Give Douglas Carter Beane a Break about Broadway's Cinderella
He's done his research.
Reviewers have not been easy on Douglas Carter Beane's new book for the currently running Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. The most common complaint: that Beane may have gone too far and overstepped the original intention of the story's creators by adding a prime minister and jokes about the one percent.
"The fundamental problem with Douglas Carter Beane's perplexing, wholly unromantic, and mostly laugh-free new book for this Broadway ‘Cinderella'…is that it denies the audience the pleasure of instant reversals of fortune," wrote Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune. "I was also surprised to see so much political content in Cinderella," reiterated TheaterMania's own Bro on Broadway Timothy Hendrickson. "Sure I laughed at the jokes, but really…does the story of Cinderella really need prime minister elections? Nope."
"Who looks to a story about a pumpkin turning into a coach for consciousness-raising?" said the New York Daily News.
The thing that these reviews fail to note, however, is that Rodgers and Hammerstein were political. And the Brothers Grimm, who were among the first to write the Cinderella tale down, are famous for "fairy tales" that would skeeve out the Cannibal Cop. Beane isn't far off the mark creating a Cinderella that takes on big issues.
"It is funny when people think Cinderella was never about these issues or Rodgers and Hammerstein were never about these issues, when they clearly were," Beane told TheaterMania. "If you do a half a day of research, you're going to find these things."
A half a day's research will turn up the fact that the Grimm Bros. (and R&H, to an extent) were social anarchists who were disenchanted with the society they lived in. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Children's and Household Tales, the volume in which they first published their version of Cinderella, quickly attracted much ire for containing stories that were unsuitable for children. In addition to dark details like the self-mutilation of Cindy's sisters and a confused/impregnated Rapunzel, readers thought the book was too scholarly, with much of the content sailing above the heads of young audiences. Sound familiar?
Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing musicals in the 1940s and '50s. It was the era of not only the Second World War, but also the McCarthy trials and the Hollywood blacklist, a time in world history when it was very difficult for a couple of Jewish writers to be apolitical either personally or professionally, so they weren't.
Rodgers responded to the injustices of the time by formally protesting the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and publicly withdrawing support from Eisenhower's presidential campaign because of a failure to take a stand against Joseph McCarthy. Hammerstein took his political activism a step further, becoming a founding member of the Hollywood League against Nazism (later known as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League), a group that supported labor unions and fought racial injustice in addition to battling Nazi propaganda.
It's true that Rodgers and Hammerstein never let their politics take the reins in their writing; however, political topics were clearly important to the duo, so of course personal views came out in their work. In South Pacific, both of the show's sets of lovers are interracial couples who struggle with and eventually overcome their own prejudices in order to find happiness together. And The King and I depicts the ultimately successful interactions between two cultures while it tackles, in the words of Hammerstein, "a struggle within the man who was trying to be a liberal and had been born a conservative…and really in a way destroyed him by deepening his doubt about his power."
Rodgers and Hammerstein were pioneers of prioritizing a cohesive final product with compelling plot over all of a musical's individual parts, but they weren't shy about using their platform to further a cause. As Hammerstein stated in a 1958 interview on ABC's The Mike Wallace Interview, "We've always chosen a story that we found attractive, and then we've gone ahead and written it. [W]hen a writer writes anything about anything at all, he gives himself away and what he has to say comes out incidental to his motive for writing…"
The story of Cinderella is a folktale and a children's story. The purpose of folktales and children's stories is to instruct. (Why would anyone go to the trouble of reading their kid One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish 50,000 times if it didn't teach them something?) Douglas Carter Beane was carrying on a long and noble tradition of rewriting tales to instruct the society he lives in when he took on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. In fact, the social issues embedded in Cinderella were what convinced him to take on the project.
"I read the original French version by Charles Perrault and I was so knocked out by it…," said Beane. "[I]t had social satire in it, and I thought, ‘Now social satire is interesting to me.' And then I thought about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and his social awareness, and I thought, ‘Well I'm a social person. I think I should go do this.'"