During it’s previews, I went to go see the new production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella at the Broadway Theater. I loved the Leslie Ann Warren and Brandy/Whitney Huston versions as a child. The songs were so delightful to me, so when I found out the play was coming to Broadway I made plans to go because I wanted a chance to experience the music live. I knew that it was primarily a story for children, and I expected to see a lot of families with small kids at the theater. There were, and the majority of them were little girls dressed up for the occasion in princess costumes.
Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is an exploration into the way toys and media are marketed to young girls – especially the Disney Princesses. Walking through the lobby before the play and at intermission, I felt like I was seeing her book come to life.
The play has the same music and songs from the previous television productions, but a new book written by Douglas Carter Beane. He draws heavily from Charles Perrault’s version of the story which also inspired Ever After. I have nothing but accolades for the cast, the orchestra, the costumes, and set design. It was a beautiful play aesthetically – but there is a lot to explore in the new story surrounding classic score.
This new book is not set in the French countryside like in Ever After or at all concerned with historical accuracy. It is still a play for children, but there’s plenty for adults to enjoy as well. I found the play funny and charming. Douglas Carter Beane’s Cinderella is still the traditional ingénue. The prince, still strong and brave, is also naive and somewhat insecure. Cinderella’s step sisters are not particularly cruel or ugly – Charlotte is mean and snarky and Gabrielle is something of a geek girl – which I adore. Cinderella’s stepmother is still oppressive and cold, but she too has multiple dimensions. The fairy godmother has been completely revamped as a character, and the play now includes Jean Michele – a populist rabble rouser and Sebastian, the corrupt royal regent.
Jean Michele’s subplot raises questions about caring for the poor and whether or not monarchy is fair. It’s not preachy and is couched in humor. I have no objection to adding a social consciousness to children’s (and especially girls’) entertainment, but the anachronisms and incongruities were making my head spin.
The lack of time and place was disorienting. In the original story, we aren’t supposed to think too much about how a servant girl is educated enough to make the references in “My Own Little Corner.” However it’s not clear whether the new story takes place in Medieval Europe, the enlightened Renaissance, or some kind of progressive Utopia. We know that Jean Michele and Prince Topher have been to University. But if they live in a time where notions of class are suffocating, how did Jean Michele, who is not wealthy, get an education? Jean Michele’s questioning of the monarchy is received as radical bordering on ridiculous by his countrymen, but the Prince takes his opinions to heart. Women are obsessed with marrying for money, but Jean Michele and the Prince speak to Cinderella and her sisters as equals with opinions about politics worthy of consideration. The play is full of contradictions.
There is joke about Cinderella and her sisters going to elementary school together, and in the moment it broke my suspension of disbelief a little. But its something young children wouldn’t think to question – of course little girls go to school – why wouldn’t they? This is the problem some critics have with the play, it’s trying to be both a classic fairy tale and a modern “Girl Power” story at once without making any of the compromises necessary for either genre.
I know I’m critiquing a children’s play. But the social consciousness of the play is hampered by sticking with the more traditional fairy tale conventions.
What I liked about the portrayal of women in this version of the play is that the male characters take the women seriously and there is little to no overt sexism on their part. However, although there’s now a B-plot about why its important to care for the poor and that everyone should have a voice in their community, it’s still ultimately a story about a bunch of women who want to marry a man solely for his wealth and status, so much so that they start to hate each other for it. Even though this version is going for a more progressive vibe, the Stepsisters Lament was left in, and sung by the entire women’s chorus rather than just the two stepsisters. It felt discordant with the rest of the play.
Cinderella does have a fair amount of autonomy in her fate. Even though she still sings that she knows she shouldn’t “make the first advance” she pretty makes several of them anyway. I still have a difficult time with the trope of the fourth date marriage, however, even when it’s not being so heavily sold to children.
The exception to fairy tale conventions clashing with the new book is the way Marie, the Fairy Godmother character has been rewritten. She is powerful and wise. The nonsense words in her songs sound like a spell she taught at Hogwarts rather than something batty and weird. Marie is still caring and kind to Cinderella, but you get the feeling you would not want to cross her. She’s still a plot device, but a force of nature at that.
“Impossible/It’s Possible,” the song sung by the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella has always been one of my favorite things about this play.
” The world is full of zanies and fools,
who don’t believe in sensible rules ,
and won’t believe what sensible people say,
and because these daft and dewey eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes -
Things are happening every day! ”
The new book really has this verse at its heart. When I was a kid I liked the message of nonconformity, and that it was okay to be a dreamer. I was really inspired by the idea that “Impossible things are happening every day.” I wasn’t quite sure what those impossible things were – but I interpreted it to mean both true love and other things like science and social progress. The new B-plot about Jean-Michele’s political aspirations fits the motif of “impossible things” and I like this expansion of the meaning a lot.
The marketing of the play largely ignores this though, and I understand why. They are sticking mostly with everything princessey and romantic and I get it – it is still Cinderella and princess gear is what sells. There is now a shirt that says “Impossible things are happening every day” for kids, which is neat. I would really like a “Zanies and Fools” t-shirt, though!
Bottom line: Cinderella is whimsical and fun, if not subversive.