Cinderella Then and Now: Revisiting Rodgers and Hammerstein

It's new to Broadway. But has the team's famous TV musical been improved?

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Seeing the new Broadway version of Cinderella was, for this musical-theater fan, a rare virgin experience. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the musical for television back in 1957 (nearly six years after their most recent Broadway hit, The King and I). Broadcast live on CBS, with Julie Andrews in the starring role, it was watched by more people than any TV show in history up to that point — but never rerun. Two more TV versions followed (one in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren, and another in 1997 with the pop singer Brandy), along with a few stage incarnations, including a 1958 London version and a New York City Opera production in the 1990s.  But this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is new to Broadway  — and to me.

Directed by Mark Brokaw, with a revamped book by Douglas Carter Beane, Broadway’s new Cinderella is an enjoyable show: brightly colored, high spirited and well sung. Laura Osnes (who won a TV competition to star in Broadway’s 2007 revival of Grease, but has since proven to be more than a reality-show flash in the pan) is a fetching, if a little generic, Cinderella, and Santino Fontana puts just enough tongue in his cheek as the Prince. The production is opulent without being overwhelming: Cinderella’s transformation from rags to ball gown is done with some clever stage sleight-of-hand that I can’t even explain.

The score may not be A-1 Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it’s still better than almost anything else around. The songs are warm, tuneful and less simple than they might appear, from the major-minor key changes in Cinderella’s solo, “My Own Little Corner,” to the feisty comic number “Stepsister’s Lament,” which offers a wry counterpoint to the fairy-tale romance:   “Why would a fellow want a girl like her/ A girl who’s merely lovely / Why can’t a fellow ever once prefer / A girl who’s merely me.

As for Douglas Carter Beane’s updated book — well, it could be worse. The classic fairy tale has been bolstered with all sorts of psychological and political background.  The cruel stepmother (Harriet Harris) bad-mouths Cinderella’s father constantly, and even destroys the one memento the poor girl has of him. The Prince is a naïve but well-meaning monarch who is being shielded from the oppression in his kingdom — until a local firebrand leads the peasants to revolt. Cinderella goes to two balls, not one, and she doesn’t drop her glass slipper, but actually hands it to the Prince (wink, wink) as she’s leaving.

Still, all this is handled with good humor and a minimum of revisionist smugness. And, thankfully, there has been only minimal tampering with the score (a couple of minor R&H songs cut from other shows have been added). But has it improved the show? I went back to watch the 1957 TV original (available on DVD, in a black-and-white kinescope of the color production) only after I saw the Broadway show. Hammerstein’s original book, not surprisingly, is a much simpler and more straightforward retelling of the fairy tale (only one ball; no peasant uprising). The special effects are strictly Pleistocene-era, and at a lean 76 minutes, the show probably needed a little fleshing out to fill a Broadway evening.

And yet — wow! Big events from TV’s golden age sometimes disappoint in retrospect, but not Cinderella. Allowing for a few technically awkward transitions, the live production is amazingly fluid, well staged and emotionally alive.  Julie Andrews, fresh from her Broadway debut in My Fair Lady, is a rather mature but expressive and winning Cinderella. Her stepsisters (the wonderful Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley) are actually more credible and less cartoonish than their present-day equivalents. And if the Prince (Jon Cypher) doesn’t have much of a political conscience, he and Cinderella make a dreamier pair — you actually can believe they are falling in love.

It’s probably foolish to expect that such innocence can be duplicated in 2013. The 1957 original seems perfectly calibrated to the times, and to the technical capabilities of a new and still experimental medium. The new Broadway version, for all its hip updating, is a much less adventurous project. But it too is well calibrated to the capabilities and commercial needs of today’s Broadway. Just a week after its opening, Cinderella is already a sellout.