Cinderella Stories, or Girls Take Broadway

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Thank heaven for little girls,
For little girls keep coming to Broadway.
Thank heaven for little girls.
They keep attending, while their parents pay.

cinderellas-day-off_lYes, they do, and Broadway producers are well aware of it. The first time they noticed the influx was undoubtedly Annie, in 1977-and for the following nearly six years. The (unsuccessful) sequel Annie II and the Annie revivals, including the current one, attest to the Great White Way deciders’ indisputable bottom-line observation.

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But, although the success of The Secret Garden, with its young heroine, meant something during the 1991-3 seasons, the iron-fisted clincher has to be Wicked. Anyone who wants to see proof of Elphaba’s significance to the little girls making up a large percentage of the audience need only look at Dori Berinstein’s 2007 documentary Show Business: The Road to Broadway.

In the film, Berinstein follows the making of four musicals opening during the 2003-4 season-Avenue Q, Taboo, Caroline, or Change and Wicked. Prominently displayed through several sequences filmed in Idina Menzel’s dressing-room (she originated the Elphaba role) are drawings sent by children celebrating her character.

At the time Wicked opened in 2003, however, a Broadway watcher had to look high and wide for a truly favorable review. As if it mattered. The reviewers-I include myself among them-may have been judging on quality (Stephen Schwartz, for instance, has written superior scores for other properties)-but they (we) missed the much more significant aspect: In the green outsider Elphaba, young girls saw themselves, and her ultimate triumph served as a promise for their eventual peer-group triumph.

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Young girls’ tribulations haven’t been overlooked completely in the past, of course. In the 1940s, there was Junior Miss (stage manager: Henry Ephron). In the 1950s, there was Time Out for Ginger -but also The Bad Seed, just to make the point that all little girls weren’t good little girls. In the 1960s there was Take Her, She’s Mine, written by Henry Ephron and wife Phoebe about a slightly older young girl and based, presumably, on Nora Ephron.

But these precursors were nothing like what’s going on today in terms of the hard-to-miss crass commercialism, in terms of copycat enterprises that, among other things, mean houses conducive to big musicals aren’t available for productions that might appeal to other (read adult) audiences.

So yes, producers have seized the opportunity to cash in on the phenomenon, and since then-well, you can name the musicals about little girls or their somewhat older counterparts filling Broadway musical arenas today. (No, you wags, Hands on a Hard Body isn’t one of them-or wasn’t, since it’s already closed, and maybe even because it’s junior-miss-less plot didn’t have appeal for tuner-going parents and their off-spring. And certainly not The World of Henry Orient, which failed several decades back.)

For starters, look at the above-mentioned Annie return-to which add Matilda and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It doesn’t stop there, in case you thought it did. Headed for the Main Stem are Gigi and Ever After-both, incidentally, adapted from another resource extremely popular nowadays: movies.

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The former flick is perhaps the more quickly recalled, since its origin is the superb 1958 Oscar-winning Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe film-and before that Audrey Hepburn’s 1953 Broadway bow in the play adapted by Anita Loos from Colette’s novel. Less well-recalled may be that the stage musical Gigi was a flop, playing Broadway’s Uris (now Gershwin) for a brief three months in the 1973-4 season. Yet, here it comes again.

Ever After, also known as Ever After: A Cinderella Story, is the 1998 Drew Barrymore starrer. With a score by lyricist Marcy Heisler and composer Zina Goldrich-Broadway debutantes, and high time too, if their work to date is any indication-this Cinderella spin has a heroine not called Cinderella but Danielle.

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Oh well, let’s just say the present trend isn’t exhilarating. Can there be any doubt that the 1973-4 no-go Gigi and the relatively successful 1998 Ever After flick are headed this way-and who knows what as yet unannounced property (The World of Henry Orient, mebbe)?-because it’s hoped by those involved that these offerings, too, will appeal to audiences who can’t get enough of tales about little girls who hope to grow up and marry princes or whatever the contemporary proactive equivalent might be?

And it’s the “proactive” part that’s pertinent here. Please notice-not that you could miss it if you tried-that the late 20th-century early-21st-century Cinderellas aren’t your previous Cinderellas of song, story and Walt Disney animation. Part of the rationale for them is that they’re presented as modern Cinderellas.

These hearth sitters aren’t passively waiting for a handsome royal personage to gallop their way or for an even better eventuation not of their making. They’re doing something about it. And their aggressive behavior can be appealing. Annie’s prince is a Daddy-Daddy Warbucks, but he’s eager to adopt Annie because she’s a good-hearted soul. Her care for the orphans with whom she’s been living the hard-knock life deserves rewards.

Elphaba, getting short shrift while Glinda is favored, asserts her power as well-or why else does she so forcibly chant about defying gravity at the end of the first act? Matilda is such a smartie that she’s able to turn a supposed second-act thug to putty in her hands.

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The compulsion to turn formerly docile heroines into go-getters, possible glass-ceiling smashers (which is occurring simultaneously in contemporary silver screen takes on fairy tales) does have its ludicrous results, though. Take Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which, though it includes the original score for the 1957 telecast-or most of it-is not, when scrutinized closely, what Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein endorsed.

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To keep pace with, presumably, the era’s political correctness, librettist Douglas Carter Beane has retooled the plot so that, among other laughable twists, Cinderella no longer inadvertently steps out of her glass slipper while fleeing the palace ball at midnight. Instead, she stops to take it off and hand it to the pursuing prince. This could be seen as her way of saying “Call me”-or maybe indicating she wouldn’t stop herself from calling him, if only she had an iPhone.

To what do we owe these evolutionary theater events? The explanations aren’t obscure and among them are: 1): To some extent and due to its prohibitive economics, Broadway had become a theme park, 2): The feminist movement by now in its post-feminist phase, if not its post-post-post feminist phrase, has raised consciousnesses to the point where portraying women as woebegones in a man’s world is no longer acceptable and the low tolerance for it has reached down to pre-teens and fairy tales.

As noted above, Wicked is making far too much money-something like $3 million over the last Christmas holiday weekend-for others hunting similar cash cows not to put the formula to work.