On a Venn Diagram of popular culture, there is little obvious overlap among fans of Shakespeare, Britney Spears, fairy tale princesses, and the mid-20th-century feminist Betty Friedan. But these are precisely the elements that the creators of the new musical Once Upon a One More Time are betting they can bibbidi-bobbidi-boo into one exuberant—and Broadway-bound—tale of female empowerment.
Once Upon a One More Time has become the talk of the town in Washington, D.C., this post-COVID holiday season, partly because the show’s premise is so darn unusual, but also because it has the high-profile name of Britney Spears attached to it. Spears’s songbook is the basis for the musical, which tracks a group of fairy tale princesses in revolt against their prescribed happy endings after reading Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in their book club.
This confluence of subject matter is bizarre enough on its own. Layer on the fact that the new musical is premiering at Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC)—one of the nation’s premier classical theatres—and it’s downright confounding.
Indeed the decision to program Once Upon a One More Time at STC has caused much speculation about what “belongs” in a classical theatre, with opinions ranging from the enthusiastic (“How fast can I get tickets?”) to the skeptical (“What is Britney Spears doing in a theatre dedicated to Shakespeare?”).
So…what is Britney Spears doing in a theatre dedicated to Shakespeare? The answer to that question can be summed up with one name: Simon Godwin, who has an expansive definition of what constitutes a classic.
Simon Godwin took over as STC’s artistic director when founder Michael Kahn retired in 2019. Under Kahn’s 35-year tenure, the theatre had grown from a small Shakespearean troupe housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library to a Tony-winning institution comprising two stand-alone venues, including the 750-seat Sidney Harman Hall, a jewel on the D.C. arts scene.
Filling Kahn’s shoes would be a big job, and an exhaustive search led STC across the pond to Godwin, a young British director who was then an associate director of London’s National Theatre. Godwin came to STC’s attention when a production of Hamlet he directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company played at the Kennedy Center in 2018. The production was set in Africa and starred Paapa Essiedu as the brooding Dane. Here, it seemed, was the out-of-the-box thinker STC was looking for in Kahn’s successor.
Godwin was only seven months into his first season at STC when COVID closed theatres in March of 2020, but that was long enough for him to make it clear that STC had entered a new era: one in which Shakespeare would be joined, in equal measure, by diverse contemporary and historical playwrights whose works had formerly not been considered for production.
In an interview at his historic home in rural Virginia, the effusive and erudite 43-year-old explained his approach to his work.
“When I started, I very much had the view that the word classic doesn’t just mean something from the past,” Godwin told me. “It also means something that has excellence. Using the past to explain the present—that, for me, is essentially the mode of classical theatre.”
There is a pattern to the three seasons Godwin has programmed at STC so far: Out of six plays per season, two are by the Bard, one is a family-friendly holiday offering, and the other three are works by playwrights from the past or present whose plays have not been widely programmed, due to discriminatory attitudes that dictated much of what has been seen on stages over the last century.
Take STC’s lavish production of The Amen Corner. The 1954 gospel musical by James Baldwin was a cornerstone production of Godwin’s inaugural season in 2019. Prior to Godwin’s appointment, no play by a Black playwright had been staged at STC, a fact that Godwin said “needed to be remedied immediately.” The show was playing at STC when COVID closed theatres in March of 2020, and it was such a success that STC chose to remount it again for several weeks when theatres finally reopened in the fall of 2021.
“I felt that The Amen Corner was a play of magnitude and relevance and absolutely a classic that deserved to be treated as such,” Godwin said. “For us to commit the same degree of production and ambition that we would do for any other play, that has been a very meaningful gesture, I hope.”
Staging The Amen Corner had lasting effects in many ways. It brought new patrons to the theatre, people who were more attracted to the name Baldwin than Shakespeare. It also brought Godwin into contact with Whitney White and Dr. Soyica Colbert, the play’s director and co-dramaturg, respectively. Both artists, who are women of color, have since joined STC’s artistic leadership team as associate directors, a team that Godwin says allows him to broaden the decision-making process. “It’s no longer the monolithic concept of ‘the one’ artistic director,” Godwin said of his team. “It’s a coalition.”
Godwin reached out to Colbert, a Lorraine Hansberry scholar, professor, and interim dean at Georgetown University, shortly after he arrived in D.C.
“He shared with me his interest in expanding the canon and what kind of work a classical theatre could do,” said Colbert of the 2019 meeting. “Playwrights like Baldwin or Hansberry or Alice Childress who were not considered eligible to be on some of the U.S.’s biggest stages. Now with conversations being more expansive about how we understand American theatre, there is more space for their work to be produced.”
(A production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, programmed for STC’s 2020-21 season, was canceled due to COVID.)
Collaboration has become a hallmark of Godwin’s tenure at STC thus far. Shortly after he arrived in D.C., Maria Manuela Goyanes reached out to him. Goyanes, the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre and the other artistic new kid on the block in 2019, wanted to bring the Good Chance/National Theatre/Young Vic production The Jungle to D.C., and knew that the play—about multiple characters living in a migrant camp—would require a large investment of human and financial resources.
“I thought to myself, how can a piece like this that is so timely, important, affecting, and impactful not play the nation’s capital?” Goyanes recalled. “So I called up Simon and I said, maybe we can do something together that neither of us could do alone?”
Godwin agreed, and The Jungle, in co-production with Woolly Mammoth, became a centerpiece in STC’s 2020-21 season. Plans were made to rip seats out of Sidney Harman Hall’s auditorium and to extend the stage to make space for the immersive project before COVID shut it down.
One tradition that Godwin brought with him to STC from England is that of a family holiday show. While directing numerous shows for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Godwin observed the RSC’s success in developing popular shows based on classic stories, including Les Misérables, War Horse, and Matilda, all of which went on to have great success.
“Doing a show for families in the holiday season was something I was very used to doing,” Godwin recalled, noting that as a parent of 5-year-old twin girls, he loves the idea of bringing children into the theatre. “But when I got to STC, it was not something they had done before.” Godwin changed that by commissioning playwright Lauren Gunderson to write a feminist retelling of the Peter Pan story that played at STC over the holidays in 2019.
Which brings us back to Britney Spears. The Nederlander Producing Company that is helming Once Upon a One More Time had originally intended to use a Broadway in Chicago theatre for an out-of-town tryout before transferring the show to Broadway in 2020. But then—you guessed it—COVID intervened. In hunting for another venue, the team remembered Sidney Harman Hall. Its 750-seat auditorium and wide proscenium was just the thing for a splashy song -and-dance show directed by choreographer duo Keone and Mari Madrid. So they reached out.
Godwin liked the idea right away.
“Here you have a situation where classical stories are retold in a very audacious way,” Godwin said of Once Upon a One More Time, “which is exactly what I have been doing with Shakespeare. And here is somebody doing it with fairy tales and with Britney’s music, which is a very popular, beloved canon of work. It felt like a very mission-appropriate collaboration.”
That the show is eyeing a future Broadway run didn’t hurt either. STC will share in the profits if Once Upon a One More Time enjoys a successful future. And coming out of COVID, finances are a necessary part of the equation for any theatre.
“Putting your head in the sand about economics is not an option as an artistic director,” Godwin observed. “To continue to nurture and protect the theatre’s future, I have to be creative.” So far, betting on Britney is paying off for STC: The show is on track to be the highest-grossing production in the theatre’s history.
But pecuniary considerations aside, Godwin—and increasingly the rest of Washington, D.C.—is excited for the show because, well, it’s basically one big party. And who isn’t ready for a party after the year we just had? STC’s lobby is decked out in glitter and garlands. Glitzed-up patrons pose dramatically at pink, sparkly selfie stations around the large lobby bar. The mood is light and fun, and social media—#STCOneMoreTime—is lit up with praise for the show’s preview performances. (The show officially opens on Dec. 17 and runs through Jan. 9, 2022. The run has already been extended by a week due to high demand.)
At its heart, however, Once Upon a One More Time has a deeper message, one that attracted book writer Jon Hartmere to the project. As Hartmere told me, “Fairy tales can be deeply problematic in their portrayal of how women should behave and what should be important to them.”
When he was originally approached to submit a proposal for the musical’s book, he was told that Spears wanted it to center around fairies. Hartmere, a former schoolteacher who used to read fairy tales to his students, made the jump from fairies to fairy tales to fairy tale princesses changing their own stories. “I’ve been in a million book clubs in my life,” he recalled. So he thought: What if these princesses lived in a world where they were part of a book club but the only books they had were fairy tales, so that was the sum total of their knowledge? And then someone—the Original Fairy Godmother in Hartmere’s story—suddenly drops a whole new way of thinking on them in the form of The Feminine Mystique.
It would cause a revolution in fairy tale land, just as it did in the United States when Friedan published the feminist classic in 1963. Hartmere is a big fan of Friedan. “Being a gay man,” he said, “I’m very interested in the big umbrella of civil rights and the fight to be taken seriously.” Plus, he just thought it was a fun idea. Laugh lines abound in the script, as when Cinderella says to the Fairy Godmother (from Flatbush, by the way), “America sounds like paradise for women!” The Fairy Godmother’s reply: a sardonic look at the audience.
Hartmere sees no reason why Once Upon a One More Time shouldn’t fit in at a classical theatre (although he laughs at the thought of his name alongside that of Shakespeare). The fairy tale stories at the heart of the show “have been interpreted in so many different and clever ways,” he observed. “There is nobody coming to this show who hasn’t heard of Cinderella. Just like when you’re doing Shakespeare and it’s been done tens of thousands of times but you’re trying to find a new way in that’s going to make people think, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way!’”
Of course, Spears has been in the spotlight again this year. News of her conservatorship (the legal ruling that allowed her father and others to control her affairs) has led some to speculate that Hartmere’s story of oppressed princesses breaking free of their constraints is a direct reference to Spears’ situation.
“I don’t think any of us were aware of what Britney was going through in 2016 when I wrote this,” he said. “But when it all came out in the news, I thought: This is the same story we are telling. This is about somebody trying to take control of her own narrative. So it just sort of tracked.”
Shakespeare Theatre Company is far from the only theatre in the nation with increasingly diverse programming. In D.C. alone, several theatres are gaining national attention for programming that inspires audiences to think beyond what was for many years a staid—and exclusionary—status quo. A few blocks from STC, Woolly Mammoth Theatre (a theatre with radical inclusion as its guiding mission) just announced an extension of its run of A Strange Loop, another Broadway-bound musical. Up the road at Olney Theatre Center, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s production of Beauty and the Beast is making national headlines for casting Jade Jones, a self-described queer, plus-sized Black woman as Belle. Jones, who was also in the cast of STC’s The Amen Corner, said there is no way she would have been cast as a Disney princess 10 or 20 years ago. “There is an awareness that is happening now of the lack of diversity in theatre and a lot of people are willing to step up and not just go with the standards that somebody else came up with,” Jones said.
Godwin is happy to play his part in this trend. “I see myself as a learner and a listener,” he said of his work at STC. “There is an opportunity for growth and change and something we can all walk towards together. It’s holistic and it’s going to take time.”
Nicole Hertvik (she/her) is the editor and publisher of DC Metro Theater Arts and an arts journalist covering the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Creative credits for production photos: Once Upon a One More Time, featuring an original story by Jon Hartmere and the music of Britney Spears, directed and choreographed by Keone and Mari Madrid, set design by Anna Fleischle, costume and hair design by Loren Elstein, lighting design by Sonoyo Nishikawa, sound design by Andrew Keister, projection design by Sven Ortel, and wig design by Ashley Rae Callahan. The Amen Corner, by James Baldwin, directed by Whitney White, set design by Daniel Soule, costume design by Qween Jean, lighting design by Adam Honoré, sound design and composition by Broken Chord, original music director and composer Victor Simonson, fight and intimacy choreography by Cliff Williams III, and wig design by Dori Beau Seigneur.
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