A phoenix has risen on Broadway. Out of the ashes of a very pleasant TV Special by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, once thought of as enchanting, but now considered something of a relic from the days of black and white TV, has risen a Broadway musical filled with imagination, romance and panache, not to mention a lovely score, only part of which enhanced the 70 minutes of material in the 90 minute Special.
Though shown on CBS in 1957 in color, all that remains of that event is a kinescope in black and white. Those of us old enough to remember the original, which includes me, approached this production, which I caught at a recent Wednesday matinee, with caution, expecting a good deal of treacle, which is not good for me now that my glucose count is rising.
Forget treacle. The show now playing at the Broadway Theatre is seasoned with ginger, tarragon, cinnamon, peanut oil and everything else that’s good for you.
Douglas Carter Beane, who must be the envy of his colleagues in the Dramatists’ Guild, now has two hits running, both of which opened this season. His play The Nance is providing a fascinating role for the fascinating Nathan Lane at the Lyceum, and now he has come up with a greatly revised book to Cinderella, using Mr. Hammerstein’s version as a springboard from which to jump to something far more interesting and much more fun.
Of course, the world was a lot younger when this material first showed up on CBS; it was remarkable for a network to take a chance on a brand new original musical, and the gamble paid off handsomely, with 107 million Americans glued to their sets to watch as Julie Andrews, Kaye Ballard, Alice Ghostley, Jon Cypher, Ilka Chase, Howard Lindsay, and Dorothy Stickney sang and cavorted to a script and score by America’s reigning heroes, Messrs. R and H who had already delivered Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I to Broadway. This was to be their only original musical written specifically for TV. It was a sensational hit.
Now, with four songs added from their rather small trunk, and a new attitude given to Cinderella and her Prince, even to her stepsisters, it’s a whole new ballgame. Mark Brokaw (The Lyons) and Josh Rhodes (a young choreographer with a varied background) have staged it within an inch of its life. It moves, it twirls, it even flies on occasion, and it is cast impeccably. Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana as Cinderella and the Prince, are attractive and each puts a spin on his/her character that hasn’t been spun before. With help from the spiced up libretto, she has become a waif with a will, he is a prince who is determined to discover himself, for as a young man he is still emerging from his cocoon.
His first number, “Me. Who Am I?” lets us know this is no callow handsome youth who doesn’t have much on his mind. When he first spots Cinderella at the ball, it is just as thrilling as when Tony spots Maria in West Side Story under similar circumstances.
But long before she gets there we are treated to her family at home in their little cottage in a forest. Mama is mean, and there is no one on earth who can be funnier at mean than Harriet Harris. I was laughing even at her references to her daughters(“the real ones”) and to Cinderella (the other one). When she tells us that she only married Cinderella’s father “for his money” we don’t hate her. We want this hysterically funny mother to stick around and keep us in stitches. Of course it was rough on Cinderella, but Ms. Osnes makes it clear that not even this harpie of a woman will stop her from living the life she knows she was destined to live.
But enough of the story — it’s about the oldest one going in theatre and everyone knows it, or should. In the course of the 2 1/4 hour musical, we are treated not only to the lovely “In My Own Little Corner” and “Ten Minutes Ago” from the original score, plus “Loneliness of Evening” which was dropped from South Pacific, to “Me. Who Am I?” which was asked, briefly, by someone else in another musical. Mr. Beane has cut the King and Queen from his story, and added a very funny “Sebastian” for the droll Peter Bartlett who, in every role he plays, always seems about to have a hissy fit.
Beane has also come up with someone called “Jean-Michel” to give one of the Stepsisters a chance to escape Mama’s control. Everything that’s been added, and all that’s been cut, serves the musical to its advantage. The result is a new show, delivering all it promises and, when its over, sending us back into the realities of 2013 better equipped to cope.
The old codger (me) has one minor complaint and if you know me, you know what’s coming. The sound design by Nevin Steinberg is fine overall. But I’d feel derelict if I didn’t mention that I do believe that composer John Kander was right when he once told me that sound levels on his musicals are set before opening night. Then “when we go away, the longer the run, the louder it gets.”
It is such a disservice to artists like Ms. Harris, and the stepsisters played hilariously by Marla Mindelle and Ann Harada (who is Charlotte Rae, reborn) – all three of whom have speaking voices in the upper range. To over-amplify them is cruel. Some of their funniest stuff is coming across as a shriek, and that’s wrong.
I am told the villain is the console operator, not the designer. Perhaps the stage management could come to the back of the house now and then, and give a listen. The rest of the evening’s sound is fine — there is implementation but no distortion. With a gem like this one up there onstage, anything that detracts should be deleted. Bring down those decibel levels when the higher pitched ladies are at work. This is live theatre, and nothing sounds like life that emerges from a speaker on the proscenium arch.
I had to mention that. But don’t let it discourage you. I heard a little girl behind me say: “Mommy, how did they do that??!!” referring to one of the many transformations in which an old hag became a fairy godmotherv and a poor little waif in rags became a gorgeously gowned leading lady – without ever leaving the stage. I had to admit, I, too, don’t know how they do it. And it’s wonderful.
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is onstage at The Broadway Theatre, 681 Broadway at 53rd Street, NYC. Details and tickets
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz:
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff
- (2009) Season Highs and Lows Predicting the 2010 Tony Awards