Well, the good news is that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella finally got a Broadway production. The bad news is that it didn’t survive the process of getting there totally unscathed. One of the problems that every subsequent production of this show has faced was having to compete with a nigh-perfect original that none of them could possibly have lived up to. Granted, the original television film of this show was unavailable to the public for many decades after its release and even now is only preserved on a very primitive kinescope recording, but it had perfect casting, a flawlessly charming and witty script, and the purest delivery of the show’s message that would ever be achieved.
Unfortunately, the later productions used to fill in for its long absence have been mixed at best. The 1965 version was an abomination, with stilted, faux-operetta dialogue, a dull cast, amateurish production values, and R&H’s unique take on the story deleted altogether in favor of something more akin to the Disney version. The 1997 version was a distinct improvement, but still far from perfect. At least the cast had sparkle, and the dialogue was often amusing. But the overall feel was more Disney than R&H, and the film offered a somewhat heavy-handed and belabored delivery of the show’s empowerment message (though to be fair, that’s still better than deleting it altogether like the previous version had).
As for the long-awaited Broadway mounting, it would probably have been much more effective as a one-act. After all, the original version was only 76 minutes long, and it was already about 70% padding (charming, witty, entertaining padding, but padding nonetheless), since you can tell the plot of the original fairy tale in about ten minutes. To reach the length of a typical two-and-a-half hour Broadway show, this version had to waste time with a ridiculous plot about kid-friendly versions of Les Mis-style revolutionaries and an evil Prime Minister manipulating the Prince, which is all ultimately beside the point of the material. The Broadway production was more interesting than the 1965 version and less homogenized than the 1997 version, but it turned the show into a gigantic, over-the-top cartoon version of the material, with frantic tempos and the songs blown up into big production numbers (not to mention Laura Osnes’ frighteningly perky performance in the title role).
The only thing that saves these later versions is the strength of the original material. Rodgers and Hammerstein had a very unique concept for their Cinderella, a retelling that was about empowerment as opposed to wish-fulfillment, a world where, as Ethan Mordden put it “You don’t just deserve happiness…you have to work for it.” Applying this idea to the Cinderella mythos would become very popular in later years (for example, the Drew Barrymore film vehicle Ever After), but R&H were, to my knowledge, the first ones to do it, and all of those later iterations owe something to their original vision.
And the original ten songs the team wrote for the production are easily the best of their efforts outside of their five big hits. Granted, the extremely unique, perfect fairy-tale sound they capture has become as much a curse for producers as a blessing, since it makes padding the score out with interpolations (which is necessary in any longer version, given the short length of the original score) difficult and awkward; the interpolations, even when drawn from the team’s other work, never quite match the original sound. Still, even in the 1965 film’s stodgy operetta-lite performances or the stage version’s hyperactive renditions, songs like the achingly lovely “In My Own Little Corner”, the ecstatic love-at-first-sight duet “Ten Minutes Ago”, the wryly hilarious “Stepsister’s Lament”, and of the course the show’s all-important message song “Impossible” are almost impossible to destroy.
If you preserve both the Rodgers and Hammerstein message and the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, then however much you muddle them up with overcomplicated plotting or oversell them in performance, the thing you create will have too much merit based on those elements alone to be easily dismissed. This is why the musical as an entity has endured so well even though the only completely successful version of it was utterly unavailable for almost sixty years, and it’s why almost any adaptation (with the possible exception of the 1965 Lesley Ann Warren film) is going to be at least worth your time…this is one of those properties that are essentially indestructible.