Is there any fairytale more maddening than “Cinderella”? Other classic stories force their heroes and heroines to undergo a journey from innocence to experience in which they are punished for immoral choices and tested to show their moral worth; Cinderella is rewarded for doing nothing much, asking for nothing much, and being nothing much.
A tormented child who does not stand up for herself is saved from a life of penury not through any agency of her own, but through a magic spell and the intercession of a rich and powerful man. Cinderella does nothing to change her own circumstances. In the Disney cartoon version of 1950, Cinderella’s passivity is the cause of her reward. She gets the fairy godmother because she spends her days wishing for change, both while awake and in slumber. (“A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep,” she sings.)
Indeed, Cinderella’s passivity is one of the qualities that makes the fairytale so potent for little girls. For what can little girls do to combat injustice and cruelty and meanness? Nothing, really; even if they show ingenuity and intelligence and cleverness, that won’t ameliorate their lot. It must seem at times that only super-natural deliverance can save them from the world’s unpleasantness.
But while the fairytale has enduring power, it is a problematic basis for a full-length story: Cinderella is an inactive character, and the prince who rescues her is even more so. She is a victim; he is a featureless puzzle piece moved around by fate. Seven years after the Disney movie was released, the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II came out with their legendary version: a musical for TV—starring Julie Andrews—that was the most-watched program of the 1950s. But it was memorable only for its songs, not for its story, and it kept getting revised.
Eight years later, a new TV Cinderella came out (in color this time), with the starlet Lesley Ann Warren and a rejiggered plot. Thirty years after that came a version with the pop singer Brandy Norwood (and Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother), and its storyline toyed with yet again.
Now, the musical is live on Broadway—for the first time, remarkably enough—with an entirely new book by the playwright Douglas Carter Beane. Beane understood that you can’t just go with a traditional Cinderella in 2013; the character makes no sense in the present context unless she is so horrifyingly abused that the proceedings become unwatchable. Beane and director Mark Brokaw avoid that pitfall, which is more than I can say about the revival of the musical Annie currently playing on Broadway. That production makes the calamitous error of trying to humanize its villain, Miss Hannigan, and give her psychological depth. Consequently, Miss Hannigan comes across as a disappointed, middle-aged drunk—a character out of a William Inge play—making the cruelty with which she treats the orphans in her care seem unfathomably monstrous.
The new Annie is the feel-bad revival of all time. Not so Cinderella. What Beane has done is to focus the plot on the prince, here called Topher. What kind of prince is Topher? this production asks. What kind of king will he be? Will he go around slaying tree monsters, or will he help the people of his kingdom, who are being mistreated by the aide who has been running things while Topher swings his sword and rides his horse? (The show seems to have an Occupy Wall Street tinge, though it also has an anti-tax message. The confusion is understandable, since there are T-shirts for children on sale in the lobby for $45.)
As for Cinderella, she becomes the prince’s moral guide and teacher; such is her character’s journey. Her stepmother is mean, but in a quippy way that gives her the bearing of a drag queen. The real villain is the prince’s greedy aide. One of the stepsisters is nice. Cinderella earns the magic alteration in her circumstances by being kind to her fairy godmother, who has been disguised as a crazy homeless person.
The new Cinderella is a pretty clever job. The jokes aren’t bad, and the twists Beane works on the old chestnut do add surprising suspense to a story everyone knows. There’s no pain in this Cinderella, so there’s no real emotional heft to it. But who cares about the story anyway? The only reason to see any iteration of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella is the score, and that remains nothing less than heart-stopping. It delivers a wallop of a kind unique to Rodgers’s indelible melodies—from this and the numerous other shows he contributed to over an astounding career which spanned more than half a century, before his death in 1979.