'Cinderella' is a real-life fairy tale
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Fact: Not all Cinderellas are blond.
But tell that to fans who took to the Twitterverse, discontent, after seeing Laura Osnes at last year's Thanksgiving Day parade perform a song from "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella." Osnes stars in the title role of that musical, which has enjoyed several TV productions but opens on Broadway for the first time March 3 with prince (Santino Fontana), fairy godmother (Tony Award winner Victoria Clarke), pumpkins, glass slippers... and brown hair.
"A lot of people expect a blonde," says Osnes, sitting in her dressing room on a recent morning at the Broadway Theatre. "I'm like -- you guys, this is not the Disney version."
Hair-color hiccups aside, the rest of Osnes' story seems like a real-life fairy tale. Raised in suburban Eagan, Minn., Osnes went from community theater to Broadway after winning NBC's "Grease: You're the One that I Want," a reality series casting leads in the musical's 2007 Broadway revival. Osnes played Sandy.
But unlike most reality show hopefuls, who fade away, Osnes has established herself as a legit Broadway star. At 27, she's now married, and has played leads in "South Pacific," "Anything Goes" and "Bonnie & Clyde," earning a Tony nomination for best actress in a musical.
People are starting to use the phrase "real-life fairy tale," but "I never really put it together till now," she admits. "The 'Grease' show provided an amazing opportunity. Reality-show-to-Broadway -- it'd never happened before."
In terms of success stories like hers, it's never happened since.
IN HER OWN LITTLE CORNER
Gimmicky casting isn't new. "American Idol's" Sanjaya Malakar performed in the Off-Broadway children's musical "Freckleface Strawberry" in 2006. Bailey Hanks won a 2008 MTV reality series casting the lead in "Legally Blonde -- The Musical." And "Queer Eye's" Carson Kressley recently appeared in "Newsical: The Musical."
They're not exactly getting Tony nominations.
"Young people ask for advice, and it's hard to say, 'Do a reality show -- you'll get noticed!' That's not why I did it. Working on Broadway was my dream since I was five -- and that was the prize," she says.
Playing Cinderella now seems fitting, as it's "the tale of the ultimate outsider, the underdog," notes director Mark Brokaw.
Singing hits from the show -- like "In My Own Little Corner" -- once introduced by Julie Andrews -- isn't exactly a slam dunk for anyone. But Brokaw is confident: "There's just nobody better to sing that part."
Osnes, meanwhile, credits her prince for inspiration. And fun while dancing. "Santino's my ally. You really learn to trust someone lifting you over their head."
A MUSICAL MAKEOVER
In her dressing room, Osnes is surrounded by mementos -- a framed picture of mom, a Cinderella lamp, Cinderella Barbie (blond), plus costumes and the famed glass slippers -- size 7, with 10,000 Swarovski crystals custom-made by designer Stuart Weitzman. (She has two pair.)
A thick pile of script changes sits on her dressing table.
"Sister Act" book writer Douglas Carter Beane has rewritten Hammerstein's original book, expanding the script into two acts. "It's like we're working on an original R&H musical," says Brokaw.
The old script reflects "the 1950s, 'Father Knows Best' -- men were the motor for everything," he says.
But this Cinderella doesn't just wait around for her Prince. "They help each other to grow," says Osnes.
Script changes come daily, and "some scenes feel dreamlike because we've never said those words onstage before," says Ann Harada (of "Avenue Q" and "Smash"), who plays stepsister Charlotte.
Elaborate costumes are an added concern -- especially for Osnes, whose dresses have special elements for rags-to-riches transformations. (One dress takes 20 minutes to rig.)
But this is standard. As Osnes well knows, fairy tales aren't easy.
Her parents divorced when she was two, and she and an older brother shuttled back and forth across town from mom's house to dad's. Tragedy struck in 2011 when her mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. Mom was given six months to live. She was gone in three.
"I wasn't there when she passed, but I'd spent a week with her just prior," says Osnes, who'd been starring with Sutton Foster in "Anything Goes."
"She'd seen me perform, and I got a chance to say goodbye, She's still with me -- in a front-row seat every night. But it's hard. I go through my phases of... missing... missing her."
She shakes her head. "I have my little cry, and move on."
HAPPILY EVER... AFTER?
Later that year, she moved on to play Bonnie Parker in "Bonnie & Clyde," her first major Broadway role in a new musical. The show closed in less than a month.
If "Cinderella" lasts longer, she'll deserve much of the credit, say colleagues.
She's taken the role further, Brokaw explains, acting more vulnerable than the part required initially, and "stronger in the moments when she stands up for herself."
Whether that sways critics is yet to be seen.
"This business is not easy on anyone, much less a young woman who became famous very quickly," says Harada. "But she's smart about money, adept at using social media, and understands the demands of headlining a show."
As for the brunette-haters? Osnes actually offered to go blond -- but the creative team's reply was a quick, decisive no.
"OK, I tried," she recalls. "Hopefully if you're acting and singing it well... they can get over your hair," she says, laughing. "I mean, you can't please everybody."
WHAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Ready to hear something new? Book writer Douglas Carter Beane combed the Rodgers & Hammerstein inventory for songs to fill out this production.
"He was smart enough to not ask for 'Some Enchanted Evening' -- anything that would take you out of the 'Cinderella' experience," says Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization.
The boys had an "uncanny instinct" for getting a song right, says Chapin. So unlike others -- say, the Gershwins -- they cut few songs from shows like "Oklahoma!" "Carousel," "South Pacific" and "The King and I."
But they did cut some. Here's what you'll hear:
"Loneliness of Evening" -- cut from "South Pacific," though Hammerstein plugged its lyric about a "bright canary yellow" sky into "I'm Just a Cock-Eyed Optimist." Rodgers added "Loneliness" to "Cinderella's" 1965 version.
"There's Music in You" -- written for Mary Martin in 1953's "Main Street to Broadway" (one of those "great bad movies" about Broadway life, says Chapin) and inserted into the '97 "Cinderella."
"Now Is the Time" -- written for "South Pacific," to follow "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," says Chapin, but they realized "people preferred 'Some Enchanted Evening' sung again, thank you very much."
"Me -- Who Am I?"--cut from R and H's 1953 musical, "Me & Juliet," and thus the one song here never heard onstage or on-screen before -- till now.