Hit me, Britney, one more time? In 2005, the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot lamented, “I’m constantly replaced by Britney Spears.” These days, a lot of composers trying to get their scores onto Broadway stages could sing the same lyric: Spears’s music burst onto Broadway in Moulin Rouge in 2019 (“Toxic” appears in a mashup alongside Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”) and five of her songs appear in the jukebox musical & Juliet, including “…Baby One More Time,” “Oops!…I Did It Again,” and “Stronger.”
All four of those songs feature in the first all-Britney musical, Once Upon a One More Time, a frivolously delightful entry into the jukebox genre. Even though recent Broadway seasons have brought pro forma biographical musicals like Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, MJ, and A Beautiful Noise, there’s been far greater pleasure in shows like Moulin Rouge, & Juliet, and the delirious off-Broadway Celine Dion fever dream Titanique that have a lot more fun plopping pop songs unsuspectingly into freshly invented or reinvented plotlines.
Jon Hartmere, the writer of Once Upon a One More Time, has located in Spears’s catalog, however unlikely, the seeds of a feminist fairy tale. Or, rather, a whole bunch of feminist fairy tales. Under the watchful eye of the patriarchal Narrator (Adam Godley), storybook figures including Cinderella (Briga Heelan), Snow White (Aisha Jackson), and Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford) await the young reader (Mila Weir), who, after opening her book of fairy tales, sends the characters racing to the right pages to reenact the chosen story. “We don’t make fairy tales,” the Narrator sneeringly reminds his underlings. “We follow them.”
But when Cinderella starts to question the rules of the world she’s trapped in—spurred, in part, by the discovery of a pay discrepancy between all the princesses and Prince Charming (Justin Guarini)—she’s visited by the banished O.F.G., Original Fairy Godmother (Brooke Dillman), who delivers a transformational gift: a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
If Once Upon a One More Time’s portrayal of feminist theory is sub-rudimentary (whether or not Hartmere has actually read Friedan remains an open question), the excavation of the misogyny underlying the referenced fairy tales is both convincing and dramatically motivating. The musical is genuinely interested in following through with the logic of a bunch of storybook characters rebelling and rewriting their own happily ever afters.
The silliness inherent in this musical seems directly inherited from much of Spears’s catalog. Presumably it was Spears’s melodramatic bop “Cinderella” that gave Hartmere the idea to use her songs in a fairy tale-based musical. “I won’t return to thee/I’m sorry to say, I’m running away now…Cinderella’s got to go,” Spears sings on that 2001 track. And even though Spears herself has very little to do with the plot (her fragrance Curious does get a brief shout-out), her own story hovers paratextually over the proceedings. Does a performer manipulated and controlled by a man who calls all the shots sound familiar?
There’s a lot of effort to assure audiences that Once Upon a One More Time was approved by Spears post-conservatorship (it even says so in the show’s program). You can try to trace a chronology in her biggest hits, if you so choose, from the overly sexualized adolescent of “…Baby One More Time” and “Oops!…I Did It Again” to the empowered adult behind “Womanizer” about a decade later, but it’s better not to dwell too much on biography here.
If Once Upon a One More Time strives to #FreeBritney’s music from the profit-grabbing context in which it was created, mostly at Spears’s expense, the songs still sparkle, for better or worse, in large part because of the audience’s associations with them. Fans of the original music video of “Oops!…I Did It Again” may appreciate the quotation from Tina Landon’s original choreography. And whatever flimsiness is to be found elsewhere in the show, the dancing (choreographed in every other sequence by husband-and-wife team Keone and Mari Madrid, who also co-direct) casts a vanishing spell over the musical’s dramaturgical inconsistencies.
It’s not just that the cast moves so athletically and magnetically under Kenneth Posner’s explosive lighting and in front of Sven Ortel’s occasionally dizzying projections. The Madrids are most recognizable for their performance and choreography in the video for Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” and their marriage of that work’s small-scale gestures—a curve of the wrest, a bend of the elbow, often so expressive that it suggests sign language—with acrobatic leaps and tumbles across the stage never let the songs escape the story, even in Britney’s poppiest moments.
It helps that most of the principal actors are also superb dancers. Guarini stands out especially, both in his electric movement and in his good-natured smarm. Heelan, channeling the chirpy-voiced Cinderella of the Disney original, finds her voice literally and figuratively as the princess toughens up into a pop belter. If she doesn’t tote the vocal heft of her castmates, especially the stunning Jackson (who lets it rip on “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”), the show doesn’t really suffer since heartfelt music-making is seldom the point. And so that your pryotechnic quota is satisfied, two-time Tony nominee Jennifer Simard, as a hammy, underwritten Stepmother, erupts volcanically with her crowd-pleasing, high-wire vocals on “Toxic.”
Once Upon a One More Time does go so far as to violate Britney’s sacred texts, with Hartmere frequently rewriting lyrics—usually just a verse or two—in order to make the songs cohere with his story. This is smart and not without precedent, as one of the sharpest jukebox musicals in recent years was the quickly-forgotten off-Broadway Clueless adaptation, which changed virtually all the words in the ’90s songs it celebrated. The irony in the jukebox form is that the songs themselves—the whole reason for the shows to exist—can often bring the musicals dully grinding to a halt. Pop songs aren’t meant to propel story forward, and by keeping more than enough Britney to keep fans engaged but by playing fast and loose with the songs when it serves the storytelling, Hartmere keeps the engines of this goofy tale whirring at all times.
And if Once Upon a One More Time misses the mark as feminist missive, copies of The Feminine Mystique are available at the merch store. It’s hard to be too let down by the show’s shortcomings. Was Britney ever really going to be a vehicle for meaningful social change when her music could beget some jubilantly mindless dancing instead?
Once Upon a One More Time is now running at the Marquis Theater.
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