I love Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I grew up watching TV repeats of the
1695 1965 version, own the DVD of the original 1957 version (with Julie Andrews), and can even sort of tolerate Whitney Houston’s 1997 version. That show had very PC, rainbow-colored casting and — the worst sin — a bland Brandy in the lead role, but it nevertheless respected the source material.
There’s a new Cinderella on Broadway now, and it got a very interesting review from Ben Brantley at the New York Times. I actually had to read the review twice to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.
Brantley gives the production kudos of visual eye-candy (although it seems somewhat overdone) and speaks approvingly of the performers. The surprise is that Brantley speaks slightingly of the way in which Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote a new book for the show, and Mark Brokaw, the director, couldn’t resist turning this classic little gem into a politically correct parable:
But a lot has been added and deleted. (Extensive revisions, by the way, have been made in every version of this “Cinderella” that followed its inception.) Some lesser-known songs from the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog have been jimmied in (including “Now Is the Time,” a rousing call for social change that was cut from “South Pacific”).
There’s been a whole lot of fiddling with the plot too to give it politically progressive substance and those mandatory messages about self-esteem and self-empowerment. The prince’s parents (played by Ginger Rogers and Walter Pidgeon in 1965) have been eliminated, replaced by a devious and manipulative regent figure, Sebastian (the droller-than-droll Peter Bartlett), who tricks the naïve prince, called Topher, into signing bills that repress and rob his people.
So when Cinderella finally gets the chance to talk to her dream date at that immortal ball, instead of whispering sweet nothings, she says, “You need to open your eyes to what’s happening in your kingdom.” (Maybe she should be renamed Che-erella.)
Like the reinvented cartoon fairy-tale heroines of the past several decades, from Disney’s “Little Mermaid” onward, this Cinderella is no passive damsel waiting for a rescuing knight. She takes charge of her destiny, so much so that she doesn’t lose that glass slipper; she hands it to the prince. It’s a conscious choice, see; she controls her narrative. And, by the way, the prince must undergo a similar process of re-education, which will allow him to conquer his self-doubts and introduce democracy to his kingdom.
Brantley acknowledges that this PC update has a bit of a knowing “wink and a nod” quality to it, but acknowledges that many in the audience seemed to miss the knowingly self-referential tone of the PC add-ons.
Cinderella is inherently a retro story, a sort of Patient Griselda for the modern era. When I was a child, I adored the story, the Disney movie, and, as I said, the TV show but, when I look back at them now, I do wonder if they encouraged in my a passivity that always had me assuming that, if I didn’t like my life, some prince would come and rescue me. Gail Carson Levine addressed that passive female problem rather nicely in her imaginative Ella Enchanted a delightful book that was turned into the extremely popular movie with Anne Hathaway. (The movie deviates wildly from the book, but I try to view it as a stand-alone product and enjoy the movie on those terms.)
I think we’re all inclined to sit back and enjoy variations on the Cinderella theme, and it’s okay when the new versions remind little girls that they no longer have to sit and wait. Taking a classic musical, however, written by two of Broadway’s greatest geniuses, and tacking on a whole bunch of extraneous PC stuff above and beyond a little Cinderella empowerment seems wrong, though — wrong enough, incidentally, to see a New York Times reviewer sneer at the artistic and entertainment merits of political correctness.