Last night, I went to see the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella" at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.
I have to admit that I had fairly low expectations for a number of reasons.
This version of Cinderella is a musical with an interesting history. It was written as a television musical event. It was literally written to be preformed live on television in 1957 with Julie Andrews (at her most luminous) as the star attraction. Since then it has been remade for television twice, and made the leap to the stage. This is all very unusual for a musical, and it sits in a category entirely its own.
The original television version of Cinderella clocked in at a crisp 90 minutes. To fill it out, subsequent versions added in songs from lesser known Rodgers and Heart musicals. While I don't usually love the act of changing shows 50 years later, the added songs help make the show much richer and full of depth. Whats more, the added songs were carefully selected and add to the feeling and shape of the show.
While I try to go into the theatre with an open mind, that is not always possible. I tend to look at shows like Cinderella as light weights. While I like Rodgers and Hammerstein enough, I don't like their candy coated musicals. I enjoy South Pacific for its difficult subject matter and social commentary. I applaud the stage version of the Sound of Music for its surprisingly complex look into human goodness, evil, and shades of gray. I'm not a huge fan of Oklahoma, I think Carousel is bizarre, and I didn't think that Cinderella held much of interest for me. RENT, Les Miserables, and Spring Awakenings rank among my favorite musicals. There are dramatic, sometimes gritty, and varying levels of tragic. Cinderella is none of these things. I expected this production of Cinderella to be enjoyable and forgettable.
However, I'm more than willing to admit that I seriously undersold Cinderella. it was one of the most enjoyable few hours I've recently spent in a theatre. Cinderella embraces the story we are all familiar with, but builds it in delightfully complex ways.
Cinderella's prince Charming not only has a name, Christopher, he has 10 middle names listed gleefully in song. But beyond that he is a young man with loving parents who are indeed anxious to see him married, but willing to let him do it for love. Our prince and our Cinderella share a sense of life missing something, expressed by both in the song "The Sweetest Sounds" (which apparently was a 1997 addition the show). They share a melancholy feeling, singing, "The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear, are still inside my head, the kindest words I'll ever know, are waiting to be said." They sing this together, unaware of the other, watching a happy couple do a sweet waltz in the middle of a crowded market. For this Cinderella and her prince, when they do meet, this is not a simple love at first sight. They are not children overcome by each others beauty, but two people finding someone looking for the same thing they are missing.
Just like her prince, this Cinderella shows surprising depth. Unlike Disney's Cinderella, this Cinderella has a sense of agency. She is not waiting on a fairy godmother, but instead is willing to mend her dead mothers ball gown, and hitch a ride to the ball. Then and only then does the her fairy godmother turns the pumpkin to a coach, and creates a sparkling gold dress.
In the Disney cartoon, the fairy godmother demands that Cinderella return at midnight, to avoid being caught in rags. Here, when Cinderella returns home in her scullery maid dress, her fairy godmother put her on the hook. If the prince loves her in a gold dress, why would he not love her as a scullery maid? Finally, a feminist in a fairy tale! This is a much better message to send little girls in a world that is increasingly obsessed with physical beauty. Love is love, and circumstances should not matter as much as what is in your heart.
While I don't usually like spectacle for spectacles sake, this productions gorgeous costumes, rich set pieces and occasional pyrotechnics (!) created a world of magic, and an enchanted kingdom. In fact, I'm still not sure how they pulled off the seemingly instantaneous the change into Cinderella's ballgown without using real magic. As soon as I saw this, I wanted to know how it worked, but my friend was happy with the magic of it all.
This production was really something special. It was sweet, achingly romantic, with a message emphasizing goodness and kindness over beauty, and wrapped up in a few shiny gold ribbons. Songs I previously thought were overly simple, came off as sweetly poignant. The whole thing was injected with some comedy in the form of some discretely cross-dressing stepsisters and a fairy godmother seemingly plucked out of a production of "Wicked."
Possibly most importantly, the whole thing was incredibly kid friendly. I walked out of the theatre wondering if I knew anyone who needed to take their kids to go see it. Or have me take their kids!