With its production of "Once Upon a Mattress" up and running, Old Log Theatre can count itself lucky that composer Mary Rodgers has gone to that great orchestra pit in the sky.
Rodgers died in 2014 but her autobiography "Shy," a current bestseller, reveals her to be blunt about everything. There is, for instance, this appraisal of the star of the 1996 Broadway revival of "Once Upon a Mattress": "You need a real clown with a great voice, someone with a huge personality but immediately likable. Sarah Jessica Parker got one of those four things right." (Rodgers thought Parker was likable.)
Garry Lennon, who's directing the show at the Old Log, believes productions of "Mattress" face the same problem plaguing a current Broadway revival of "Funny Girl." That problem is that nobody can match the memory of the insanely gifted performer who became a star in the role (Barbra Streisand, in "Funny Girl").
"Every production, since it premiered, has been living in the shadow of Carol Burnett. How do you honor those four characteristics [noted by Rodgers] but make it your own and not do an impersonation of Carol Burnett?" asked Lennon, who recently moved from Los Angeles to St. Paul with husband Mark Valdez, new artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre.
So, no pressure, Amanda Mai (who plays Princess Winnifred). But you're following a legend whose Broadway performance lives because it was preserved on film. Burnett, in fact, has done three TV versions of "Once Upon a Mattress,"
"Amanda is amazing. We're leaning into the outsiderness of it all — that she's not really a princess. She doesn't necessarily think she fits in. She doesn't belong there. It's not just that she's tomboyish but that her personality is very different," Lennon said.
In "Shy," Rodgers describes brash Winnifred, as "an independent heroine in the Jane Austen mode, if Austen got out of the house more — say, to the Catskills." Winnifred is a candidate to marry Prince Dauntless but his evil mother tests her "sensitivity" by sticking her atop a pile of mattresses with a pea hidden at the bottom. If she can't sleep, she's in.
Rodgers — whose father was Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame — devotes a chunk of her chatty, entertaining "Shy" to "Mattress," which was born at a musical theater retreat in Pennsylvania. In its early stages, the creators knew it had to have nine good roles although several actors (including its Winnifred) couldn't sing, that it would be inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" and that the total budget was $250.
Written in three weeks, the show was such a success that top-notch director George Abbott became interested, as did Broadway. Stuck with a musical in which the protagonist didn't sing, they spent six weeks adding songs for new lead Nancy Walker (she would go on to fame as the mother of Rhoda on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). At least she was the lead until Abbott said he wanted a fresh face and they found Burnett, who agreed to wear an ugly brown suit to her audition so Abbott wouldn't notice she was "too pretty" to play a character envisioned as not conventionally attractive.
Although "Mattress" remains a staple of high schools and theaters — still earning Rodgers $100,000 annually when she died in 2014 — that sort of outdated thinking is one challenge today, Lennon said. The musical is set in a 15th century that feels like the 1950s.
"It's a little old-fashioned in its view of women's place in society and of marriage," said Lennon. "The king is chasing 'wenches' throughout the entire show and maybe that was funny in 1959 but we have a different view of that in 2022. So we're finding ways to minimize some of that, to look at it through a contemporary lens."
The good news, according to Lennon, is that there also are ways in which "Mattress" was ahead of its time. Rodgers was just the second woman to earn a Tony Award nomination for composing music (Dorothy Fields preceded her). The two leads are both women. And, although it's slapstick-y, one of its supporting characters is unwed and pregnant, something not seen much on Broadway in the '50s.
"It's silly, goofy fun but I still think it plays today, and there are little messages buried in there if you look," said Lennon, who said his leading lady has the goods to pull it off.
"She has a really fun, bubbly personality that comes out pretty clearly in her performance. She brings this youthful energy and focus," he said.
That's one reason the Old Log hopes this "Once Upon a Mattress" will live happily ever after — or, at least, until its run ends in January.
'Once Upon a Mattress'
Who: Book by Marshall Barer, Dean Fuller and Jay Thompson. Music by Mary Rodgers. Directed by Garry Lennon.
When: 1 p.m. Thu., 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Jan. 7.
Where: Old Log, 5185 Meadville St., Excelsior.
Tickets: $30-$40, 952-474-5951 or oldlog.com.