My 'Cinderella' : What a Ball! by Tom Briggs
- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote nine Broadway musicals. They wrote one movie musical, State Fair in 1945, which Louis Mattioli and I adapted for the stage and which opened on Broadway in 1996. They also wrote one musical for television, Cinderella, in 1957 which was remade twice and had been adapted for the stage decades earlier in a somewhat clunky three act version, which was essentially a transcript of the original teleplay. I was approached in 1999 about writing a new stage adaptation based on the most recent of the television remakes, a multicultural production that had starred Whitney Houston and Brandy. The new adaptation was to be for a national tour being produced by Ken Gentry and his company, NETworks.
I knew Ken, a true gentleman of the theater, from a post-Broadway tour of State Fair he had mounted. I was flattered to be invited into the project and went to work. The folk tale of Cinderella originated in China but was first brought to popularity by Charles Perrault in 1697, and later by the Brothers Grimm. There have been many international retellings of the story and I poured over as many as I could get my hands on. While I was tied into the dazzling R&H score, I was searching for ways in which I might reinvent the story to some extent. I knew from the beginning that I did not want to write about a helpless girl who would have to depend upon others for her well-being and self-esteem. She would discover that it had always been within her to divine her own course in life.
Ken brought Gabriel Barre on as the director. I only knew Gabe from his Tony-nominated performance in Starmites ten years earlier, but it soon became clear that he was the ideal choice. My adaptation inspired him and, in turn, he inspired me to go further. He had also done vast research on the history of and various versions of the tale. That’s the kind of thoughtful and thorough director he is.
Gabe loved that idea of Cinderella taking her destiny into her own hands, a choice that had informed how I handled the character of the Fairy Godmother. I did not want her to simply appear out of thin air, wave her magic wand and give Cinderella a free pass to the ball. In fact she wouldn’t even have a wand and I dropped the “Fairy” bit. She would simply be Cinderella’s Godmother. Of course she would still help the girl but not before she’d earned it. I came up with the notion of the Godmother being the reincarnation of Cinderella’s mother. When she died, Cinderella’s father planted a tree in the pumpkin patch to which the child could go for solace. Gabe had the brilliant idea that the Godmother would emerge from the tree. Ken had the brilliant idea that she would be played by Eartha Kitt.
I was terrified. That woman will eat me alive, I thought. She will want every scene rewritten to play to her perceived strengths, she’ll want more songs, she’ll want approvals, she’ll want… Boy, was I wrong. Eartha could not have been lovelier, smarter, funnier nor a better collaborator. She never told me that a line of dialogue wasn’t working, or that a moment didn’t land. She trusted me to see it and fix it. She played the script exactly as written, word for word, and was never demanding. The only time she even came close to playing the diva card concerned a costume she wasn’t wild about.
“Tommy, honey, what do you think of that opening dress? It’s kind of a schmatta, isn’t it? I’d never want to hurt [costume designer’s] feelings but might you say something about it?”
Now mind you, she could have taken that schmatta, thrown it on the floor in the corner and said, “I’m not wearing it.” but that was far from Eartha’s style. Anyway, I agreed with her, spoke with Gabe and Ken about it and a new costume would be forthcoming. In the new dress, she looked like a million bucks, as well she may have. At 73, she ate healthily and practiced yoga daily, which accounted for her rather astonishing figure. Her dressing room door was always open and she became the den mother of the company. She’d had a fascinating life and career and was delighted to talk candidly about all of it. One of the things I was most interested in hearing about was the ill-fated luncheon at the White House during the Johnson administration. She had spoken out against the Vietnam War, purportedly bringing Mrs. Johnson to tears.
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons ̶ and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson ̶ we raise children and send them to war.”
Publicly ostracized, she spent the following years working largely in Europe and Asia. What many didn’t realize at the time was that Mrs. Johnson had asked her about the war and so she told her what she thought, in her customary, informed, articulate way. She wasn’t just spouting off. It was the tumultuous year of 1968 and Eartha felt she had been invited to the luncheon as the token black guest, which didn’t bother her, but she doubted, had a white man made the same remarks, that it would have derailed his career.
Cinderella would be played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler, the newly minted star from the television series, The Sopranos. She proved to be a darling, and with a beautiful voice. The problem was that she had to finish shooting her series and could not do the first several weeks of the tour. Enter pop star Deborah Gibson. At the age of thirty, I initially thought Debbie was a bit long of tooth for the role but, again, I was wrong. She was tremendous, acting and singing it fantastically. She brought a wonderful energy to the proceedings and was great fun to have around, a real team player with a terrific sense of humor. When not on set for her series, Jamie-Lynn studiously sat through Debbie’s rehearsals, learning the blocking, music and choreography, and taking copious notes.
Neither Gabe, Ken, I nor the casting director had ever considered casting a man as the wicked stepmother. Then we got a call from the legendary Everett Quinton’s agent and all bets were off. So there he was, sitting in the hallway outside the audition room amongst a line of ladies. Everett, with his partner in life and art, Charles Ludlam, had founded the fabled Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Everett became Ludlam’s muse, starring in his plays, often in drag. We ended up casting Everett, not for the novelty factor but because he simply gave the best reading we heard. He was devastatingly funny, being such an accomplished comic actor, and played the role without a whiff of camp or “wink, wink” or a funny, high voice. He was duly intimidating as that mean biddy.
For the role of Prince Christopher (I dropped the “Charming” bit), we hit the jackpot by getting Paulo Mantalban, who had played the role opposite Brandy in the TV production. Not only was he impossibly handsome with a gorgeous voice, he was just one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to work with. In fact, every single person in that cast, too many to mention, was lovely and more talented than they had any right to be.
The production was never aiming for Broadway but we did pull into NYC to play the 5,500-seat Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden. On opening night, there they were, out in force to cheer on our leading lady and their precious Meadow: Big Pussy, Paulie Walnuts, Junior, Silvio, Bacala, A.J. I’m sure I’m missing someone but during intermission, we all ended up together outside smoking cigarettes. One of those big galoots had tears running down his face. “Who knew Jamie-Lynn could fuckin’ sing like that?” Says the skinny, older goombah: “Who knew Eartha Kitt still fuckin’ looked like that?”
It was great for the cast to be back in the City for a week. All of their friends could see them in the show, they could check in on their sublets, catch up with their pals and visit their regular haunts. It was also a welcome reunion for those of us who were not on the road with the show. When my adaptation went into the R&H catalogue for licensing, they dubbed it “The Enchanted Version” to differentiate it from the pre-existing adaptation. Perfect. Cinderella really had been an enchanted and enchanting journey.