Although State Fair was written to be a film, Cinderella was the only musical that Rodgers & Hammerstein produced specifically to be shown on American television. Starring the then newest toast of Broadway Julie Andrews, it was broadcast live on 31 March 1957 to 107 million people, which at the time was the largest audience ever gathered for a television event.
Although it seemed obvious that a stage version would soon follow, only a quasi-panto creation starring Tommy Steele appeared in London the following year. Meanwhile, the television version was remade twice, once in 1965 starring Lesley Anne Warren and once in 1997 with Whitney Houston, but although various stage versions, both amateur and professional, did begin to pop up, the musical did not reach Broadway until 2013. This concert performance at Cadogan Hall was the first appearance of that Broadway version in the UK.
Rodgers & Hammerstein did not generally tackle fairy tales, with Carousel, arguably their richest and darkest work, practically constituting musical theatre’s equivalent to opera verismo. In this respect, as the music struck up, and especially as we heard the opening chorus, the piece seemed to have more in common with Walt Disney than their other collaborations, but that merely revealed that the duo were capable of adjusting what they wrote to suit different media and contexts. As the evening wore on, however, the brilliance of Rodgers’ music shone through as strongly as ever, with big numbers being followed by additional music to take us seamlessly into the next scene. Similarly, lyrics such as ‘Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?’ from the eponymous song could only have come from the pen of Oscar Hammerstein II.
Although it was easy to picture the dancing or movement that would have accompanied much of the music in a full production, one could not help feeling that this concert presentation, directed by Jonathan O’Boyle, actually brought more magic to the proceedings by leaving something to the imagination. Cadogan Hall was relatively low lit, while Rebecca Pitt’s graphics on the back wall initially revealed a map that then told us when the action was moving to the castle or elsewhere, and also added to the atmosphere by revealing a pumpkin turning into a carriage and Cinderella and the Prince swirling around as they danced. In this version, Cinderella has to leave the palace at midnight twice. On the first occasion the graphics showed her losing a shoe on the steps only to return to fetch it, so that only on the second did she leave it for the Prince to pick up, with the suggestion being that she did so on purpose this time and thus that she was more in control of events.
Much is made in the musical of kindness being an enlightened form of ridicule, and thus of the new replacing the old. In fact, the 2013 Broadway version updated the work, with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, to make it more relevant today, with even its actual title of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (a ‘+’ replacing the more usual ‘&’) being intended to suggest modernity. The aim was partly to make Cinderella less passive and more in control of her destiny, but it also introduced relatable jokes so that there was a laugh when the Prince was cited as being unusual for constituting a world leader with a heart, brain and soul! There were, in fact, many hilarious moments over the evening, with the ugly sisters revealing very different characters as Gabrielle was shown to be sympathetic but ruled by her mother, while Charlotte was revealed to be coarse, but extremely funny.
In fact, the most remarkable thing about the evening was that one might have imagined that the deliberate application of a modern slant on the work, and the introduction of lines that were clearly designed to elicit laughs, would have detracted from the flow and underlying magic of the story. Here, however, all of these elements worked together seamlessly to generate an extremely strong atmosphere as the audience laughed, frequently applauded and conductor Freddie Tapner offered up the orchestra during Act II after one of the moments in which it really shone.
Although scores were used, many of the principals hardly glanced at theirs. From among the strong cast, which included Jac Yarrow as the Prince, Jérôme Pradon as Sebastian, Dianne Pilkington as Marie, Dean John Wilson as Jean-Michel, Zoë Rainey as Gabrielle and Sam Oladeinde as Lord Pilkington, Christine Allado stood out for the glow in her sound and the appropriateness of her demeanour for the character of Cinderella. Mazz Murray also gave a priceless turn as the haughty, arrogant and aspirational Stepmother, while Jodie Jacobs’ comic timing as Charlotte was so perfect that many of her lines elicited real belly laughs.