Fantasia

A minor controversy has arisen in the Broadway community about an issue of infinitesimal importance: Whether this season’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella should be considered under the Best Musical category, or Best Musical Revival.  Since I haven’t seen the show, I probably shouldn’t weigh in at all.  Plus, I’ve an unaccountably incendiary viewpoint; one I probably shouldn’t share.  So read on.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein never intended their Cinderella to appear on any stage.  This was their chance to write for that then fairly-new medium, television, where their friend Mary Martin had made a big splash with Peter Pan.  It’s fair to surmise they took the parameters and limitations of the small screen very seriously.  The show is about 75 minutes long.  The production values and special effects are rather sparse.  R & H knew they could rely on the camera capturing the charm of Broadway stars Julie Andrews, Edith (Edie) Adams, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostly.  The songs tend to be intimate moments, not stage-filling spectacles.  Most of America’s TV-viewers had never seen Andrews before, and this was her first role post-My Fair Lady.  The whole enterprise was considered a great success, even though none of the numbers became “hits” of the magnitude that the now-standards from their four major smashes did.

In 1965, long after Hammerstein’s death, the decision was made to mount a new production and preserve it on videotape for annual re-airings. 32 years later, long after Rodgers’ death, a network filmed a version with a multi-racial cast. Both the 1965 and the 1997 added other not-particularly-well-known Rodgers & Hammerstein numbers. Since R & H were masters at coming up with the perfect form of expression for idiosyncratic characters in particular times and places, one can only imagine them shuddering at, say, the air-lifting of songs from their authentically Californian-sounding Pipe Dream into the fairyland of Cinderella.

Also, a stage version cropped up – not sure if Rodgers was alive then – that got performed in all sorts of schools and church basements. As such, it became a very familiar property. But it never played Broadway.

Until…

Humorous librettist Douglas Carter Beane was brought in to provide a completely new script for this year’s Broadway debut. It utilizes the original TV songs plus a different set of obscure additions Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote for other characters, other settings, other situations. Since contemporary revisions of fairy tales must emphasize female empowerment, this Cinderella doesn’t accidentally lose her glass slipper, she hands it over, like a yuppie proffering her business card.

There is a Tony Rules Committee, made up mostly of producers, that had to grapple with this question of whether Cinderella should be considered new (enough) to compete for what’s considered the top prize, Best Musical. Or whether to pervert language and put it in the Best Revival. You’re thinking the term “revival” refers to new stagings of shows that have been on Broadway before. And you’re right. But that Tony committee don’t speak English that good.

While other Tonys go to individuals, it’s the shows themselves, and their producers, that benefit from the Best Play, Best Musical and Best Revival honors.  A decision made by producers that will benefit producers: sound like foxes guarding the hen-house to you?

So, I’ve this modest proposal: Declare Cinderella ineligible for both. Let the Tonys reward creativity, not grave-robbing. Taking the fine work of Tony-winning writers, decades after their death, and reassembling it into something they never intended is something of an artistic crime, no? Barring the perpetrators from the annual laurels is, to my way of thinking, too small a punishment.

Because, damn it, theatre ought to be original. You put in the time to make a hat where there never was a hat, you risk your millions to put on something no one has ever seen before, you’re worthy of an award. That’s how it’s worked most seasons since the Tonys began. (One overlooked aspect is that awards and nominations encourage writers to try again, do better next time – well, living writers.) And revivals? Personally, I’ve little use for them. But I understand the spirit that says there ought to be some honor for UN-original pieces of theatre. This year’s Pippin, apparently, involves ample heaps of creativity and differs significantly from the Bob Fosse original. You want to venerate a new coat of paint on a fine old house, knock yourself out.

Cinderella is neither this nor that. The main element that makes a musical good, the score, was created for another medium 56 years ago. Is it at all fair that twenty-first century show-writers find themselves competing with Rodgers & Hammerstein? It has found its way to Broadway because business people see an opportunity to make money. I accept that this sort of dollars-signs-in-their-eyes action goes on all the time. But giving an award for such a thing? Shouldn’t happen anytime.

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2 Responses to Fantasia

  1. Jake says:

    On the latest episode of Theatre Talk, Douglas Carter Beane brought an article from Variety, April 3, 1957, that stated Rodgers and Hammerstein indeed intended to bring their Cinderella to the Broadway stage in the spring of 1958.

    I do agree with your “what-should-receive-a-reward” point and wish the theatrical mentality would move in that direction. Alas…

  2. Gareth Andrews says:

    For the most part, you’re on the right track. Content that is lifted from other media–particularly if it made a mark in that other media–presents a problem if we are to think of it as an important part of what constitutes the piece of theater under consideration.

    Otherwise, what we’re awarding is, essentially a book-fashioned revue of existing songs. We have the same problem with this endless twisting of the Gershwin songbook into barely-different books and shows. All of these “new” Gershwin shows should also be ineligible.

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