Once Upon a Mattress
Not a Book
This guest review comes from Lisa! A longtime romance aficionado and frequent commenter to SBTB, Lisa is a queer Latine critic with a sharp tongue and lots of opinions. She frequently reviews at All About Romance and Women Write About Comics, where she’s on staff, and you can catch her at @thatbouviergirl on Twitter. There, she shares good reviews, bracing industry opinions and thoughtful commentary when she’s not on her grind looking for the next good freelance job.
Kids these days have Merida and Elsa. I had Princess Winifred of the Woebegone, and I enjoyed her greatly.
Winnifred was fun and different in a mainstream world where fun and different weren’t often encouraged. If you loved Galavant, you’ve loved Once Upon a Mattress and didn’t know it. For years, this retelling of The Princess and the Pea was my go-to favorite answer to the question ‘what’s your favorite musical?’ But revisiting the play revealed a few blemishes that made me uncomfortable.
Now it’s my second-favorite musical.
For the purpose of this review, I’ve rewatched the 2005 Wonderful World of Disney version of the musical, though the 1964 version is available in full on various DVD releases.
The year is 1500, and in the fictional British Medieval Kingdom Which is Never Named, Queen Agrivane rules over the court with an iron fist. Babying her only son, Prince Dauntless the Drab, she dominates her mute husband, King Sextimus the Silent, and drives life at court. We are told that Sextimus is under a curse and will once again be able to speak “when the mouse devours the hawk.”
Agrivane could care less about the prophecy; she’s too busy ruling the roost. Though it’s far beyond time that Dauntless married, Agrivane refuses to allow it, using trickery and unfair quizzes to keep marriage and the many princesses who arrive for his shy, retiring hand at bay. Worse, she’s declared that for as long as Dauntless stays unmarried and his wedding bed unrumpled, no further marriage ceremonies may be performed within the kingdom.
Cut to Lady Larkin, one of Agrivane’s handmaidens, who, with the brave and realm-famous Sir Harry, is carrying on a clandestine romance. Said romance has produced some results that delight and yet frighten the couple. Yes, Larkin is now pregnant, which means Harry has to do something drastic to avoid Larkin delivering his child out of wedlock. Larkin offers to run off to save his reputation (ugh), but Harry is determined to marry her with honor (yay!); he sets off to find the nearest and most eligible princess – one tough enough to beat Agrivane’s test.
After winning permission from Agrivane after Dauntless begs her for one final try, Harry journeys out. Whom he finds is Princess Winnifred of the Woebegone, royalty from the nearby swamps who makes her entrance by climbing over the castle wall after swimming the moat. Winnifred is, clearly, not what anyone was expecting.
While she protests that she’s pure and quiet, Winnifred is anything but; hoisting men over her head, beating them in drinking contests, and dancing madly, she’s a ball of energy, positivity and affection. Dauntless is stricken silent by her, and Agrivane senses competition immediately.
While Dauntless and the rest of the kingdom begin to fall in love with Winnifred, Larkin and Harry have a tiff, and Agrivane creates a fiendish plot that might separate Fred and Dauntless for good.
Once Upon a Mattress has such a lot of fun bucking fairytale traditions that it barely pauses to catch its breath when it falls afoul of a few bad choices. On the positive side, Winnifred and Lady Larkin are groundbreaking heroines for the era in which they were written (and, sadly, even now). Independent women who see marriage not as a way to social advancement nor something they must do for social reasons, the two of them take a lustful enjoyment from the notion of being forever wed to their beloveds. Fred and Larkin are as tough as the men around them, commanding their own agency as they eventually fall in love with and marry the men they’ve chosen.
The relationships between Fred and Dauntless and Larkin and Harry are, in general, adorable. Dauntless happily helps Fred in any way he can, and Fred in turn helps him. Larkin and Harry’s relationship is also mutually supportive: if there’s to be dishonor, they’ll face it together.
Dauntless is a perfectly betaish hero, awed by Fred’s energy and strength, silent until pushed too far in defense of her. Harry is a perfectly nice guy, and Agrivane – well, she’s the classic evil stepmother.
But for all of the good points the musical has, there are major rough patches present in its glimmery final product. The first rough patch is that the role of the minstrel is removed from the plot and many of his actions are given to the Jester. Since the Jester has less of a point in the plot than the minstrel, this provides several awkward removals of various songs – such as “Normandy,” which in the play was used by the minstrel to set up the atmosphere of the romance between Larkin and Harry. In the movie, it’s used as a duet between them to enthuse about their future honeymoon together and it doesn’t quite work thanks to a point of view change. The second is that Larkin and Harry’s mid-play misunderstanding over the fact that she mistook Winifred for a servant is absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary.
The third and fourth are my biggest issues with the play. While Sextimus is mute, he’s allowed a full life, expressing himself through pantomime as he gently involves himself in the lives of all of the main characters. But there’s a double-edged sword buried at the heart of his storyline, which is a Disabled Person Is Cursed With A Disability story. As in The Little Mermaid, the notion of having no voice is treated as the worst thing ever. Thus – and the following is a major spoiler for the musical:
…When the ‘hawk’ (Agrivane) is devoured by the ‘mouse’ (Dauntless, who demands she shut up), Sextimus and Agrivane switch roles – she becomes mute and he can speak again, which results in a return to order and justice in the kingdom.
Now, Agrivane is an awful person, clinging and cruel and scheming. But the double whammy of magical cure to disability plus LOL-shut-up-powerful-woman of this plot choice is uncomfortable.
On to the performances! Carol Burnett nails the role of Agrivane (naturally, as she’s been bolstering this play since the early 60s and was Tony nominated for playing Winnifred on Broadway in 1960), and antic-faced pantomime Tommy Smothers was born to play the mild-mannered Sextimus. If your familiarity with Denis O’Hare is limited to horror-centric roles on True Blood and American Horror Story, then you’ll be surprised and yet thrilled by how well he pulls off quiet, adoring Dauntless. Zooey Deschanel is a surprisingly effective Lady Larkin (though seeing her in medieval dress will always remind me of her role in the comedy bomb Your Highness, in which she sings a song called – no fooling – “Fuck These Shitty Moons”). Matthew Morrison gives us a glimpe at the leading man quality that would soon make him a star in Glee as Harry.
But Tracy Ullman as Winnifred is, sadly, a big mixed bag of good and bad. While she absolutely produces Winnifred’s giant energy, she lacks Burnett’s stellar pipes for belting. She does what she can with songs like “Shy” and she absolutely makes the bawdy burlesque of “Happily Ever After” a hoot in an all new way, yet I can’t help but envision what an energetic dynamo like Kristin Chenowith might do with this material.
Ultimately, I just wish the full version of the 1972 telecast were available somewhere, because Bernadette Peters(!!!) plays Larkin with Carol Burnett as Winnifred, and Ken Berry as Dauntless. THAT is a cast!
Teenage me, sighing happily over this musical, could ignore its flaws. With the beautiful costuming and cinematography, like the 1997 version of Cinderella that Disney produced for the same program, this production manages to expand the movie’s boundaries beyond your average three-stage TV production. And as much as Tracy Ullman’s performance and the rather unfortunately skewed moral are irritating, the musical at heart remains charming, romantic and funny. All these years later, it’s still one of my favorites.
You can judge which version works best for yourself, as two of the three versions are available through legal streaming: the 1964 and 2005 versions.
Have you seen Once Upon a Mattress? What’s your take?