hopefully look somewhere other than our broken, sinful selves for right and wrong, because there’s no other way to get a happy ending.

7 comments

  1. I love this musical so much. And one of the things I love about it is exactly what you said – the conclusion of it doesn’t line up with what the musical was saying. Which is EXACTLY WHAT THIS WORLD DOES. It is so relevant to our current culture.

    And so I find this musical to be an excellent conversation for pointing people towards Truth.

    1. So true, Ashley! There are so many conversations that could spin off of any given scene/song in this musical! Like, I could write at least five more blog posts that quote it.

  2. I was actually in this show this summer. I played Cinderella, I sang those words, and here’s what I meant. In the show, most of the characters avoid making decisions about things. Cinderella particularly chooses not to decide, a decision that really doesn’t help her in the end. Her arc has a lot to do with actually learning how to make moral judgments. And really, in the end each one of us has to take a moral stand. The lines before that line are, “Some times people leave you / halfway through the wood. / Others may deceive you. / You decide what’s good” Cinderella herself has deceived others by pretending to be someone else on multiple occasions. This lyric is just as much for herself as Red, acknowledging that she needs to decide whether she stands by these actions or if she accuses herself. Yes, there is an objective standard of right or wrong. But we all need to choose if we’re going to live in line with that. We can’t pass our personal ethical dilemmas onto someone else. That’s part of growing up.

    Also, kudos for picking up the connection between The Wolf and The Prince. Traditionally, those parts are played by the same actor.

    1. Hi Lydia! So cool that you got to be in this show…I love these songs more than I can fully express. So much to think about all the time.

      That explanation makes sense to me (I also thought maybe it was referring to Red not just accepting simple morals from her mother/grandmother and deciding for herself, but I hadn’t thought of it with an emphasis on actually deciding in contrast with Cinderella’s lack of decisiveness.)

      Interestingly, I had several people Facebook message me…all with totally different interpretations of this song. One person agreed with you that “you decide what’s right” is a good message in context, one person thought that it was a bad message and we were supposed to realize it was a bad message in context, and one person thought it was a bad message and in context the whole rest of the musical was saying the same bad message. (Super oversimplified, of course.) I love that the musical has enough complexity to be analyzed in totally different ways, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a long time.

      1. Yes! That’s part of what proves this piece as High Art. Every time you come back to it you see something new. It was really cool to be part of because each actor’s idea of what things meant changed drastically over the months we spent with it. I’ve never been in a show that was that lived in before.

  3. Interesting. I haven’t seen Into The Woods, but it lines up with something my dad has been noticing lately in culture. Culture is constantly contradicting itself. The Planned Parenthood video thing is pooh-poohed by all the pro choice people, then everyone freaks out about Cecil the lion, stuff like that.
    Plenty of other examples, but I forgot most of them. 😛
    Great post!

  4. I haven’t seen Into the Woods, though I think I will have to. It sounds interesting 🙂

    I agree with your post, and I wonder if part of the reaction to this Duggar thing is partially because people tend to look for opportunities to sneer at people that appear good or that have beliefs that run contrary to a lot of society. I guess it’s sometimes a way for people to justify their own immorality or say ‘see, they aren’t so perfect!’

    Another thing may be that people see things as wrong when it contradicts what they feel is happy, nice or romantic. It sounds like Prince Charming was just using women for his own pleasure and not because he cared for any of them, and Josh Duggar sounds like he would have come off as selfish to the public as well. Paint cheating as romantic, however, something that less moral people might have tried themselves, and it becomes a romantic tale of forbidden love instead. Like the Guinevere and Lancelot story.

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