Broadway and the Fairy Tale
Fairy tales and music: they are two things that played a big part of most of our childhoods. The combination of the two in an evening of entertainment is, for many of us, the ultimate form of entertainment bliss. With the Broadway musical Frozen, adapted from the animated film musical, which was in turn adapted by the 1884 fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, working its way toward Broadway this spring, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the other musicals that have been adapted from fairytales and children’s stories.
Beauty and the Beast
The 1740 French fairy tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve La Belle at La Bete, about a girl held hostage by a ferocious beast who turns out to have a heart of gold, was an obvious choice for the Disney animation treatment. In 1991, that film came to fruition with glorious acclaim (It was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar). The Alan Menken/Howard Ashman score screamed “Broadway” with songs like “Belle”, “Be Our Guest” and the Academy Award-winning title tune. In 1994, the film was reimagined for Broadway, with Menken teaming with lyricist Tim Rice to write additional songs to flesh out the story including “Home” and “If I can’t Love Her”.
Once Upon a Mattress
Like Frozen, Once Upon a Mattress is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, in this caseThe Princess and the Pea. It concerns a kingdom where the mama’s boy Prince Dauntless is kept under a strong thumb by his cross, controlling mother Queen Aggravain. This becomes an issue when Dauntless begins seeking a bride. 12 princesses fail to win over the queen, each unable to pass a difficult test crafted by her majesty that will supposedly reveal their true-blood royalty. When Princess Winnifred the Woebegone (a.k.a. “Fred”) shows up from her swampy homeland, she is unlike anyone Dauntless has met. Boisterous and bold, Winnifred appears to be the least-likely candidate to pass the Queen’s test: sensitivity. Can Fred sleep on a stack of 20 downy mattresses, with a tiny pea placed under the bottom rung? If she can slumber without being agitated by the tiny pea, she is no princess. The Mary Rodgers/Marshall Barer score is fun and frolicsome, with standouts including “Many Moons Ago”, “Shy” and “Happily Ever After”.
When people think “Fairy Tale” their minds often go to the Brothers Grimm and a European influence, forgetting that there is an entire world of storytelling for children to steal from. Aladdin, the animated film and its subsequent Broadway incarnation are set somewhere in the Middle East, though an actual country is never distinctly named. What is interesting is that Disney decided not to set Aladdin in China where the original story takes place, but instead transplanted it to the region where the story originated. Regardless of where it is set, composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, rubbed a golden lamp and out jumped a handful of terrific songs including the Academy Award-winning “A Whole New World”. The story of a street rat who is granted three wishes by a genie sprung from a lamp made its way to Broadway in 2014.
Whether you subscribe to the harsher Brothers Grimm version, or to the more-magical Charles Perrault adaptation, the story of the little cinder girl who dreams of going to the ball has been enchanting children for centuries. Almost every culture going back to the Ancient Greeks has some variation on the story. For the purposes of musical theatre, the Rodgers and Hammerstein version, which was made for television in 1957, is perhaps the best regarded of interpretations. Having had three-different television versions, the score was added to a new book, and the musical debuted on Broadway in 2013 where it enchanted with such ditties as “Ten Minutes Ago”, “In My On Little Corner”, “Impossible” and “The Stepsisters’ Lament”.
The Little Mermaid
If we aren’t taking from the Brothers Grimm, we can also find musical theatre capitalizing on the works of Hans Christian Anderson. Disney, under the creative impetus of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, certainly benefitted from Anderson’s The Little Mermaid in 1989 when their version basically resurrected the animated musical for the House of Mouse. First published in 1837, The Little Mermaid tells the story of young mermaid who falls in love with a human and makes a contract with a dastardly sea witch for a pair of legs to allow her to pursue him. Though Disney opted out of Anderson’s tragic ending, messieurs Menken and Ashman concocted an atmospheric score that included “Part of Your World”, “Kiss the Girl”, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and the Academy Award-winning “Under the Sea”. The musical was turned into a Broadway musical (with lyricist Glenn Slater stepping in for the late Howard Ashman), opening to mixed reviews in 2008.
James M. Barrie’s tale of the little boy who refuses to grow up has received so many stage and screen adaptations that it is hard to keep track of them all. Still, there continues to be magic in the eternal boy, his pixie counterpart Tinkerbell, and his arch nemesis, the pirate Captain Hook. In 1954, America’s favorite Broadway performer Mary Martin played the title character in a musical by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Carolyn Leigh, and Mark Charlap. The score, and the musical itself, were both so enchanting that Peter Pan has been filmed for television five times, and revived on Broadway three times. The score never fails to transport with such delights as “Tender Shepherd”, “Never Never Land”, “I’m Flying” and “Hook’s Tango”.
L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been the genesis for many films, plays and musicals. Of course, everyone knows the 1939 MGM Technicolor film version starring Judy Garland singing the classic “Over the Rainbow.” But the story of a Kansas girl carried by tornado to the enchanted Land of Oz where she must travel and arduous journey to seek the help of a humbug Wizard while warding off the attacks of the Wicked Witch of the West has had other incarnations. The 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz, featuring a score by Charlie Smalls (with contributions by others) took a Motown approach to the material. Among the terrific tunes, are the soulful “The Feeling We Once Had”, the groovy “Ease on Down the Road”, the achingly poignant “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” and the rapturous “Believe in Yourself.”
Into the Woods
If several fairy tales sandwiched into one musical is more your bag, then Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Into the Woods will most-certainly meet your quota. Don’t, however, expect everything to end with a “Happy Ever After”. The creators take us far past the world of “I Wish” and take us on the murky journey of taking responsibility for our actions. Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel are all here, but their outcomes might not be what you are used to. Into the Woods is a journey from childhood wishing into the uncertain ground of adult choices where outcomes are seldom ideal. The score helps us see both sides of the coin in such unforgettable numbers as “Giants in the Sky”, “I Know Things Now,” “On the Steps of the Palace”, “Moments in the Woods”, “No More”, “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen”.