I have enjoyed listening to the Broadway version of “Into the Woods” on my way into work this summer. The musical is a retelling of the original stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. It debuted in 1986-1987 on the stage and then was adapted to film in 2014 by Disney. The music and lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim.
One thing that makes “Into the Woods” particularly interesting intellectually are the riffs and motifs that are repeated throughout the songs. Unlike the average story, “Into the Woods” is able to weave its themes from one song to the next by literally lifting the musical notes and/or lyrics from one song and placing them into another. If you recognize these repeated bars, words, or motifs, then you are then able to learn more about the characters and themes than those who do not notice or remember them.
This series explores a few of those repeated themes and some financial planning lessons that we can learn from them.
Lesson 4: No one is alone.
Near the end of the play, both Jack and Red Riding Hood mourn the loss of their mothers. Jack is consoled by the Baker while Red Riding Hood is consoled by Cinderella. Though separated, both the Baker and Cinderella sing the song “You are not alone” together. This song is often seen as one of the thesis statements of the play, and it is filled with interesting moral claims and complexities.
Cinderella starts the song. Red Riding Hood doesn’t know what to do now. She wishes her mom were there to tell her what to do. Cinderella consoles her with:
Mother cannot guide you. Now, you’re on your own. Only me beside you. Still, you’re not alone. No one is alone. Truly, no one is alone. Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Others may deceive you. You decide whats good. You decide alone, but no one is alone. Mother isn’t here now. Who knows what she’d say? Nothings quite so clear now. Feel you’ve lost your way?
The, Baker overlaps this last sentence. Jack has contemplated killing his mother’s murderer and the Baker is advising him not to. The baker sings, “Wrong things, right things. Who can say what’s true? Do things, fight things. You decide, but…”
You are not alone. Believe me, no one is alone. Believe me.
You move just a finger, say the slightest word. Something’s bound to linger, be heard. No one acts alone. Careful, no one is alone.
People make mistakes. Fathers, Mothers, both people make mistakes, holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.
Honor their mistakes everybody makes. Fight for their mistakes, one another’s terrible mistakes.
Witches can be right, Giants can be good. You decide what’s right you decide what’s good
Just remember: Someone is on your side
Now, Jack and Red Riding Hod interrupt with the correction of “OUR side.” The Baker and Cinderella continue with the correction with Jack and Red Riding Hood joining in:
Our side– Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot: they are not alone. No one is alone.
Hard to see the light now. Just don’t let it go. Things will come out right now. We can make it so.
Someone is on your side. No one is alone.
Their song is interrupted right at the end by the quakes of the Giant’s footsteps. Cinderella and Red Riding Hood give up Jack’s location to the Giant. A battle between Jack and the Giant ensues. Then, Jack slays the Giant, the last action a character takes in the play.
“You are not alone” is a song about choices and consequences. Although you are the ultimate authority on what you do with your life, your actions will have consequences on yourself and others. No one acts alone. Careful, no one is alone.
The adults warn that every action, even the movement of a little finger, can have an affect on others. Something from your action is “bound to linger.” The people on your side will be affected by your actions. The person you are acting on also has a side filled with people who will be affected by your actions.
I see two financial lessons from this.
First, your financial decisions today will change the course of your life, the lives of those you support, and the lives of future generations. Our very definition of financial planning is the small changes that have large effects over long periods of time.
Prioritize saving today and stop borrowing from your future self. You deserve better than that. Each day you fail to save is another day where you tighten the ball and chain around your ankle and promise to be a slave to your job for another year and another year after that. Retirement is about financial freedom — including the freedom to have any job you want. Hard work today is the best gift you can give to your future self.
When it finally comes time for you to stop working and retire (and you will likely have to stop working one day), no one is going to give you a loan for retirement. If you haven’t saved enough, you will likely fall onto welfare, onto hard times, or onto your loved ones.
If you save well now, then you will leave the legacy of hard work, thrift, and maybe even an inheritance to future generations. If you save well now, you will have extra when either you or others require additional financial support. If you save well now, you can give generously.
If you don’t, then the opposite is true. If you overspend, you will leave the legacy of idleness, extravagance, and maybe even debt to future generations. If you overspend now, you will need to fall on the welfare of others when hard times come. If you overspend now, you will have so many of your own problems that won’t be able to help others.
It is like what the witch sings in her final solo during the grand finale:
Careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes a spell may last past what you can see and turn against you. Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell. Children will listen.
Your choices now change the course of your future in significant ways. You and those around you will feel the resulting ramifications for good or for ill. “Into the Woods” is a cautionary reminder of that.
Photo of the scene “You are Not Alone” from 1989 original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods.