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 March 8, 2013

Happy Birthday to TACT, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cinderella

March is coming in like a lion for Rodgers and Hammerstein.

When most people think of Dick and Ockie, they recall their 11 musical properties (or at least five of them). Many may not know or remember that between 1944 through 1950, they also produced other writers’ works. These included Happy Birthday, a 1946 comedy by Anita (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Loos that required a song. R&H took off their producers’ hats, put on their songwriting chapeaux and the result was “I Haven’t a Worry in the World.” They, Loos and star Helen Hayes didn’t; the show ran for 16 months.

Now Happy Birthday is getting a revival, thanks to TACT – The Actors Company Theatre – which is having a happy birthday of its own: it’s been 20 years since Scott Alan Evans, Cynthia Harris and Maia Danziger decided to start a troupe that would center on neglected but literary plays that hadn’t been seen in the city for some time. “But plays that still speak to today,” says Evans. “We’re not The History Channel.”

Danizger eventually left; Simon Jones stepped in for many years and Jenn Thompson has since taken his place. Triumvirates usually fail – along with, it’s said, 97% of theater companies that start up. TACT has managed to buck the odds and to succeed in both areas.

Says Evans, “We’re an actor-based company, and, yes, we do choose plays for which our members would be right.” So Harris appears in the play, along with Tony-winner Karen Ziemba. But Mary Bacon has the role that Loos specifically wrote for Hayes: a shy librarian who decides that life in the stacks can’t really stack up to real life. So on her birthday, she goes to bar in Newark and lets herself go. Says Bacon, “She’s never had a drink in her life, and now she blossoms and dares to deal with a man.”

“It was a different character for Helen Hayes, which is just what she wanted,” says Evans. “She told Anita Loos, ‘Write something different for me. I’m so tired of being in corsets and wigs.’ Loos also knew that Hayes could sing and dance a little, and that’s where the Rodgers and Hammerstein song came in.”

But, Evans insists, Happy Birthday isn’t a mere vehicle for Hayes. “There are 20 wonderful roles for the other people in the bar, because everyone has his own moral world,” he says. “Loos was known for edgy and modern views towards sex, morals, women, relationships and tolerance. The play shows how being in someone else’s shoes can change you, and in a time where we’re talking more and more about bullying and gay rights, it does have something to say – while still being a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile at the Broadway Theatre, you can hear much more R&H, thanks to their 1957 TV musical of Cinderella. It’s been so radically reconfigured for Broadway that it should really be called Ella and Topher.

Losing the famous brand name would be too weird. But Douglas Carter Beane’s new book calls our heroine Ella far more often than Cinderella – which makes sense. Cinderella may be the derisive nickname that her stepmother bestowed on her, but the lass obviously wasn’t named that at birth.

More significantly, Beane fleshes out Prince Christopher Rupert (and his other 10 names), positions his story and journey to be as significant as Ella’s, and makes him a down-to-earth guy – which is why both program and script don’t call him “The Prince.”

Topher (the sensitive but sensational Santino Fontana) gets the first dramatic moment when he and his army pursue something that resembles Bigfoot. (Apparently, Topher’s army allows women; at least two from the ensemble can be spied here.) Every soldier is ready to kill, but Topher instead captures the beast with a rope. (No Bigfoot was harmed in the making of this musical.)

That tells us a lot about the guy, but Beane’s smartest move has Topher insecure because his parents died when he was just a boy. That necessitated a regent, Sebastian, who quickly became accustomed to running the kingdom. Now that Topher is of age, Sebastian will do all he can to maintain power -- and continue his corruption of overtaxing the peasants and foreclosing their homes. Sebastian views Jean-Michel, chief among the country’s revolutionaries, as a minor annoyance, but Jean-Michel won’t be ignored that easily.

At the point, I’m thinking “While children around the world are playing ‘Where’s Waldo?’ I’m playing ‘Where’s Cinderella?’” The lass has disappeared for so long that I’m starting to think that Laura Osnes might only be Tony-eligible as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

True, she has appeared to give a thirsty, passing-by Topher a drink of water. But the scene makes us more interested in him because he doesn’t treat her with condescension or make her feel irrelevant, as many a prince would. Ella is right to infer that “he appears to have a heart, mind and a soul.”

Jean-Michel disagrees, while offering Ella a book that shows about a better life in such countries as Norway, Italy and Japan. Smart of Beane – for haven’t you always wondered how, in “In My Own Little Corner,” the homebound, small-villaged Ella could fantasize about being a young Norwegian princess, a prima donna in Milan or a Japanese heiress?

Mark Brokaw has directed slickly, sure-handedly and – bless him! – close to the lip of the stage. Still, he might have reconsidered how to have Osnes deliver one lyric: Ella dreams of going on safari only to find that “I forgot to bring my gun.” Her frustration brings a chill from the audience. Why does she want to kill animals, especially after Beane establishes that her two best friends are a fox and a raccoon? Brokaw should have Ella act as if she left that gun at home accidentally-on-purpose, implying that she’d go on safari simply to see the animals.

Beane fleshes out The Fairy Godmother, too, by first showing her in the guise “Crazy Marie,” her secret identity. (Victoria Clark excels in each role.) Marie wants to see how people treat a demented person, and those who act charitably – as Ella does – will be amply rewarded.

And not a moment too soon. Ella, as you know, has a terrible home life. Beane also gives her stepmother, called Madame, a backstory and motivation commensurate with the bromide that “women marry the first time for love and the second for money.” The latter marriage was to Ella’s now-deceased father, so Madame has never had any love for “Daddy’s Little Girl.” Needless to say, Madame prefers Charlotte and Gabrielle, the daughters from her first marriage. Beane has shrewdly orchestrated the sisters to be different: Charlotte (the most amusing Ann Harada) is self-absorbed while Gabrielle (the excellent Marla Mindelle) is low on self-esteem.

Sebastian, meanwhile, fearing for his job and power, suggests to Topher “a royal wedding” that will provide a “distraction” to the masses. He’s right – for although the populace has been intently listening to Jean-Michel’s call to arms in “Now Is the Time” (cut from South Pacific), they easily and immediately lose interest when they hear that “The Prince Is Giving a Ball.” Their excitement allows choreographer Josh Rhodes to get in his best dance, too.

At the ball, Cinderella’s simple gown makes for a nice contrast to ornate and astonishing ones that William Ivey Long has designed. (Here comes Tony Number Six.) While dancing, Topher asks Gabrielle what her interests are; she embarrasses herself by saying “Whatever your interests are.” Now he’s bored. Fine – but this poses a problem moments later with “Ten Minutes Ago.” In this lovely Rodgers waltz, after Topher reveals his feelings, Ella just parrots them back, which suggests she’s no better than Gabrielle. Beane and marvelous music supervisor David Chase have written many new lyrics, and they should have penned some new ones here for Ella.

The “Stepsisters’ Lament,” which begins Act Two, has seen its apostrophe moved to become “Stepsister’s Lament” – because only Charlotte sings it. But Beane has bigger plans for Gabrielle, and gets her involved in a new plot twist. While musicals are notorious for having second-act trouble, Beane circumvents it by giving Gabrielle a story of her own, which dovetails nicely with the main event.

No, Beane hasn’t found a reason why the Fairy Godmother’s offer expires at midnight. Given his imagination, you’d think he’d come up with a hilarious one. But he does have the godmother remind Ella that she’s given Topher “charity, generosity and kindness” and that “he needs you” to help him break free from being regent-whipped. Thus, Beane gives us more than a man and woman who are merely attracted to each other; each can do the other plenty of good, which is what happens in the best relationships.

One plot point is right out of Into the Woods. Well, Oscar Hammerstein helped Sondheim, so now the pupil can repay the favor. And while 42nd Street taught us that the two most glorious words in the English language are “musical comedy,” Ella reminds us that the three most important words are “I forgive you.”

If only Beane didn’t have characters (especially Charlotte) use contemporary idioms: “End of discussion,” “I’ve moved on,” “I can make that work,” “faking it,” “nuts,” “heads-up” and “Wrong answer!” Mr. Beane, wrong approach.

And Laura Osnes? She indeed has that “cool and confident kind of air” that Hammerstein wrote for Cinderella. Osnes will always be Exhibit-A for those who defend casting via reality shows. Our initial skeptical feelings about her when she won that Grease video cattle call have steadily eroded in show after show, and we now count her among our most important leading ladies. How about that for a fairy-tale ending?

Want another? Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella now suggests that royalty is interested in doing some good for the common man. And if that’s not fairy tale material, I don’t know what is.

         — Peter Filichia


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