Saturday, March 02, 2013

Will Cinderella Break the Broadway Rewrite-Revival Jinx for Rodgers & Hammerstein?

Update, 3/4: The early reviews, ranging from downbeat to very good, appear to give this story some promising legs, at least for the near future.

In 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein's original made-for-TV musical, Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews, was seen by 107,000,000 TV viewers. Yes, that many million, and nearly twice the number who had tuned in to see Elvis Presley, the year before, roll his rebellious hips on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Cinderella would go on to be performed in a number of versions on stages around the world from time to time.

Now, at last! -- that's what the spinmasters at R&H of course are singing -- it's finally coming to Broadway! Official opening night is March 3.  Will be interesting to see how it is received. It has a totally new book, more hip, we are told, by Douglas Carter Beane (Sister Act, Xanadu).

Will it overcome a perennial problem that such contrivances face:  How to merge old fashioned songs with smart new dialogue? (well, if not smart, new)

Oscar Hammerstein II, center, and Richard Rodgers, pioneered the celebrated "integrated musical play" concept, where the songs are there to advance the story, to flow believably with the dialogue.  But when, decades later, a playwright is allowed access under the hood to install a new libretto, this can cause unflattering tension between the sentimental content of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics and the out-of-sync dialogue of a contemporary writer -- much the case when David Henry Hwang landed incredible latitude from the R&H office to produce a new libretto for Flower Drum Song. Not only did he totally ignore the original script, he ignored, as well, the novel by C.Y. Lee upon which it was based. But, of course, irony of ironies (if we are to believe and honor the "integrated musical play" claim), Mr. Hwang could not change a single note or word of the songs.  Makes sense?

Cinderella, of course, was not written for the New York stage, but for the cameras of early-day television. It was and remains a rich delight.

Tonight, when Cinderella sings, "A lovely night," will audiences agree?

There is always the outside chance that by some genuinely clever stroke of a playwright's pen, old songs can severe a quirky new context.

I saw Xanada on Broadway.  I heard a few good old disco ditties, Evil Woman being almost worth the price of admission, and I wanted to like the show, but I was relieved when it was over.  Pretty bad script. I was hard put to understand how something so trivial had ever manged to secure space in a Times Square playhouse. Well, they need product back there to keep the tourists lined up at the windows, ready to shell out big bucks for hundred-dollar seats.

The question for Cinderella might be: Does it have a redeeming song comparable to Evil Woman to offer today's younger audiences?  "A Lovely Night"?  I think not.

The Miraculous Waltz for a Ball: Julie Andrews with the prince, played by actor Jon Cypher, in the original 1957 version. The waltz was one of the most gloriously choreographed dance numbers ever -- doubly remarkable because it was performed in such a confining space and performed live on national television. 

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