I’ve written about this song before. It means a lot to me for a variety of reasons.
First off, Into the Woods is one of my favourite shows and I’ve had the pleasure of being in it twice: once as the Baker’s Wife (only act one (junior edition!), but my dream is to play her in the whole thing one day) and a second time in High School as half of the narrator (my best friend played the mysterious man!; technically two sides of the same coin?). The original cast recording is also downright magical in my eyes (ears?).
So, “No One is Alone.” Why did I write an essay about it Senior Year of High School? Why did my 11-year-old best friend include a quote from the song in my birthday card? Why did I keep the card indefinitely?
Lots to unpack. Yay!
To start this off, I need to talk about Sondheim’s writing in general. In my opinion, he’s very good at writing lyrics that double as ingenious life advice. For example:
“Stop worrying where you’re going/move on[…]Anything you do/Let it come from you/Then it will be new”
– Sunday in the Park with George
“Somebody need me too much,/Somebody know me too well./Somebody pull me up short,/and put me through hell/and give me support/for being alive./Make me alive[…]vary my days./But alone,/is alone,/not aliiiiiive!/Somebody crowd me with love/somebody force me to care. Somebody let me come through/I’ll always be there/As frightened as you/to help us survive/Being alive”
So, what type of wisdom does the song, “No One Is Alone” include?
In the play, all four characters are dealing with a loss. Either a loss of a loved one or their identity. In my opinion the song has two seemingly paradoxical messages:
“Sometimes people leave you/halfway through the wood./Others may deceive you, /you decide what’s good./You decide alone,/No one is alone.“
At a glance, the song is very “You Will Be Found”/don’t feel alone even though you’re lonely because there are people you may have never met that are on your side.
But I think there is AT LEAST one deeper message that helps make this show the timeless gem that it is: When you’re by yourself figuring things out for yourself, listening to your gut, you’re actually far from alone.* There are people that will be in your corner and others that aren’t and life will change and evolve, ebb and flow, but you’ll always have you and if you’re there, you’re not alone.
More succinctly, if you’re true to yourself, you’re not alone.
Yea, this song is the best.
ADDENDUM (“And ANOTHER thing!” – Jennifer Mankin) – In my haste to finish this post and get it off my to-do list, I missed exploring another crucial layer to this song.
Alrighty, here we go:
Sondheim manages to seamlessly weave so many layers of humanity into this song, while still adhering to his titular statement:
“No one acts alone./Careful”
“No one is alone” is meant to both comfort and warn us. You’re not alone, but neither are the people who may want to hurt you, for example.
“People make mistakes!/Fathers,/Mothers./People make mistakes./Holding to their own,/thinking they’re alone”
I don’t think this quote has just one interpretation, a common occurrence in Sondheim’s lyrics. One that resonate with me: those responsible for the welfare of others (fathers/mothers/guardians/carers) may make mistakes out of stubbornness, forgetting their very important connection to another.
“Honor their mistakes!/Fight for their mistakes! Everybody makes [mistakes]/One another’s/terrible mistakes!”
This is an interesting one. I wouldn’t interpret this as “blindly follow in your parents’ example” (although, if you don’t reflect on what you’ve learned as a child, that’s a likely behavioral outcome). More interestingly, I think of this lyric as declaring “we ALL make mistakes,” don’t let that stop you fighting for those you love and want to lift up.
Bit of a side-note: The ability to see the world through another’s eyes (especially the eyes of someone from a completely different background to yourself) requires going into situations that challenge you (e.g., “into the woods”) and opening yourself up to meeting new people from diverse backgrounds.
“Witches can be right,/ giants can be good./You decide what’s right,/you decide what’s good”
This maps onto my side-note. People can and will defy your stereotypes. In the end, it’s up to YOU to decide what’s “right” and what’s “good.” which harks back to my first deeper interpretation of this song: be true to yourself.
I really do believe it’s our responsibility to be true to ourselves and not to just blindly follow in the footsteps of others (unless…being true to yourself is being a follower? I guess? dunno). I recently went through a period where I wasn’t being completely true to myself and it negatively impacted important aspects of my life. It was a real bummer. ALSO, I was super unhappy pretending not to be me. It felt “easier” and I pretty persuasively convinced myself it was a good idea, but…yea, it wasn’t.
OK! One last quote:
“You move just a finger/say the slightest word/something’s bound to linger/be heard”
Yea, this is a super beautiful segment. Both sonically and semantically.
Very Butterfly Effect, but with a tone of hope and urgency. We’re connected. Don’t fret, something you write/do/say is bound to linger. Whether for a day, week, decade, millennium.
Also, there are a lot of voices out there but if you DON’T make yours heard, nothings going to linger…so, be heard!
NOW, that’s it for this week :0)
Thanks for reading!!
*I think of “alone” as a synonym for “lonely” in this context (but I may be wrong).