Cinderella may well be the most talked about not talked about musical theatre opening in years; during 2020, teaser songs were released, casting announcements were made and the show has been surrounded by publicity since its original West End run was cancelled last autumn and its official Opening Night moved to July. Yet most of the coverage in recent weeks has little to do with the show and more its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who insisted he’d go to jail rather than delay full reopening, sent a public message to the government by refusing to participate in test events without other producers being included and has been rattling sabers all over town. But what is a little controversy? Lloyd Webber has championed theatre throughout the pandemic, trialing audience safety measures and test performances for the press at the Palladium last autumn. But with arts advocacy and politics dominating the headlines, is his new musical Cinderella going to be any good?
Opening with a socially distanced auditorium after all, the show is now ten days into its run with another week before press night, and Cinderella already has quite a few things to offer. Not least, it is a new ‘spin’ on the classic story giving Cinderella and her fellow female characters more agency and individuality than the traditional tale which prioritises beauty as the key attribute that ultimately leads to marriage – the preconfigured destiny for all good fairy-tale women. In fact the obsession with beauty becomes a price to pay for this Cinderella, reimagined as a spirited goth with a wicked wit.
With a book by Emerald Fennell who recently won an Oscar and a Bafta for her screenplay Promising Young Woman, a film that takes a stand against the culture of predatory men, Cinderella tries to flesh-out some of the other female roles as well, replacing the King with a powerful and determined Queen while showcasing the ingenuity and determination of Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother with a backstory that places her and the Queen on par – for these women to shine, however, it means the others must be viewed as pretty but generic or empty-headed, ensuring that for the Prince, it is Cinderella’s alternative approach that stands out.
The idea of perfection becomes a shared obstacle for the male lead as well, contrasting the ideal physical heroism and masculinity of Prince Charming whose loss in battle dominates the opening number with his brother Sebastian who becomes his underwhelming replacement with no grand tales of derring do or rippling muscles to attract a suitor. Applying these same standards of beauty and expected physical shape gives Cinderella a more contemporary feel in a world where the chiseled Marvel superhero is now the standard Hollywood aspiration for men and as equally infeasible as the tiny-waisted sirens long foisted on women. Within the show, this plays out at Court as the warrior-like attendants to Sebastian goad and belittle his lack of strength and machismo while parading their own – much to the delight of the Queen.
With Cinderella and Sebastian made into childhood friends unable to see their true feelings for one another, the story becomes a tale of two people suffering under the weight of external expectations to be something they cannot. That both struggle to live up to standards of feminine and masculine beauty, actively rejecting these traits for something more meaningful but are forced to pursue the wrong course creates new dimensions in a well-worn premise. And while many of the fairy tale’s original pieces are in place – some of the same characters, a ball, a fairy godmother and glass slippers – the narrative is shifted and slightly recast to create a greater power balance between the central couple that relies less on social status and more on self-discovery and appreciation.
Fennell’s book also adds a cheeky wit to the exchanges, the detail of which will go over the heads of any children in the room, to create a few risque moments including barbed exchanges from The Stepmother and a dry sarcasm given to a generally no-nonsense Cinderella that underscores her more broad-ranging personality – there’s no singing to dressmaking mice here or simpering about being rescued from her drudgery. Why she stays to clean for her step-family is less clear and, other than it being her father’s house, the flashes of temper and rebellion sit uneasily against her continued role as the family skivvy – a position someone of her determined personality would have quit long ago.
With the central narrative unlikely to change substantially ahead of its official opening, the overall effect is occasionally patchy. Lloyd Webber’s composition and David Zippel’s lyrics draw on several different music styles as the show evolves, mixing guitar, piano and harpsichord-led numbers that sometimes look to pop and, once or twice, even rap with the fuller orchestration and soaring strings that support the more successful songs. Lloyd’s Webber’s best scores have a compositional and stylistic consistency running across them whether that’s the rock ferocity of Jesus Christ Superstar, the orchestral grandeur of Phantom of the Opera, the tango and Latin rhythms of Evita or the stirring classicism of Sunset Boulevard, and it is their musical cohesion that makes them great, drawing together the big company numbers with the soliloquies and moments of introspection.
Cinderella doesn’t have the same coherent basis for the development of its songs and so it lacks a centre of gravity that pulls all of the numbers together. When they’re good, they are very good including a couple of the pre-released numbers such as Only You, Lonely You sung by Sebastian which is classic Lloyd Webber, filled with those familiar rising strings and room-filling emotion that gives the audience an insight into the character’s emotional state and psychology with a subtle nod to Sondheim’s Loving You. Cinderella’s own post-ball disaster song I Know I Have a Heart is also a big moment as the character realises her feelings for Sebastian are greater than she knew which the song expresses with clarity.
But the best songs really belong to the wider cast and will be a delightful surprise to audiences who won’t yet have heard them. A very fine and spiky duet entitled I Know You between The Queen and and The Stepmother is a comic highlight as two titans battle it out, both revealing something of their shared past, the clamber to the top and refusal to be cowed by it, while a late number Marry For Love provides a nice ensemble moment that fills the stage with big 50s Technicolor movie musical sounds. The Godmother has a fierce pre-interval number in which the real cost of beauty is visited on the naive Cinderella, while the men of the court perform an amusing thigh-slapping number, cavorting around the Queen in homage to the manly memory of Prince Charming.
But not all of the songs have quite the same verve which occasionally flattens the drama. With several big characters among the secondary cast and the chemistry between Cinderella and Sebastian not yet working as well as it could, their sometimes lengthy moments of introspection, including the protagonist’s regretful Far Too Late, don’t quite match the spectacle in other parts of the show. This same variability is also evident in Joann M. Hunter’s choreography with some numbers – particularly those that include ballroom dance sequences – still needing a bit of polish to maximise their impact and harmonisation, although this is a relatively small Ensemble with a lot of ground to cover.
In staging Cinderella, director Laurence Connor generally balances the big set pieces and the individual emotional trajectories very well, easily transporting the show from town square to The Stepmother’s kitchen, the woody rendezvous between Cinderella and Sebastian and the Palace. The latter is a memorable coup de theatre at the start of the second half as the front-on staging transforms into an in-the-round space for the famous ball scene, a smart piece of stage management that emphasises the decisive nature of the event for the characters and offers its audience a bit of magic.
Set designer Gabriela Tylesova creates a half-world somewhere between fairy tale, gothicism and historical fantasy epic to bring Cinderella’s town to life – think a mash-up of The Grinning Man, pastoral ballet and Game of Thrones with touches of contemporary shapes which also infuse Tylesova’s elaborate costume design with cut-aways skirts in bejeweled eighteenth-century gowns, elaborate couture styles and some 1950s and 1980s shaping as well as Cinderella’s distinctive Emo look constructed from black net, firm boots and checked fabrics. Most memorable are The Queen’s outstanding scarlet corseted gown with long tiered skirt, the Godmother’s sharp power suit referencing the Wall Street pinstripe and The Stepmother’s fitted gowns that threaten to trip her up but give her character a style that purposefully contrasts with everyone else.
Carrie Hope Fletcher is building a great character in Cinderella, a more spirited and grounded version of the blandly perfect fairy tale. But this Cinderella is rebellious and often sarcastic which in dress and attitude separate her from the other women of the town. The story explores the simultaneous desire to be different to everybody else and at the same time accepted within the same standards of beauty, and Hope Fletcher’s performance navigates those contradictions well, showing how Cinderella’s head is (albeit momentarily) turned by conventionality.
The chemistry with Ivano Turco’s Sebastian is something to work on and while both sing beautifully, conveying their character’s inner uncertainties and lack of confidence, their scenes together still feel like words being spoken in a play rather than two people unable to express their feelings in the moment. Elsewhere, Turco suggests all the pressures of being the disappointing second son thrust unwillingly into the limelight and forced to question his own purpose in the face of the imposing almost offensive manliness of his attendants. With a couple of great solos and an exciting dance number later in the show, Turco well captures the nuances of a different kind of prince.
There are are some terrific performances among the supporting cast who in many ways dominate the show, not least Rebecca Trehearn as The Queen whose sparkly regal charm belies a firm determination to dominate her son and the kingdom in several impressive song and dance segments. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt channels some late Judy and Liza while performing as The Stepmother, whose traditional wickedness is given just enough of a social climbing backstory to give greater purpose to her scheming, while Gloria Onitiri is fabulous and arguably underused as The Godmother whose main song is a twisted turning point in a show that could use more of her energy to cast darker shadows across the entire piece.
Press reactions may well be mixed when this much delayed show officially opens and this could be one where audiences and critics part ways with early reactions from theatre-goers already quite positive. With social distancing currently slated to end in a few weeks time and a very long run available to book, no one will have to go to jail for seeing this musical and, as a developing production, Cinderella is definitely on its way to the ball. With a week of performances before Opening Night, there is plenty of time to rebalance and smooth out the performance kinks by really polishing-up those glass slippers.