Time for another musical! And look, it’s another Sondheim one at that!
Into the Woods is a fairytale retelling. That is, it’s a retelling of all the big fairytales, woven together around a new fairytale-style story about a baker and his wife, who have to gather a list of magical items in order to lift an infertility curse placed on them by the witch from Rapunzel. Their resulting misadventures involve swapping shoes with Cinderella, buying Jack’s cow for magic beans, and rescuing Little Red Riding hood from the stomach of the wolf.
So where does the metafiction come in? Not through a series of winks at the audience about the silly fairytale conventions, if that’s what you’re thinking.
The fairytales are played almost completely straight, with strictly in-universe jokes, right up until they all neatly tie themselves together... just in time for intermission, when the narrator announces, “To be continued!”
In their very first act of metafictional self-awareness, the characters turn on their narrator and give him to the giantess in Jack’s place. She catches on and continues to demand Jack, but not without killing the narrator anyway. Without someone to guide their story, the characters guess and blunder their way along in a manner wonderfully and uncomfortably reminiscent of real life.
Instead of constant jokes about the abundance of princes and the bizarre logic of dark magic, Into the Woods comments on its fairytales by pushing them far past their usual conclusion, until half the cast is dead (including the baker’s wife and now mother of his baby), Cinderella’s prince has run off after harder-to-catch peasant women, Rapunzel succumbs to irreparable psychological damage from her years of isolation, and the survivors resolve to struggle on and do their best together in a reprise of the opening musical number, ending with the same words that opened the show, “I wish!”