Thinking Outside The Glass Slip

by Michael Bowen

What about all the little girls who don't get asked to dance at the fancy-dress ball, whose feet don't fit the slipper? Ever since Charles Perrault's 1697 French version of Cinderella first saw print, little girls could best see themselves reflected in the rags-to-royalty story if they had, ideally, blue eyes and pale skin. No matter that the story dates back to ninth-century China; the princess needed to look like one of the Breck Girls before she could think of winning the jackpot in the prince competition. Some other job requirements included being passive and naive.

The only musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote directly for television, Cinderella (coming to the Opera House for six performances from Oct. 3-6), while based on Perrault, has had several incarnations. And say what you will about our "white Anglo-Saxon Puritan imperialist westward-expansionist capitalist [patriarchal racist] forebears," the performance history of this piece traces America's changing attitudes in the last half-century.

Some background: In 1954, NBC had flown high in the ratings with the Mary Martin production of Peter Pan, and CBS was casting about for a comparable showcase. Rodgers (music) and Hammerstein (lyrics) obliged with a new musical of Cinderella, first shown on live television in March 1957. Six of every 10 Americans tuned in, more than 107 million viewers (at the time, a record for any TV show).

This original version of the musical starred a 21-year-old newcomer who had won the part largely on the basis of her performance in the Broadway version of My Fair Lady. Her name was Julie Andrews. When she strutted about in an oversize ball gown and sang to the prince, "My head started reeling / You gave me the feeling / The room had no ceiling or floor," girls everywhere sighed (and little boys rolled their eyes). Still, Andrews' ideal prince was enacted in the '57 teleplay by Jon Cypher (later the pompous chief of police on Hill Street Blues), and they made a top-of-the-wedding-cake lovely couple. The idealized parameters for the retelling of the fairy story had been set.

Cinderella may be white bread, but she's the Platonic ideal of white bread. Passive, too: One day my prince will come, she seems to suggest, and in the meantime, all I really have to do is sigh with longing and do a bit of housework.

Yet it's not as if the musical Cinderella is a helpless waif passively waiting for her dreamboat to come to shore. Even in the '50s, Hammerstein's lyrics for "In My Own Little Corner" allowed Cinderella some measure of self-assertion: She may be meek in everyday life, she admits, but when alone, her imagination can transform her. Early in the play, while still dressed in dirty, menial clothes, she sings: "In my own little corner, in my own little chair, / I can be whatever I want to be," then proceeds to imagine herself as prima donna, queen and huntress. Rodgers felt that the song is more than just a pretty pause in the action: "When the lonely, bullied heroine" finishes singing it, he said, "we know something more about her than we had before -- her sense of humor, her naive optimism, her imagination."

Because late 1950s kinescopes (films capturing images on TV screens) were far from perfect and since videotape was still in its infancy, the musical was remade in 1965 with 18-year-old Leslie Ann Warren as Cinderella, Stuart Damon as the Prince, Celeste Holm as the Fairy Godmother, Jo Van Fleet as the Stepmother, Ginger Rodgers as the Queen and Walter Pidgeon as the King (alas, he could not dance). It's this version, replayed annually through 1974, that has influenced the memories of the generation after the Baby Boom.

In the mid-1970s, presumably, feminist impulses and post-Watergate cynicism undermined the fairy tale's appeal to advertisers and the public. It wouldn't be until 1990 that Julia Roberts, in Pretty Woman, would turn Cinderella into a happy hooker waiting about for a prince with deep pockets named Richard Gere.

To remedy these wrongs of race and character, Whitney Houston came riding to the rescue. In 1997, to make the story accessible to girls of all colors and to increase the self-assertiveness of the future princess, Houston decided that a multi-ethnic version of the fairy tale was called for, with Brandy as Cinderella and Houston herself as both Fairy Godmother and co-producer. Whoopi Goldberg, Bernadette Peters and Jason Alexander also starred. The Prince in that show was Paolo Montalban (no relation to Ricardo), a Filipino actor who was plucked Cinderella-style from the chorus in a Broadway production of The King and I for the plum role of Cinderella's royal dreamboat. Montalban went on to play the prince in two subsequent touring stage versions. Sixty million viewers took in the televised Wonderful World of Disney production, and Disney's videotape became the best-selling video of a TV movie ever released.

Next week here in Spokane, the part of the prince -- he's been dubbed Christopher for this version, but don't ask why -- will be taken by Adam Jacobs. "I actually met Paolo Montalban," reports Jacobs, who is half-Filipino himself. "I just wanted to thank him for getting the role, for making it possible." The popular conception of the All-American boy is being stretched and prodded just a bit.

Any less-than-princely characteristics he's willing to admit? "Yeah, I leave my dirty laundry lying around on the floor," he says, and then over the phone come the sounds of Jacobs' roommate muttering, "and you're Asian."

Color-blind casting operates throughout Tom Briggs's adaptation of the tale in the current touring production. For example, the actresses playing the Queen (Danielle K. Thomas), the Fairy Godmother (Koshka Raenelle) and one of the stepsisters (Tia N'Deye Jennings) are all African-American.

Just as Briggs and director Gabriel Barre have opened up the casting possibilities for the show, they have also uncovered a more assertive title character. Briggs remarks that "Cinderella has often been depicted as extremely passive, as are most heroines of yore, but this was not a characteristic I was interested in propagating, to modern audiences in general and young women in particular. I envisioned a Cinderella who, although downtrodden, would ultimately find the inner strength to take responsibility for her own destiny."

Indeed, Oscar Hammerstein himself, back in the 1950s, didn't want Cinderella just to be about sudden happiness: "It's Cinderella's innocent faith in a miracle, which she expresses in the song 'Impossible,' " he said, "that finally wins the godmother over to granting her wish."

Briggs has updated the godmother's personality, too: "I wanted to create a sort of anti-Fairy Godmother, a down-to-earth woman who would not simply grant our heroine's every wish as a matter of course. This maternal woman would challenge Cinderella to solve her own problems and only then would she offer her magical assistance."

Yet Caucasian or not, self-assertive or not, Cinderella -- even with the help of her godmother's magic -- still faces an undefined future. What happens to the happy couple once the royal honeymoon is over? Anne Sexton's poem Cinderella hazards a prediction:

Cinderella and the prince

lived, they say, happily ever after,

never bothered by diapers or dust,

never arguing over the timing of an egg,

never telling the same story twice,

never getting a middle-aged spread,

their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.

Regular Bobbsey Twins.

Even if we regard Cinderella and her prince as bobbing-head dolls, as Sexton does, at least in this latest adaptation of the tale, they are dolls on a mission, dolls of a different color.

Print Town USA @ Spokane Print & Publishing Center

Sat., Sept. 26, 12-8 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.