Many moons ago in a far-off place, Queen Aggravain decreed no couples
could marry until her son, Prince Dauntless, found a bride. Princesses
came from far and wide to win the hand of the prince, but none could
pass the impossible tests given to them by the Queen. That is, until the
“shy” swamp princess, Winnifred the Woebegone, showed up. Would she be
able to pass the Sensitivity Test, marry her prince, and help Lady
Larkin and Sir Harry to the altar? Carried on a wave of wonderful songs,
by turns hilarious and raucous, romantic and melodic, this rollicking
spin on the classic tale The Princess and the Pea
provides some side-splitting shenanigans. After all, a princess is a delicate thing.
In the summer of 1958 at a resort in the Poconos called Camp Taminent, three young writers (composer Mary Rodgers and lyricist/librettists Marshall Barer and Jay Thompson) adapted Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Princess and the Pea for a week-long run. This one-act musical proved so popular that it was held over and, before you could say "sensitivity," the show was snapped up by producers for a commercial run in New York.
By the time it opened off-Broadway in May of 1959 at the Phoenix Theatre, the show had acquired an additional author, Dean Fuller (who had previously worked with Marshall Barer on New Faces Of '56) a new director—the estimable George Abbott—a second act, and a new title: Once Upon a Mattress. Casting had undergone many changes, but the biggest was the result of George Abbott's desire for a new face to play the starring role of Princess Winnifred. It was Abbott's daughter, Judy, who "discovered" Carol Burnett— a new comedian then appearing at New York City's famed Blue Angel nightclub— and recommended her to Barer and his collaborators. Upon her arrival in New York, Burnett had determinedly insisted to her younger sister that she was going to be the star of a Broadway musical directed by the famous George Abbott— long before anyone in The Big Apple had even heard her name. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The show had a healthy run of 460 performances in an extraordinary Broadway tour, moving from the Phoenix, to Broadway's Alvin (now the Neil Simon), to the Winter Garden, to the Cort Theatre, and then finally to the St. James Theater. The reviews were good, and Mattress was nominated for Best Musical at the 1960 Tony Awards. Mattress was against The Sound of Music, pitting Rodgers against Rodgers for the prestigious award. Carol Burnett also received her first Tony nomination for Best Actress as Fred, cementing her launch into stardom. After the close of the Broadway run, it was produced for television first in 1964 and again in 1972, with Ms. Burnett reprising her role both times.
In the fall of 1995, Once Upon a Mattress returned to Broadway, starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Winnifred. Carol Burnett appeared in the ABC television version of Mattress in 2005, this time as the imposing Queen Aggravain, with the esteemed British comedian Tracey Ullman as Winnifred. The production was directed by Tony Award-winning director Kathleen Marshall.
And the show itself? Well, what happened to this charming musical is a fairy tale as well. Over the next 35 years, without anyone really paying close attention (except maybe the authors), it is one of the top licensing shows in the Concord catalogue, with over 300 productions annually in the US alone. Not bad at all for a show that began as a 45-minute divertissement!