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'Into the Woods' and 10 more surprisingly depressing musicals

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Into The Woods

It’s easy to see why some might venture to Into the Woods expecting, well, what you’d expect from a Disney movie about fairy tale characters: a light-hearted jaunt with a happy ending. We’re here to warn you that is not the case, especially once the second half of the film begins.

Though Rob Marshall’s film version of Stephen Sondheim’s show has toned down some of the darkness (congrats, Rapunzel—you live!), the movie still retains the show’s innuendo (hey, Little Red) and its second act swerve, which features the deaths of several major characters and an exploration of the disappointments of adulthood.

Into the Woods‘ heavy themes will probably be surprising to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the musical—but plenty of writers have slipped weighty themes into musicals that may initially seem innocuous. We’re not talking about West Side Story here—everyone who knows how Romeo and Juliet ends can guess that Tony and Maria won’t live happily ever after—or shows like Cabaret, which explicitly take place against the backdrop of depressing historical events. Instead, we’re talking about the shows that may lure you in with lighthearted themes or happy tunes…only to reveal darker messages at their ends.

Show Boat (1927)

Oscar Hammmerstein III and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat sounds like a romp about a riverboat to the uninitiated—but when it premiered, it was notable specifically for its seriousness. As NPR explains, the musical made history by “pioneering the merging of music and plot, integrating them for the first time to provide a seamless transition from scene to song.” Though the musical is about performers, “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” isn’t its larger concern. Based on an Edna Ferber novel, the show deals with race in the post-Reconstruction South, specifically miscegenation laws. The second act witnesses the disintegration of many of the principal character’s lives. (Though there is a happy ending.) —Esther Zuckerman

A Chorus Line (1975)

Ahh, there’s no business like show business! Except this Pulitzer Prize-winning meta-musical isn’t quite as optimistic as Annie Get Your Gun. The classic Bennett/Hamlisch/Kleban/Kirkwood/Dante joint stars over a dozen broken, emotionally damaged people giving their lives to an art form that’s slowly destroying their bodies—and it all ends with a glitzy production number in which the characters we’ve grown to know and love are transformed into the titular glittery, anonymous chorus line, revealing that they’ve been busting their humps just to get cast in a show that’ll completely erase their individuality. (We never get to see the “one singular sensation” they’re actually singing about.) And even if they do achieve stardom, they’ll probably end up like Cassie and be scrounging for chorus work again before long. Kiss today goodbye, indeed. —Hillary Busis

Oklahoma! 

Oklahoma!‘s darkness is subtle, and ultimately does little to override the cheeriness of its songs. That said, darkness there, especially when it comes to the villain Jud Fry—and not just because of Jud’s own actions. The show’s hero, Curly, suggests that Jud hang himself before launching into the eulogy “Pore Jud is Daid,” sung to Jud himself. The New York Times once called this song the “most bizarrely manipulative song ever written.” But that’s not to say that Jud himself is a victim: The show implies that Jud might rape heroine Laurey if she doesn’t accept his advances. —EZ

Oliver! (1960)

Oliver Twist is a novel about perky little street urchins—which means Charles Dickens’ story must be appropriate for kids, right? Yeah, not exactly. Look in between sunny, rousing tunes like “I’d Do Anything,” “Consider Yourself,” and “Oom-Pah-Pah,” and you’ll find the story of a young prostitute who can’t bring herself to leave her abusive criminal of a boyfriend “as long as he needs me.” Poor Nancy’s story ends when she’s beaten to death onstage. It’s downright eerie when the full company returns to close out the show with “I’d Do Anything;” doesn’t Nancy prove that’s not exactly a healthy philosophy? —HB

Carousel (1945) 

Think about the Rogers and Hammerstein classic Carousel, and your mind immediately goes to that lilting theme. Think a little harder: Carousel is all about an abusive relationship. Carousel barker Billy Bigelow beats mill worker Julie Jordan and dies during a botched robbery, ostensibly committed because he wants to reform after hearing that she’s pregnant. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” earns its tear-jerky status. —EZ

Sweet Charity (1966)

The title character in Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, and Neil Simon’s beloved collaboration isn’t explicitly a prostitute, as she is in the show’s source material (Frederico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria). That said, she’s, uh, still kinda coded as being a prostitute (go on, try to argue that “Big Spender” is just about ladies trying to convince dudes to dance with them)—and after a lot of lighthearted hijinks, her career as a “dance hall hostess” proves too much for her boyfriend to bear. At the end of the show, he tells Charity that he can’t stop thinking about all the other men she’s been with—then pushes her into a lake for good measure. It is not the first time she’s been pushed into that lake, and it’s fair to assume it won’t be the last. —HB

Pippin (1972)

Pippin has a lot of ’70s cheese, thanks in part to the opening number “Magic to Do.” But that cheery, Fosse-hands-studded opening belies the fact that this is a sex-filled show, and that it’s not about Pippin ultimately achieving his goals of greatness. In the show’s finale, the Leading Player urges Pippin to commit suicide. When Pippin decides he can’t, the Player angrily strips away all the theatrical magic. For what it’s worth, a film version of Pippin is in the works. —EZ

Pal Joey (1940)

What do you know about Pal Joey? Probably not much, except maybe that it’s the source of swoon-worthy ballads like “I Could Write a Book” and especially “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Surprise: It’s about a caddish con-man-slash-gigolo and the women he uses, and it ends with him standing on a dark, dingy street corner, all alone after losing the nightclub that was the only thing he ever truly loved. The successful 1957 movie, a vehicle for Frank Sinatra, ditches this for a happy ending; Joey’s own harsh character is also softened. Hollywood, amiright? —HB

Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

Sure, it’s a musical about a man-eating plant that features a sadistic dentist—so the macabre parts are baked in from the beginning. Fans of the 1986 film version, though, may be shocked to know that by the end of the stage musical, protagonists Seymour and Audrey are dead at the hands of mean green mother Audrey II .The movie sanitized the ending and allowed Audrey and Seymour to survive, with just a wink to the fact that the plants are eventually going to take over the world. Director Frank Oz filmed a version featuring that original ending, but the audience reacted so poorly to the deaths of the two leads that it was reshot. —EZ

Grease (1971)

You remember it as a family-friendly classic about tough-looking but ultimately harmless ’50s teens doing the Hand Jive and shouting nonsense words. The show’s ultimate message, though, is anything but harmless: Abandon your principles, morals, and un-teased hair, and you’ll finally be able to get the guy of your dreams to stop ignoring you. (True, Danny’s also made moves to try to get more “respectable” for Sandy—but he ditches that letterman’s sweater pretty damn quickly once he sees her post-makeover look.) Poor Sandy; she should’ve just gone out with Eugene. —HB

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