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Why Milky White is the best character in Into the Woods

The true hero of the musical

© Joan Marcus, Marc Brenner

With the show now running in the UK and on Broadway, it's time to face facts – the best character in Into the Woods is Milky White.

She and her respective UK and US puppeteers Faith Prendergast and Kennedy Kanagaw have already proven to be scene-stealers – endearingly portrayed with love and affection, popping up while other characters ruminate about some foliage. It's hard not to fall for the innocent quadrupedal friend as she has to sit as the Baker and his wife repeatedly try to count to four.

In fact, Milky White has her own major character arc. She's the one who experiences unrequited love from Jack, unfathomable loss when he trades her away and then the euphoria of breaking free from her deceptive Baker poachers (who traded her for beans!). Then, at the exact moment of blissful reunion with her giant-robbing young friend, she's struck down dead in an instant. That's right – Milky White was doing unexpected character deaths before they were cool. I don't see Victor Hugo putting anything that brutally horrific in Les Mis.

But it goes even further – for a musical so obsessed with the nature of mortality and existence, it's Milky White who gets a two-way trip to the afterlife, revived with a snap of the Witch's fingers. Can you imagine what cow heaven looks like? Milky White knows. She's basically the Jon Snow of the Sondheim expanded universe. I'd go as far to say she's the most important bovine in stage history (I can hear panto cows weeping from across the land).

But here's the true master-stroke: the same bittersweet pathos that Sondheim and Lapine give to the other characters – many having to upend their assumptions at the interval – is also given to Milky White. While she ends act one triumphantly facilitating many a narrative resolution by juicing up the beverage that cures the Baker's curse, she's not even mentioned in act two and, presumably, is turned into beef pâté by the rampaging giant.

It's a tragic conclusion for a character who meant so much early on. Like a lot of nature, the brilliant bovine is forgotten by those who claimed to have her best interests at heart. After obsessing over her in act one, Jack, with his newfound wealth and toxically masculine obsession with revenge, ignores his oldest and dearest friend. "No one is alone", he later claims, which is true unless you're a cow.

Perhaps it reflects our own despondency towards wildlife and nature in times of adversity. Either way, Milky White is the best character in Into the Woods, that's for sure. If they can do The Wizard of Oz from Toto's perspective, I think we need a new version of Woods with White as the protagonist.