Fifty-six years after it first premiered on television, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella finally waltzes onto Broadway in a re-imagined and completely re-written production starring Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana. Below, we trace the magical journey of the ever-evolving musical Cinderella from a historic TV event to a stage-worthy fairytale for the 21st century.
An Offer Too Good to Refuse
In 1955, after the massive success of the condensed made-for-TV musicals Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Anything Goes with Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman, NBC was looking for another hit — an original musical that would appeal to families. The network approached Broadway’s most popular songwriting duo, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (whose hits already included Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific).
Rodgers and Hammerstein settled on musicalizing the fairy tale Cinderella and sought the advice of friend Richard Lewine, who happened to be Vice President in charge of color television for CBS. Lewine was intrigued by their idea and shared with them that he was looking for a project for Broadway’s newest ingénue, My Fair Lady star Julie Andrews.
"What sold us immediately was the chance to work with Julie," Rodgers wrote in his autobiography Musical Stages. "It was right from the start."
Cinderella was crafted expressly for television as a 90-minute musical with space for with six commercial breaks, including one after the Fairy Godmother’s special effects-heavy number. “Oscar and I felt that it was important to keep everything as traditional as possible, without any ‘modernizing’ or reaching for psychological significance,” Rodgers wrote.
On September 5, 1956, CBS announced that the network would present a live broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella the following year from its Manhattan studios.
A Landmark Television Event
"It takes a year to write a Broadway show, "Hammerstein told Time Magazine. "It took me seven months to write the book and lyrics for Cinderella."
In addition to Andrews, the cast included Jon Cypher as the Prince, Edith Adams as the Fairy Godmother, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley as the stepsisters and Ilka Chase as the stepmother. To prep for the live broadcast, CBS shot several entire performances (affectionately dubbed “New Haven” and “Boston,” after out-of-town cities for Broadway musicals), according to Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization’s Senior Vice President of Communications, Bert Fink.
On March 31, 1957, the live broadcast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella made television history, drawing 107 million viewers (60% of the country’s population at that time) and instantly becoming most widely viewed program in TV history. (Though the show was broadcast in color, only a black-and-white kinescope of Andrews’ performance survives, which was released on DVD.)
A few weeks later, Oscar Hammerstein announced that the musical would premiere on Broadway in the coming year. In fact, Cinderella was first presented on stage at London’s Coliseum in December 1958 as a traditional holiday pantomime. Little did anyone know that the show’s Broadway debut would still be decades away.
Revising & Reviving
Hammerstein died in 1960, and Rodgers continued to tinker with Cinderella, commissioning Joseph Schrank to revise the script. Scenes were added, as well as the song “Loneliness of Evening,” which had been cut from South Pacific. The musical returned to CBS on February 22, 1965, starring newcomer Lesley Ann Warren in the title role, Ginger Rogers as the Queen, Celeste Holm as the Fairy Godmother and Stuart Damon as the Prince. Again, it was ratings smash hit.
In 1997, Cinderella broke color barriers as pop stars Brandy and Whitney Houston became the first African-American Cinderella and Godmother. The multi-racial TV remake also featured Bernadette Peters as the stepmother, Whoopi Goldberg as The Queen, Victor Garber as the King and relative unknown Paolo Montalban as the Prince.
Again, the producing team dug into the R&H archives, adding “The Sweetest Sounds” for Brandy and Montalban, “Falling in Love With Love” (with lyrics by Lorenz Hart) for Peters and “There’s Music in You” for Houston. Broadcast on ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney, Cinderella drew 60 million viewers, the highest rated TV musical in a generation.
Over the years, Cinderella continued to be performed around the world, including three productions at the New York City Opera, a national tour with Eartha Kitt as the Fairy Godmother and Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Cinderella and a 2008 Asian tour headlined by Tony winner Lea Salonga, whose performance was recorded. But a Broadway production was still five years—and a new script—away.
A Magical New Idea
From the very beginning, Cinderella boasted a score of beautiful, memorable tunes, including “Impossible,” “Ten Minutes Ago,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” and “A Lovely Night.” The challenge in making the show stageworthy was always the book. Enter Douglas Carter Beane, the Tony-nominated librettist (Xanadu) and playwright (The Little Dog Laughed), recruited by producer Robyn Goodman, who told Broadway.com, “I thought Cinderella needed to be brought up to date without losing its fairy tale context.”
Beane crafted an entirely new book (disgarding the characters of the King and Queen, introducing new characters and subplots, changing the glass slipper conceit) and, as in previous incarnations, he added several Rodgers & Hammerstein trunk songs to the classic score. Explaining his vision to Broadway.com, Beane said, “Cinderella is much more in line with the original French version by Perrault in that she is a woman of strength and kindness. It’s about kindness in the face of cruelty.”
For the show’s long-awaited Broadway premiere, Tony nominee Laura Osnes won the role of Ella, with Santino Fontana as Prince Topher, Tony winners Victoria Clark and Harriet Harris as the Fairy Godmother and the Stepmother Madame, Ann Harada and Marla Mindelle as the stepsisters, and Peter Bartlett and Greg Hildreth as new characters Sebastian and Jean-Michel.
Immediately, Osnes embraced Beane’s revised script. “It’s not too contemporary,” she told Broadway.com. “It definitely still takes place in a period with poofy dresses and that princess expectation everybody has, but Cinderella and the prince have other desires and purposes for their lives and are able to achieve them together. It’s funny, lighthearted and wonderful, but also has so much heart and so much romance.”
R & H President Ted Chapin emphasizes that the Broadway production is in keeping with the original spirit of the piece: “The Julie Andrews original has a set of fans; they're older now, but they're still around," he told The Wall Street Journal. "The Lesley Ann Warren, which was shown many times during the '70s, has a legion of fans. And the Brandy-Whitney Houston has a legion of fans. What I'm hoping is that it's changed every time, slightly, so there will be nothing about this production that won't feel some kind of familiar."
“When I was growing up, musicals were big and romantic and they lifted you off the floor, and I feel like Cinderella is a return to my childhood love,” Goodman said. “We like to think we created a big, beautiful new Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.”
See Cinderella for yourself, now playing at the Broadway Theatre and officially opening on March 3.