Once Upon a Mattress Music by Mary Rogers; Lyrics by Marshall Barer; Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer
Performance length: about 2 and ½ hrs. with a 15-minute intermission
SET DESIGN: Medium
COSTUME DESIGN: Medium
CAST POTENTIAL: This musical boasts a large cast of colorful characters: each provided moments to sing, dance, and make the audience laugh. Given the whimsical and silly tone, this play works well for actors of all ages.
CROWD REACTION: Audiences have adored this musical comedy since it first opened with Carol Burnett on Broadway. It is one of the most highly produced musicals in the regional, community, and high school theatre market.
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SUMMARY: King Sextimus has been stricken mute by a curse that can only be broken “when the mouse devours the hawk.” Since the King cannot speak, the wicked Queen Aggravaine has ruled with an iron fist and refuses to let anyone in the kingdom marry until her son, the bashful Prince Dauntless, is wed. Unfortunately, in order to marry Dauntless, his wife-to-be must pass an impossible test set up by the queen.
Enter Princess Winnifred, whose outgoing and bold personality charms Dauntless and enrages the queen. Aggravaine decides Winnifred’s test is to sleep on a series of twenty-six mattresses with a pea placed in the very bottom. If Winnifred can feel the pea, she can marry Dauntless. With everyone in the kingdom desperate to marry, all eyes are on the unconventional Winnifred to save the day.
CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: The list of characters should be enough to illustrate what is required here. With names like Sextimus, Dauntless, and Studley littering the page, a director needs to find a cast whose personalities can match the zany characters they are playing. Once Upon a Mattress also requires a very large cast, with 8M, 4W, and a chorus of knights, stewards, maids and servants.
SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: A quick look at the two Broadway productions demonstrates the latitude a scenic designer has when considering this musical: the Carol Burnett version from the 60s resembles a pop-up storybook, with bright pastels, silly costumes, and a large box set. The 90s revival starring Sarah Jessica Parker was far less exuberant in tone, far more medieval in style. One emphasized the fanciful whimsy of the piece, the other focusing on the courtly setting. A production I was in tried to incorporate contemporary themes, using modern day props and making quick references to popular TV shows. The script allows you to go any and everywhere with the show, so control and focus are key.
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: Search for subtlety elsewhere. This high-fructose musical comedy is designed to dazzle and delight with absolutely no instructive purpose. It has been a marvelous success in the theatre because of its appeal to the young and old. With a silly story that many are familiar with already, it mocks the archetypes and themes in many fairy tales, while yet perfectly encapsulating the genre. The songs, notably “Shy” and “In a Little While,” are charming and fun for both audience and performer.