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DVDs: Many Moons Ago

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS Touchstone/Disney

Inspired by the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the musical Once Upon a Mattress is a delightful, tuneful burlesque with charm and heart. Featuring music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and a book by Barer and Jay Thompson, it was first seen as a brief, one-act musical presented at the Tamiment adult-camp resort in the summer of 1958. The show's title was still that of the fairy tale.

With Dean Fuller joining the team as co-librettist, the show, retitled Once Upon a Mattress, was expanded to full length and picked up for production by New York's Phoenix Theatre Company, which had previously moved the sophisticated musical The Golden Apple to Broadway.

Nancy Walker was mentioned for the leading role of Winnifred the Woebegone, the gawky but outgoing Princess who manages to pass a sensitivity test and win the hand of Prince Dauntless despite Dauntless' fiercely protective mother, the Queen. But the part of Winnifred went instead to young Carol Burnett. Although she was making her New York stage debut, Burnett wasn't unknown at the time of Mattress. She had already established herself as a singing comedienne on television, greatly helped by a piece of special material called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles."

It had been Burnett's dream to work with Broadway's top musical-comedy director, George Abbott, and it came true with Mattress, which Abbott staged, with inventive choreography especially for "The Spanish Panic" and "Very Soft Shoes" numbers by Joe Layton. Composer Rodgers was, of course, the daughter of Broadway's most celebrated composer, Richard Rodgers, and is now known by many as the mother of currently celebrated composer-lyricist Adam Guettel.

With a funny book and a wholly enchanting score, Once Upon a Mattress was greeted with favorable reviews upon its downtown Phoenix opening on May 11, 1959, ten days before the Broadway opening of Gypsy. In The New York Times, drama critic Brooks Atkinson called the show "gaily naive...the tempo is light and the total impression beguiling." Of the show's leading lady, he wrote, "the musical theatre has acquired a funny new clown." And there were also good reviews for the other cast members, who included Jack Gilford as the mute King, Joe Bova as Prince Dauntless, and Jane White as the Queen, the latter a rare instance at the time of a black actress in a non-black leading role.

A limited engagement as part of a subscription series, Once Upon a Mattress was extended to a 216-performance run at the Phoenix. But as the weather turned cooler, the Phoenix was forced to begin its new subscription series, so Mattress could not continue there. When no Broadway house was immediately available, the cast of Mattress won publicity by marching up and down Second Avenue with placards reading "Why close a hit?" and "Our kingdom for a house!"

Fortunately, the Alvin Theatre became available, and Mattress grabbed it and began performances there on November 25, 1959 nine days after the Broadway opening of The Sound of Music. Forced out of the Alvin by the arrival of Frank Loesser's Greenwillow, Mattress moved to the Winter Garden on February 24, 1960. Forced out of the Winter Garden by the return of West Side Story, Mattress moved to the Cort on April 26, 1960. The show's final move, to the St. James on May 9, 1960, was voluntary, simply because the St. James was larger than the Cort. The uptown run was 244 performances, bringing the total to 460 performances, or just over a year. In those days, it was possible to move a musical four times and yet still turn a profit.

At the 1960 Tonys, Mattress was nominated as Best Musical, and, just like Gypsy, it lost to a tie between The Sound of Music and Fiorello!. Burnett was nominated for lead actress in a musical, and, like Ethel Merman in Gypsy, she lost to Mary Martin in The Sound of Music. Note that Mary Rodgers' musical lost in those two categories to her father's hit.

Mattress had little luck in London, where it was put into the sizable Adelphi in 1960 and lasted just 38 performances. Playing Winnifred was the gifted Jane Connell, and, like the Broadway production, the London version produced a cast album. More successful were the U.S. touring companies, headed by clowns Dody Goodman and Imogene Coca.

Mattress was for decades one of the most popular musicals for high school and community theatre production. In December, 1996, it got a Broadway revival that was not a success but hung on for 187 performances at the Broadhurst. In the lead was a miscast Sarah Jessica Parker, who was too lovely and delicate a creature for the robust Winnifred. Then too, while Parker was well known at the time, this was before her huge celebrity from TV's "Sex and the City." The revival produced a third cast recording.

Rodgers would go on to write the scores for Judy Holliday's Broadway flop Hot Spot and for the hit off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. Burnett would do one more Broadway musical, Fade Out-Fade In, again with Abbott, then quit Broadway musicals until Putting It Together in 1999. Elsewhere, she performed in such musicals as Calamity Jane, I Do! I Do!, Company, and From the Top, the latter an evening of original one-act musicals, each built around the work of a celebrated songwriter.

During the Broadway run of Once Upon a Mattress, Burnett had begun to appear on TV's "The Garry Moore Show," and her success as sketch comedienne, singer, and bright new personality soon made her a national celebrity. She continued on the program through 1962, then began starring in her own CBS TV specials. There was Calamity Jane and an acclaimed pairing with Julie Andrews at Carnegie Hall. Then it was time for a television version of Once Upon a Mattress, aired by CBS in 1964. Retained from the original Broadway cast were Burnett, Bova, Gilford, and White, along with choreographer Layton, who was now doubling as co-director. The show was taped live before a studio audience.

New principals included Bill Hayes, who as the Minstrel was playing a combination of the stage version's Minstrel and Sir Harry; Shani Wallis as his romantic interest, Lady Larken; and Elliott Gould as the Jester. Because the program runs only ninety minute including commercials, the authors were forced to cut a good deal of the book and score. Dropped were the songs "An Opening for a Princess," "In a Little While," "The Minstrel, The Jester, and I," "Yesterday I Loved You," and, most surprisingly, Burnett's big second-act solo "Happily Ever After." The latter was more or less replaced by a new song, a duet for Winnifred and Dauntless called "Under a Spell." And "Normandy" was moved up to replace "In a Little While."

There are also significant plot alterations, such as the Minstrel's plan to escape with Larken. Because this was still TV in the '60s, the stage version's notion that Larken and Sir Harry were in a hurry to get married because Larken was pregnant had to be changed; on TV, Larken is still pregnant, but she and Sir Harry/The Minstrel are secretly married.

The new song, a waltz, is pleasant, but no substitute for "Happily Ever After"; it's hard to believe that Burnett was willing to give the latter number up. The production is performed on simple, skeletal sets. The four original cast members are wonderful, with Burnett in terrific voice and snaring every laugh, and White a scream as the Queen. For all of its script alterations and song omissions, this '64 black-and-white taping is as close as we'll ever get to the original production.

Three years later, Burnett began the weekly CBS series that would last eleven years. In 1972, CBS presented Burnett in a second TV Mattress, this one in color, but, like the first, a studio taping. In addition to the star, it retained from the original Broadway cast Gilford and White. This time around, though, the company included some regulars from Burnett's series, so Ken Berry played Dauntless and resident heartthrob Lyle Waggoner played the built-up role of Sir Studley. Bernadette Peters, who had also made appearances on the Burnett program, was Larken, opposite Ron Husmann as Harry Peters and Husmann had recently co-starred in the Broadway revival of On the Town, and the cast also included Wally Cox as the Jester.

Again a ninety-minute program, it begins with a new prologue, with Burnett singing the opening "Many Moons Ago" as a bedtime story to a child. The sets are somewhat more elaborate. The Minstrel and the Wizard have been eliminated, with Sir Studley and the Jester taking over some of their material. Like the first TV Mattress, this one is adapted by the three original librettists, who have again altered the Larken-Harry plot. This time around, though, Larken is allowed to be an unwed mother-to-be.

The "Spanish Panic" has, for some reason, become the "Polish Panic." "Happily Ever After" is happily restored albeit with some new lyrics, but dropped are "An Opening for a Princess," "The Minstrel, The Jester, and I," "Normandy," "Very Soft Shoes," "Yesterday I Loved You," and the Lullaby, the latter omitted along with the character that sang it, the Nightingale of Samarkand.

Co-directed by Dave Powers, the director of Burnett's series, and Ron Field, who was also the choreographer, this Mattress plays like an extended episode of "The Carol Burnett Show." It's much broader than the first version, adding a lot of new gags that don't pay off, accompanied by what sounds like canned laughter. But if it's less wonderful than the first version, it's still Burnett in Mattress and thus enjoyable.

The costumes for the '72 Mattress were by Bob Mackie, another holdover from Burnett's series. Mackie designed only Burnett's costumes for the new, 2005 TV version of Mattress, televised by ABC just before Christmas and now available on DVD.

In producing the new Mattresst, Disney may very well have been looking for a follow-up to its successful telefilm of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, which, like the latest Mattress, was the third television version of a musical property. Disney's is the first TV Mattress that's an actual film, and the production is far more lavish than the skimpier taped versions. Burnett was no doubt the impetus for this new TV version, and this time around, of course, she is no longer Winnifred but instead plays the scheming Queen. Because the Queen had only one song in the original, "Sensitivity," Burnett has been given a fair new one, called "That Baby of Mine," written by her long-time friends and associates Ken and Mitzie Welch. It allows her to end with a bit of "Happily Ever After."

Missing from the score this time around are "An Opening for a Princess," "The Minstrel, the Jester and I," and "Yesterday I Loved You," all absent from all three TV versions, plus "Quiet" and "Very Soft Shoes." "Normandy," sung by Larken, the Minstrel, and the Jester in the original, is here sung by Harry and Larken, as in the first television version, but it has been shifted to the end to replace "Yesterday I Loved You." Eliminated entirely is the role of the Minstrel, and the Wizard Edward Hibbert doubles as the Nightingale of Samarkand.

This is the first TV Mattress whose teleplay is not by the original stage authors. The new script is the work of Janet Brownell, and it includes a good deal of rewriting. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, the latest Mattress is often played too naturalistically. The piece needs more stylization and heightening. This is not a problem in the case of Burnett, who does a professional job and makes the role of the Queen her own in a campy, drag-queenish manner.

As Winnifred, we have a somewhat mature Tracey Ullman. She's suitably rowdy and spunky, but lacks vulnerability, and is not as lovable as Burnett's Winnifred. As a result, one never quite surrenders to her, and while Ullman can sing, her musical numbers aren't very exciting.

Matthew Morrison has charm as Harry, and Hibbert's Wizard is just right. Denis O'Hare's Dauntless is fine if a bit broad. As the King, Tom Smothers doesn't make much of an impression, and Zooey Deschanel is blankly contemporary as Larken. Unimaginatively staged by Marshall, this ranks as a fairly flat rendition of a show that once sparkled.

The DVD bonuses are pretty negligible. There's a seven-minute "making of" featurette, in which Burnett tells of falling asleep on stage during the period when she was doubling from the stage Mattress to "The Garry Moore Show," and Ullman predicts that the latest Mattress will become a classic.

"Between Takes" offers a few silly minutes of off-screen, candid glimpses of cast members. And then two numbers "Shy," "In a Little While" are offered in back-to-back comparisons of the number in rehearsal and in the finished film.

Disney's Mattress was televised as part of ABC-TV's "Wonderful World of Disney." The DVD lacks the brief, odd prologue shown on the telecast, set in Disneyland and with Burnett appearing as herself.

With the release of this DVD, it seems unlikely that we'll ever see the commercial release of either of the two old Mattress tapes. That's too bad, as the latest version can't hold a candle to them. And as was the case with the three TV versions of Cinderella, the first remains the best.

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