Like a lot of little girls, I grew up with a borderline-unhealthy obsession with Cinderella. Of all the twinkling fairy-tale princesses she was by far the most appealing. The Little Mermaid was half-fish, which severely hampered her fashion options, Sleeping Beauty was too unconscious (see also Snow White) and Thumbelina was quite simply much too small.
Yet Cinderella was just right — downtrodden but beautiful, tormented but unfailingly kind, and with a sensational makeover opportunity for those of us who were only really in it for the clothes and accessories. Our Cinderella VHS was worn out with use, her pages in the book of fairy tales were falling out, and there wasn’t a piece of her merch too flammable, too toxic or too age-inappropriate that it didn’t live on the floor of my sister’s and my bedroom permanently.
I sat down with Andrew Lloyd Webber three years ago to talk about the possibility of a new musical version of Cinderella. He had been wanting to make it for decades, but hadn’t found a plot he’d responded to. I could see why: the brief was harder than it looked, and like my blue polyester princess dress and plastic tiara, the story no longer felt entirely seemly for a grown woman.
Who was Cinderella exactly? Arguably the most famous heroine in literature, and I could hardly think of a single personality trait. She was very good at housework, very good at singing to small animals, very good at being meek and quiet and forbearing, but she wasn’t exactly a thrill-ride of charisma. After centuries of sweeping the chimney, she’d been reduced to little more than a bottle blonde with a martyr complex. Luckily, it takes one to know one so I was up for the challenge.
There was also a bit of a heartthrob problem in the shape of royal wet blanket and fairy tales’ most famous foot fetishist, Prince Charming. It’s not encouraging when a love interest gets confused the moment a woman changes clothes. We’ve all made shoddy romantic decisions, but few of us would actually marry the man who can’t remember your name the morning after a party. Poor Cinderella; the years of stepmotherly neglect had clearly taken their toll on her self-esteem.
Arguably the most famous heroine in literature, and I could hardly think of a single personality trait.
But more than any of this, the hardest thing to get around was the undeniably problematic central message of the story: change yourself entirely, make yourself over, become beautiful by any means necessary, and you will be worthy of love. Fairy tales aren’t supposed to be lectures — they are hardly the pinnacle of feminist storytelling — but at the same time it would be nice to believe that a happy ending wasn’t dependent on waist-to-hip ratio or the size of one’s feet.
So rather than shy away from the ickiness of Cinderella’s central premise, we wanted to interrogate it. Why is it that makeover tales are so endlessly popular and so insidiously seductive? Why do we as an audience so desperately want to see protagonists (female ones in particular) made hotter? Our obsession with makeovers, with “before” and “after” photographs, with weight-loss journeys and surgery reveals has only intensified in the centuries since Cinderella first went to the ball. It wasn’t disturbing how outdated the message of Cinderella seemed; to the contrary, it has never felt so worryingly relevant.
This all sounds very po-faced and worthy, so at this juncture I really do want to stress that this show is almost entirely made up of leather micro-lederhosen, quivering milkmaids and enormous hats. So much of the fun of writing Cinderella has been about embracing the pleasure and pure joy of the fairy-tale tropes, while also interrogating them.
In many ways, this is the most traditional Cinderella in the world. We still have a sparkling shoe, a royal ball, a town crammed with wishing wells and leaping chimney sweeps. The godmother still waves her magic wand and the stepmother is still an absolute monster. Let’s face it, no one wants a harrowing, modernist Cinderella with an interpretive dance about loneliness and a Medea-style bloodbath at the end. Apart from anything else the official T-shirts would be too depressing. This is not a show that could ever be described as Pinteresque.
Rather than shy away from the ickiness of Cinderella’s central premise, we wanted to interrogate it.
Perhaps our version would have been darker had we not ended up writing the bulk of it on Zoom during the pandemic, but with things in the world feeling so frightening and bleak it was a relief to us all to work on something unashamedly joyful. That’s not to say that working remotely didn’t have its surreal moments; it’s not often you find yourself standing in a flower bed underneath Andrew Lloyd Webber’s window so you can hear his new melody based on an idea you pitched as “an erotic military dance sequence” (“Man’s Man”) or debating the rudeness of the word “knob” with the lyricist and genius David Zippel (“So Long”).
We were in the theater in March 2020 doing an early read-through with the cast when the government’s decision immediately to close all theaters was made. We all watched the announcement in the lobby and said our shocked goodbyes, not knowing that the next time we would all be in a room together would be nearly 18 months away. When we finally arrived at the Gillian Lynne Theatre to start rehearsals a few months ago it felt impossible that we might actually get the show on. It was only when the lights went down for our first preview that we all finally believed it.
Watching the incredible cast rehearse, hearing the orchestra play, seeing the beautiful costume and set designs coming together would have been wonderful at any time, but after the past year it really does seem like a fairy tale. Thankfully, in this case it’s one with a lot of rhinestones, feathers, thrusting, romance and (tasteful) male toplessness: it’s what the Brothers Grimm would have wanted.
Emerald Fennell is a London-based Oscar-winning writer, director, and actor