An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 7, 2024

Once Upon a Mattress

Vaguely Medieval, Genuinely Silly, Wildly Entertaining:
New York City Center’s Encore! Concert Production of
Once Upon a Mattress (based upon The Princess and the
by Hans Christian Andersen)

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty,
La Salle University

Medievalism as stage musical is a small subgenre.  There is Camelot, which may not have aged well given the short run of the recent New York revival at Lincoln Center.  On the other hand, Spamalot’s current Broadway revival is doing well at the box office and has garnered generally positive reviews. Twang—the disastrous Robin Hood musical—closed shortly after it opened in London in 1965, bankrupting its backers, and seems never to have been revived. Less panned critically, but nonetheless never revived, has been the 1975 Joan of Arc musical, Goodtime Charley. Pippin, the 1972 musical about Charlemagne’s first son, continues to be a favorite among college and high school theater groups, and there was a successful 2013 Broadway revival, which I reviewed here on April 30, 2013. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee, from the Twain novel, both had a successful initial run and has seen the occasional revival. To this short list of stage musical medievalisms, we might well add Once Upon a Mattress.

Mattress opens in 1428 in medieval Samarkand, a kingdom ruled over by the devious Queen Aggravain (Harriet Harris) and the mute King Sextimus the Silent (David Patrick Kelly). The King has long been cursed by a witch never to speak until a mouse devours a hawk, and, over the years, any mouse within ten feet of the court has fled in terror whenever a hawk shows up. But the central concern in the kingdom is finding a suitable bride for Prince Dauntless the Drab (Michael Urrie), because a royal edict has forbidden anyone else in the kingdom to marry until he does: “Throughout the land, no one may wed, ‘til Dauntless shares his wedding bed.”  Twelve princesses have failed to win the Prince’s hand because they were unable to pass a series of impossible tests devised by the Queen, who wants to keep her son to herself. Aggravain has been successful in disqualifying potential princess brides with help from her partner in crime, the Wizard Cardamom (Francis Jue).

Tensions at court are heightened when Sir Harry (Cheyenne Jackson), the Chivalric Knight of the Realm, finds out his lover, Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels), is pregnant. Sir Harry is the court and the musical’s resident “himbo,” who, in a running joke, loves Larken almost as much as his shiny silver spurs. To solve his domestic problem, and to allow every other couple in the kingdom to wed, Sir Harry sets out on an arduous two-week quest to find a suitable princess, finally coming across Winnifred the Woebegone (Sutton Foster).  Winnifred is the Princess of Swamp Castle located in a land of bogs and marshes; only the peasants live on the kingdom’s few patches of dry land. Sir Harry escorts Winnifred back to Samarkand, where she appears to be anything but marriage material. She swims the moat around the castle, is shabbily dressed, is alternately uncouth and clear-sighted, and wants to be called “Fred.”  In short, she is just the kind of nightmare daughter-in-law whom the Queen would immediately reject, and, of course, just the kind of girl who immediately wins Prince Dauntless’s heart.

To nip her son’s attraction to Winnifred in the bud, the Queen and the Wizard devise a sensitivity test, placing a single pea under the twenty mattresses on Winnifred’s bed.  The previous unsuccessful princesses had had to pass tests in science, history, mathematics. But the body of a true princess will be so sensitive that even the small lump caused by a single pea, twenty mattresses removed, will prevent her from falling asleep. Winnifred passes the test, stumbling the next morning into court a sleepless zombie. But, when the Queen refuses to consent to Winnifred’s marriage to her son, the previously ineffectual Dauntless grows a spine and barks at his mother, telling her, in no uncertain terms, that he will indeed marry Winnifred. This response—like that of a mouse devouring a hawk—renders the Queen mute and restores the King’s voice, as Dauntless and Winnifred happily head off to the altar.

Encore! Productions at City Center are concert, rather than full-fledged stage, performances.  The series is in its thirtieth season.  Rehearsals and production runs are limited. There are no sets. The orchestra is not quite as large as it would be for a Broadway production, and props and costumes are functional and generic.  The plot of Mattress is admittedly silly, but this production works. The songs may not be all that memorable, but the full-throated cast is clearly having the time of their lives. Ham acting is the rule, not the exception, and the whole production comes together as a seamless whole.

Mattress has an interesting production history.  The original production opened off Broadway in May 1959, but quickly moved uptown to a Broadway venue for an extended run under the direction of George Abbott.  The then little-known Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut in the role of Winnifred.  Burnett was subsequently replaced in the role by the veteran television comic actress Ann B. Davis.  The seven-month national tour of the show after the Broadway production closed saw first Doddy Goodman and then Imogene Coca play the Princess—a role clearly designed for a comedienne with broad physical and vocal comic skills. In the road company, the great Buster Keaton played the part of the mute King. The Burnett production was adapted for television in black and white in 1964 and then again in color in 1972.  A third television production in 2005 saw Tracey Ullman as the hapless Princess, and Burnett, in a nice turn, as the Queen.

Mattress is filled with what François Amy de la Bretèque has called elements of the medieval imaginary, and what Andrew B.P. Elliott has dubbed historicons.  The musical offers a castle, a king and a queen, a prince and a princess, a brave knight, ladies in waiting, a quest, a royal challenge, a curse, a jester, a wizard, and a minstrel (the part has been cut from the City Center production), as well as references to Camelot, dragons, and witches, among other items contemporary audiences expect to find in an accurate, as opposed to an authentic, portrayal of the medieval. To the list of the musical’s accurate medievalist elements, the Encore! Production adds the name of Winnifred—now, thanks to David Lowery’s 2021 film The Green Knight, an early medieval Welsh saint to be reckoned with—a Swamp Castle—later familiar to audiences from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail—the musical number “Song of Love,” which encapsulates the entire plot of another vaguely medievalist musical, the much-revived 1987 Into the Woods, and a gender bending use of a familiar Arthurian name, Aggravain. The City Center production is under the musical direction of Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the artistic direction of Lear Debessonet, and the creative direction of Clint Ramos.

One Upon a Mattress with original music by Mary Rodgers, original lyrics by Marshall Barer, and original book by Jay Thomson, Marshall Barer, and Dean Fuller, from the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Princess and the Pea, at New York’s City Center in an Encore! Concert Production, January 24-February 4, 2024. Running time: 150 minutes with one intermission.