With pumpkin-festival season coming to an end, we need to talk about something before there are no more pumpkins left to turn into carriages. And thus, nine months after its premiere on Broadway, let’s chat about Cinderella. Poof!
*WARNING: This post contains spoilers about stunts performed in glass slippers, so read with caution and don’t try it at home.*
The “Cinderella story” is considered the “story book ending.” But with this revival production, it is best when between bookends. If you remember the televised versions in the 50’s and 60’s (or are the child of someone who does), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earnest fairy tale score is the musical fabric of childhood—probably the one fairy tale whose non-Disney incarnation is even slightly well known. And now it’s been 56 years since its original televised premiere, and this production has appeared with the slogan “Glass slippers are so back,” begging the questions if they truly are, and, more so, if they should be…
Laura Osnes is the consummate princess. She is beautiful and talented, and she appears to be every bit as sweet and amiable as her character, as demonstrated by her Twitter account, because that is surely the measure of a true 21st-century princess. She is the current envy of Broadway (or at least mine anyway) as, eight times a week, she gets to perform this genius sartorial stagecraft by certified fairy godfather William Ivey Long:
Osnes starred as Sandy Dumbrowski in the 2007 revival of Grease!, causing much controversy due to her brunette hair. I bet she’s happy Disney isn’t producing this production of Cinderella and can now avoid such polemic scandal. Santino Fontana, although not the most obvious choice for the Prince, has been a favorite since last season’s Sons of the Prophet. His lack of Ken-doll looks certainly breaks the princely mold, but with his modern take on “princely”—with a sarcastic twinkle in his eye—it is difficult not to succumb to his charm.
Any fans of Frasier probably had a stroke when it was announced that Harriet Harris would be playing the Evil Stepmother—she really just had to be Bebe Glazer in a pannier and she could add another Tony to her crowded shelf of awards. But she is practically punished by Douglas Carter Beane’s new script, given the worst lines that not even her brilliant eye rolls could barrel through. Ann Harada, a usual comedic standout playing the eviler of the Evil Stepsisters, was the most disserviced by the clunky new script—the poor thing didn’t get to be beautiful or funny. But we’ll get to Mr. Beane’s villainous punishment later.
If you don’t have any sort of nostalgic relationship with the original musical, this Cinderella may not be the most magical ticket for your money, as it’s best when it’s true to the original songs. Osnes sets the stage with her delicate “In My Own Little Corner,” fragile without bleeding vulnerability (to hear it, click here and scroll down). I personally have a villainous vein and loathe stories about falling in love and romance, but am a sucker for a good waltz. Therefore the “Ten Minutes Ago” ball sequence is the pinnacle of the show, an absolutely gorgeous flurry taffeta and tuxedo tails. According to Ivey Long, the underskirts of the luscious gowns are made of more silvery tones than the top skirt, so that as the majestic twirls and lifts of the dance fill the stage, the mise en scène assumes a heavenly, moonlit palette. The choreography melts into the ethereal and colorful gowns to create pure magic, almost suspending the very Time the budding romance resists until the clock strikes midnight.
The most intriguing aspect of this production, at least for someone in graduate school when the press released was first issued, was the attempt to modernize the script to accommodate today’s more consciously feminist audiences critical of the Princess Industrial Complex. Accompanying the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score is a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, for whom a social victory may be questionable. He hurls a lot of undefined, quasi-populist rhetoric like “the people!” and “the poor!”—terms which remain amorphous throughout the show as you don’t see “the people” until the end when all the problems are “resolved.” (This is theater—show, don’t tell.) The preachy concoction of progressive politics more serves to annoy than enlighten and ultimately raises more questions about a woman’s power in society than the discussion is able to reconcile. The most disheartening part is that the ideas to help these nameless, faceless people don’t come from Cinderella herself, but rather from some dude character they superfluously added to the story. Ultimately, the character of Cinderella simply becomes a very nice and pretty First Lady, but not the intelligent, ambitious woman I would assume the creators were trying to create. She’s not Hillary Clinton, she’s Kate Middleton. The whole re-write was definitely a missed opportunity to give her a true sense of purpose; it’s a compromise that definitely seems compromising. But it’s at this point that I worry my ideas of feminism become too prescriptive and will stop talking… Although if I ever see Douglas Carter Beane, I will be forced to simply shake my head.
Supplementing the attempt to “modernize” the story, the characters spend most of the time outdoors in nature, a tactic to maintain to illusion of fantasy but also a conscious rejection of the opulent and grandiose royal fantasy that would be a more “Disney” approach to the environment. Anna Louizos’s set offers only suggestions of a castle—fragmentary gothic arches, modest chandeliers, and a disconnected staircase for Cinderella to famously stumble down. But even then, the proscenium is framed with tree branches and leaves. In certain lighting, fans of medieval art might catch a nod to the glorious tapestries of that era. Again, however, nothing in the set reflects the supposed plight of the “people” of the kingdom so frequently mentioned by Cinderella’s more worldly and preachy friend.
The oral history of Cinderella had her famous slippers as fur. Can you imagine her running down the marble steps of the palace in what would essentially be Uggs? When Charles Perrault produced the first published version of the fairytale in 1697, French taste kicked in and he changed the shoe’s medium to glass. Literary scholars as well as dramaturgists would presumably argue that this sole piece of footwear is the defining characteristic of the Cinderella fairytale, serving as the chief catalyst of the plot. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s infamous 1987 musical Into the Woods gave Cinderella a moment to analyze her thoughts in the song “On the Steps of the Palace” in which she plots:
So you pry up your shoes/Then from out of the blue/And without any guide/You know what your decision is/Which is not to decide/You’ll leave him a clue/For example, a shoe/And then see what he’ll do.
Well, at least she thought about it. Spoiler alert about what spoils this new Cinderella: Beane must have thought he would follow in suit of making changes to the cobbler’s formula, and as Cinderella frantically leaves the ball at midnight, she has the wherewithal to go back and pick up her shoe. She returns to the palace for a banquet in Act Two, and this time leaves the glass slipper for Prince Topher (yes, Topher) to come and find her. Cinderella running down the stairs a second time and intentionally leaving the slipper is a tongue-and-cheek jab at convention and inside-joke wink to the audience, but also an incredible annoyance. New York Magazine’s theater critic Scott Brown applauded the new script’s insertion of Cinderella’s “agency” with this action. First of all, I congratulate his new vocabulary word, undoubtedly showing that he’s started some undergraduate coursework in Women’s Studies. But secondly, the glass slipper is the very symbol of that lack of agency, and Beane’s manipulation of that symbol does nothing to change the characters’ trajectory or ultimate fate. No matter the intention of the abandoned footwear, we find ourselves resorting to the “someday my prince will come” idiom. So perhaps instead of just tinkering with the conceit, it would be more effective to just shatter it.
No shortage exists of feminist opinions in the media scape, but in popular culture one might look for something with more poise than the bodily-function-infused, crass train wreck of Bridesmaids or the narcissistic, pseudo-realistic unpleasantness helmed by the Lena Dunham Girls over on HBO. Mr. Beane, even with the help of the always elegant and progressive Rodgers and Hammerstein, sadly doesn’t provide it either. Or perhaps I could stop demanding that every endeavor be a barometer of social consciousness and enjoy a beautifully told fairytale that seems to withstand the test of time, occasionally needing some magical tweaks here and there. I never want the intoxicating score to ever not be in my head, I’ve fallen over furniture in my apartment numerous times attempting to waltz by myself, and when the show ultimately ended at 10:30 I wanted it to go on for at least another hour and a half until technical difficulties may have started to ensue. And William Ivey Long’s costumes merit one last shout out for their amazing powers of transformation. In the moonlight of where this production leaves us, perhaps Tina Fey should stop work on the rumored Mean Girls musical and give Cinderella some better things to say.
Suggested wine pairing: This is a family show, so you should not be drinking. (But if you did bring your flask, which might be helpful to survive some of Beane’s more insufferable puns (and mine), I’m going to recommend Riesling for the only time ever. Frisk’s to be exact. It’s light enough that you won’t be drunk and make a mess of yourself at the ball, it’s nearly clear to accessorize with your shoes, and cheap enough that you can stock up on a few bottles in case Act Two starts to drag…)