A Fairytale For All Time

On a Wednesday afternoon, at a matinee for Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the lobby of the Broadway Theatre is packed with children: little girls dress up in ball gowns and put glitter in their hair, summer campers file in together in a line, and families hold hands on the way to their seats. At intermission, the line for the restroom is so long that barely half the people in it are relieved before the 15 minutes is up. For a story as popular and widely known as Cinderella, it makes sense. Many people in the room have grown up knowing at least one version of the story (probably more), and some of them have seen at least one version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (originally created for television in 1957). 

Tackling a story as well-known as this one, though, also comes with tremendous pressures. After all, it’s been told so many times. And when everybody knows the story, everybody’s a critic. Some will want it to be as close to the original as possible, while others will want some sort of update to bring it into today’s world. This production keeps much of the original musical intact, while also adding a significant amount to the plot, and even to the music. In some ways, it tries to do a little of everything, and while it is successful on many counts, the result is a bit of an identity crisis. The basic storyline is there: Ella (played by the always-excellent Laura Osnes, who couldn’t be a better fit for this role) cooks and cleans for her nasty stepmother, Madame (Harriet Harris), and her two stepsisters, Charlotte (a very funny Ann Harada) and Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle). Prince Topher (Santino Fontana), preparing to take the throne, is pressured by his advisor, Sebastian (Peter Bartlett) to find a wife, so holds a grand ball for the kingdom. And the rest is history. However, in this version, the ball also becomes a diversion that Sebastian uses to distract from the political problems going on in the kingdom, and to keep the prince in the dark about the demands of the people. In another twist, Gabrielle turns out to be the not-so-evil stepsister, who is in love with Jean-Michel, a political activist (Greg Hildreth). She and Ella bond over their forbidden loves, and politics becomes one of the ways Ella and Topher connect, as Ella helps him to confront the realities of the kingdom he is about to rule.

The best thing that comes out of these additions is that Ella and Topher’s relationship seems a bit more rounded out: they seem like collaborators, partners, friends. Their relationship is founded on something more than admiration for physical appearance, and both characters have clear voices and personalities. The prince in particular seems more like a real person, showing us his insecurities about becoming king and discovering who he is, and mirroring Ella’s similar fears that her true self will not be accepted. The new plotline does add a more “real-world” element to the story, and also seems to be an attempt at pulling away from a traditionally passive female role. Ella is a woman who aspires not only to get married to the prince, but also to effect positive change on the world through her own actions. But I also wonder if the most important messages in the story (the ones that have been there all along) begin to get swallowed up in the maze of kingdom politics and secret lovers. Grounding something more deeply in “the real world” does not necessarily make the message clearer. After all, in some ways a fairytale is supposed to be an oversimplification, or an abstraction, to help us see part of our own complicated and messy world a little more clearly, and maybe to help us learn how to live in it.

Josh Rhodes’s choreography seems to draw from a range of influences and styles, including elements of ballet and social dance. In the number, “The Prince Is Giving a Ball,” the townspeople, upon receiving their invitations, perform a lively dance, infused with a spirit of fun and energy. The movement patterns and partnering of the dancing couples is reminiscent of country dancing: the group creates lines and square shapes, often stamping their feet rhythmically to the beat and twirling their partners. The choreography does not limit itself to the traditional, however, adding a bit more of an acrobatic element. A friend also pointed out to me that conventional gender roles are not always strictly adhered to: at one point, she saw two women partnering each other. At the ball, in “Cinderella Waltz,” the dancers, coupled and dressed in full-skirted gowns, add elements of ballet to a court dance structure. Women, lifted by their partners, hold striking balletic poses in the air, and legs rise in arabesque.  The song “A Lovely Night” keeps things fairly simple, but it is one of the best numbers in the show: Ella, Madame, and Gabrielle dance in circles around the furniture in their house, and Charlotte bangs comically on a little piano, as they fantasize about the ball. They move with abandon and fun, for one moment forgetting their differences and letting themselves get carried away by imagination.

In “The Pursuit,” Ella’s flight from the ball at midnight becomes a more abstract dance, as palace officials chase her footman (Andy Mills) and driver (Cody Williams), who are in the process of turning back into forest creatures. Their movement reflects this transformation: they slink and tumble the way an animal who knows the forest would, yet they are still clearly human. The use of dance in this number is admirable, and helps to bring the magical element of the story to life. The magic also feels particularly real in “Impossible,” when Ella’s fairy godmother, Marie (Victoria Clark), performs the transformation that allows Ella to go to the ball. When the plain dress turns into a ball gown as she spins, it is hard not to believe the enchantment is really happening, no matter how old you are. This number is also the one that reveals the most important lesson Ella will learn: she has the power to enact powerful change in her own life, if she believes in herself. The lesson is in the song’s lyrics, which applaud and encourage big dreamers, and in the story itself. Ella’s strong desire to go to the ball is fulfilled because of her sheer determination. It is also, as this production does a particularly good job of emphasizing, fulfilled as a reward for her kindness. Any show that encourages true niceness (an underrated quality in our society, as far as I can tell) is doing something right. Later in the show, there is another significant change to the story: Ella leaves her glass slipper behind on purpose, instead of losing it. But this extra bit of agency, though it may be more obvious than the abstract and magical scene with the fairy godmother, does not seem necessary. Ella had agency all along, or she wouldn’t have made it to the ball in the first place.

Like all good musicals, much of the important information in Cinderella is in the songs themselves. And these songs in particular, when really listened to, are gold. “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” opens up the question Ella and Topher ask each other as they dance at the ball, and, when you think about it, it’s a legitimate one, pointing to the way one can reach through the haze of attraction and first love to try and learn who another person actually is. The song breaks down the classic “love at first sight” scene with honesty, without just taking it for granted that the two characters automatically fall in love for real. “Ten Minutes Ago” does something similar, perhaps poking a little bit of fun at the way characters fall in love so quickly in fairytales, while also picking the feeling apart.

Ever since I first saw a film version of this musical as a kid, my personal favorite song has been “Stepsister’s Lament,” originally sung by the two sisters while watching Cinderella dance at the ball. I always sort of thought they had a point: why should a fellow want a girl who’s “a frail and fluffy beauty,” “delicate and soft,” “dainty,” and “graceful”? Why does a man have to want a woman who is beautiful in a conventional way (and, I might add, why does she have to seem so docile and fragile?)? Though it’s a funny song, and is meant to be so, I still like to think of it as a plug for the quirks of a more non-traditional woman. Or for anyone who is tired of apologizing for being less-than-perfect. To me, this song already pushes the boundaries of the story, asking us to move away from the black-and-white and to see things from another perspective. Maybe some of those “updates” to the original fairytale, those questions that probe deeper into the characters and the nature of love and the power of an individual to change their own life, were here all along, in the music. They are in the story, too, if you take a close and inquisitive look at it, as Rodgers and Hammerstein must have. There is value in taking what you can from the material you have, before adding and subtracting. And with material like this (not to mention a stellar cast), it’s hard to go wrong.

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