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Cinderella Story

New York City Opera revives Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella just as the original TV version of the musical is about to make its home video debut. logo
Julie Andrews in Cinderella (1957)
If you were alive, more than three or four years old, and living anywhere in the U.S. on the evening of March 31, 1957, chances are excellent that you were parked in front of a TV along with 107 million of your fellow Americans -- fully 60 percent of the country's population at that time. What sort of program received such a mind-boggling amount of attention? Was it breaking news of tremendous national import? A major sports event? The Oscars? No, it was the CBS color broadcast of a musical version of the beloved Cinderella story, written expressly for the television medium by Broadway giants Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

The R&H Cinderella starred Julie Andrews, then in the midst of her run in the biggest Broadway hit of its era: My Fair Lady, in which she played the Cinderella-like role of Eliza Doolittle. Among the other stars of the TV spectacular were newcomer Jon Cypher as the handsome prince, Edith (later "Edie") Adams as Cinderella's glamorous fairy godmother, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley as her cosmetically challenged stepsisters, Ilka Chase as her stepmother, and Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney -- virtually forgotten now but theater royalty in those days -- as the king and queen.

"The challenge for Rodgers and Hammerstein was to write something for television," says Ted Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, "and so they stayed pretty close to the fairy tale. It's basically a straightforward, middle-of-the-road telling of the story. Unlike most of their other shows, Cinderella can stand a little bit of pushing from one side to the other in terms of tone. When Richard Rodgers did the remake in 1964, there were different songs added; he put in "Loneliness of Evening," which had been cut from South Pacific, and they used "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" [originally written for Oklahoma!] as underscoring in the ball sequence."

Adds Chapin, "It's interesting that, in some of the press surrounding the original airing of Cinderella, Rodgers and Hammerstein were quoted as saying they were going to adapt it for the stage -- so they had that somewhere in their minds. But then they licensed the property to Harold Fielding for a London production that interpolated songs from Me and Juliet -- and I think Tommy Steele, who starred in the show, also wrote a song that they added. It seems that Rodgers and Hammerstein signed an agreement with Fielding, collected whatever money there was, and then went on with other things in their lives. That was unusual for them."

Given the enormous popularity of the 1957 Cinderella -- and given the fact that there was no proper preservation of the live telecast, so it could not be repeated -- it's not surprising that numerous stage versions of the property soon began to turn up Stateside. "Donald Driver did a version that was premiered at the St. Louis MUNY in 1961," says Chapin. "When I started working for R&H years later, the idea of doing a new stage version was being discussed. There was some question as to whether it was going to go back to the original version or if it was going to be a new adaptation, so I walked into a bit of a quagmire. I thought, 'Gee, shouldn't we be offering what the guys wrote? If people want to do adaptations, shouldn't they at least start from what was done originally?' So that's what we did: The current score and script that we license are very close to the original TV version. 'Boys and Girls Like You And Me' and 'Loneliness of Evening' are the only interpolations."

Christopher Sieber and Sarah Uriarte Berry
in the New York City Opera's Cinderella
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The New York City Opera is currently presenting its own production of Cinderella, previously seen in 1993 and '95. Chapin recalls that, when NYCO was first thinking about staging the show, "they called and asked us, 'How straightforward a telling of the story is it?' They had a production of La Cenerentola [the Rossini opera based on the Cinderella story] and they wanted to know if they'd be able to re-use the sets. It sounded like a fun, interesting idea. Cinderella has been done very big and very small, and it seems to work both ways. It was written for television but it seems to fill a theater -- even one as large as the New York State Theater, which takes some filling!" Directed by Baayork Lee, the City Opera production stars Sarah Uriarte Berry as Cinderella, Christopher Sieber as the prince, Eartha Kitt as the fairy godmother, Lea DeLaria and Ana Gasteyer as the stepsisters, John Epperson (a.k.a. "Lypsinka") as the stepmother, Dick Van Patten as the king, and Renée Taylor as the queen.

Cinderella has had many reincarnations over the decades. Chapin recalls a Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production in which Faith Prince played one of the stepsisters and a young woman named Kathleen Marshall was in the chorus. Eartha Kitt first took on the role of the fairy godmother in a tour that played New York in the Theater at Madison Square Garden. "That was based on the 1997 TV version with Brandy and Whitney Houston," says Chapin, "but it ended up being a cobbling-together of various versions." For many years, the property was best known through the 1965 TV remake that starred Lesley Ann Warren as Cinderella; since that production was videotaped, it was granted many repeat telecasts.

And here's some really great news: Though the 1957 Cinderella was short-sightedly not filmed or videotaped in color, it was preserved in a black-and-white kinescope. For decades, a videotape transfer of that kinescope was viewable only at the Museum of Television and Radio -- unless, of course, one had friends with their own private collections of such items. But now the program has been restored for home video by Image Entertainment, with a release date set for December 14. Cinderella will also be telecast by PBS in New York on December 5 and elsewhere on December 13 (check your local listings). So, in just a few weeks, at least two new generations of fans of Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Andrews will be able to see for themselves what all the fuss was about nearly 48 years ago.

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