Theater review:

A tweaked 'Cinderella' heads to Baltimore

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
As Baltimore gets ready to go to the ball with "Cinderella," a look at the show's road from TV to stage.

The prospect of encountering a benevolent force that can — presto — transform your drab, dreary life into something brimming with untold wealth, glamour and love (not necessarily in that order) has been daydreamed for centuries. It appeals especially to children, but a whole lot of adults certainly enjoy such fantasizing, especially whenever a lottery jackpot jumps into nine figures.

Among rags-to-riches scenarios, none is more enduring than the one about sweet, lonely, put-upon Cinderella. Treated as a servant at home, she gets the chance to go to a ball and, much to the annoyance of her mean stepsisters, win the heart of a charming prince, all thanks to a fairy godmother.

That story has fueled several operas, dozens of films and, 59 years ago, a musical written for television by the stellar team of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). "Cinderella," broadcast live on CBS, March 31, 1957, starred Julie Andrews and was viewed by an estimated 107 million people — the country's population totaled only 172 million at the time.

As Rodgers and Hammerstein biographer Frederick Nolan writes in "The Sound of Their Music," that TV audience was equivalent to "sellout performances at [New York's] Majestic Theatre eight times a week for 214 years."

The musical wouldn't reach a Broadway stage until 2013 in an adaptation that Baltimore will get to experience this week when a national touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" visits the Hippodrome Theatre.

"At first, I passed on the project," says Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the new book for the show. "I didn't think there was enough material [in the TV version]. It would never make two acts, maybe almost an act at most."

But five-time Tony Award nominee Beane, who wrote the biting play "The Little Dog Laughed" and the book for the droll "Xanadu" and other musicals, took another look. He started by digging into the primary source of the Cinderella fairy tale, the 1697 story "Cendrillon" by French writer Charles Perrault.

"I enjoyed it," Beane says. "There were some twists in the story, which have been smoothed out over the years. The French version is much more satirical. It's about kindness in an age of cynicism and sarcasm."

Hammerstein's book also relied on many of the incidents familiar from the Perrault story — a pumpkin-turned-coach and all that — but he had to keep his eye on the clock as much as Cinderella did. The musical he and Rodgers created had to fit within a 90-minute format that included room for commercials. Without those ads, the piece lasts less than 75 minutes.

"You have all these short scenes building to little climaxes so they could break for commercials to sell Sominex or whatever the drug of choice was then," Beane says. "It would be a disaster taking Hammerstein's [book] directly onto the stage."

In 1965, five years after Hammerstein's death, CBS aired a new "Cinderella" with Lesley Ann Warren in the title role. A new book by Joseph Schrank added scenes for Cinderella and the Prince, and a few extra songs chosen by Rodgers from the extensive trove he and Hammerstein had created over the decades.

A Walt Disney Television production broadcast on ABC in 1997 featured a multiracial cast that included Brandy Norwood as Cinderella, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother and Bernadette Peters as the Stepmother. This one had a reworked book by Robert L. Freedman and a few more new songs.

Each of the post-1957 TV versions conjured up more detail about the main characters and their personalities. Cinderella, especially, evolved into a more self-assured young woman with a social conscience.

Beane expanded on all of that, adding still more layers to the title character and giving the kingdom where the action takes place a politically volatile atmosphere. He also wove various contemporary references into the dialogue.

Such revisions didn't sit well with all the critics, but Beane takes the carping in stride.

"I think some people are going to hate anything you do to something familiar," he says. "As soon as we announced that Laura Osnes was going to play the lead on Broadway, the internet blew up with people saying, 'How dare they hire her? She's not a blonde.' Julie Andrews was not a blonde. Lesley Ann Warren was not a blonde. Brandy was definitely not blonde. It started from there."

As for the contemporary flavor in his book, Beane notes how Hammerstein's lyrics include such un-fairy-tale words as "fella" and such phrases as "I forgot to bring my gun."

"You're used to it, so you don't hear it," says Beane, who, with the show's musical adapter and arranger, David Chase, wrote new lyrics for a few numbers in this "Cinderella."

Such tweaking to the original was done with the blessing of the New York-based Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, the licensing agency that represents the work of its namesakes, as well as that of Irving Berlin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and others.

"I don't think the political and empowerment stuff was done with a heavy hand," says Ted Chapin, the organization's president and chief creative officer.

Putting a fresh spin on "Cinderella" was a goal from the outset.

"When [producer] Robyn Goodman asked me if there was a Rodgers and Hammerstein show I felt was worth looking at again," Chapin says, "off the top of my head, I said no one has ever been able to figure out a Broadway-worthy version of 'Cinderella.' Robyn thought it would be worth trying, especially if Cinderella were in charge of her own fate, and if the prince were not a simpleton."

In addition to fashioning a book along the lines Goodman envisioned, Beane sought to fill out the score after first finding a place for the well-known songs from the 1957 original. He found prospects in the book "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II" and then headed off to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to dig up the music that went with the words he liked.

Among the discoveries was "Now Is the Time," which had been cut from "The Sound of Music." Beane thought it suited a revolutionary character he introduced to the plot. And "Me, Who Am I?" from the unsuccessful show "Me and Juliet" seemed just right for the Prince.

A couple other rarities from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog almost made it into the show but were removed before the Broadway opening.

"One was a duet, and neither actor has ever forgiven me for cutting it," Beane says with a laugh. "But that's OK. If you can't hold a grudge, you don't belong in show business."

As "Cinderella" worked its way to a Broadway opening, Beane took some editing cues from folks outside the creative team.

"I would bring my daughter and her friends to rehearsals and watch them," he says. "And during preview performances, I sat in a spot in the theater where I could watch the children and the adults. There was a lot of stuff they just were not getting. We ended up cutting about 20 minutes."

"Cinderella's" Broadway run was cut short. It closed after 770 performances, not long enough to qualify as a major hit.

"It got mixed reviews," Chapin says. "It came close to recouping costs, but didn't. But the tour market has been extraordinary. The show has done great business across the country." (The current national tour, the show's second, uses nonunion actors.)

Beane notes that the musical is a success abroad, too.

"We're no longer speaking to Russia, but we're doing 'Cinderella' there right now," he says. "They're probably hacking my emails because of it, but that's the kind of sacrifice I'm willing to make for my country."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Cinderella" opens Tuesday and runs through Nov. 6 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $150. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.

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