There’s never been a better time for a Cinderella story of the “Ever After” nature. Not only did Disney’s reboot take in nearly $200 million in domestic theaters last March, but recent screen heroines like Katniss, Tris and Elsa have paved the way for a renaissance of strong female characters in pop culture. None of the three stars of “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” or “Frozen” needed a man to save them and neither does Danielle, the empowered protagonist of the new musical making its world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse through June 21.
The show, written by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, is adapted from the 1998 film starring Drew Barrymore (currently streaming on Netflix, still winning and sweet). Danielle is the Cinderella at the center of “Ever After,” a rough and tumble tomboy who is as caring and intelligent as she is in need of a bath. What makes this take on the fairy tale classic prime for 2015 audiences is that there is no fairy godmother in this version. Danielle rises above the oppression of her abusive stepmother and stepsisters, winning the love of the prince without the aid of any magic at all, using only her empathy and inner strength.
And did we mention she also rescues said prince from a band of thieves in a totally awesome sword fight? Yeah, this Cinderella doesn’t have time for glass slippers.
“As soon as I heard [the pitch] ‘Ever After’—musical, I thought, ‘Of course! Absolutely! there is no question this would make a great musical,’” composer Goldrich says.
The pairing of this theatrical property with Goldrich and her writing partner Heisler seemed like an immediate match to the duo, whose creative partnership—as they like to say—is “old enough to drink.” The two women met at the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Between them, they have credits at Disney, Nickelodeon, BBC and wrote the cabaret perennial “Taylor the Latte Boy.”
Although Heisler and Goldrich specialize in family fare featuring young, empowered girls (off-Broadway’s “Dear Edwina” and “Junie B. Jones”), they don’t commit to labeling “Ever After” as the Next Great Feminist Musical.
“You can never get enough of strong protagonists, whether it’s a man or a woman,” Heisler says. “I’m thrilled that this day and age is focused on women finding their strength, but I think this story is about us finding strength from each other.”
In “Ever After,” Danielle isn’t the only character in distress. Prince Henry (James Snyder, “If/Then”) is heir to the throne of France, but isn’t assured of his regal responsibilities, nor is he willing to submit to an arranged marriage. When he meets Danielle (played by Margo Seibert, who made her Broadway debut as Adrian in “Rocky” last season), Henry feels as though he may have found his salvation. (There’s also the aforementioned incident about being rescued from the band of thieves, which helps.)
“I think this progressive, modern twist is why I’m doing it,” Seibert says. “It’s really exciting to see a woman who is well educated, spunky, sword fights, dances and climbs trees. There is an element of magic, in that sense; it’s kind of the magic she makes for herself.”
While there is no fairy godmother onstage in “Ever After,” there is one in the wings in the form of director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who has an impressive track record when it comes to nurturing strong female roles. She drew a critically-acclaimed performance out of Kelli O’Hara in the 2006 revival of “The Pajama Game” and directed Sutton Foster to a Tony Award win for “Anything Goes” in 2011 (Marshall also took home a Tony that year for her choreography).
“Margo has this emotional availability,” Marshall says. “She has both a strength and a vulnerability, which is just beautiful. I think everyone can identify with a character who doesn’t think she’s worthy of something, but we all believe in her and think she is ready for it.”
Of course, no Cinderella story would be complete without a wicked stepmother. Driving Danielle into the ground in “Ever After” is Maplewood resident and Tony winner Christine Ebersole (“Grey Gardens”), who hasn’t performed in a new musical since her sweeping win in 2007.
“I love the movie and to play such a delicious role as Rodmilla de Ghent, I couldn’t turn her down,” Ebersole says, referring to Marshall, who convinced her to sign on.
“She’s a huge character and a huge part of the show, but it’s not the degree of heavy lifting that she had in ‘Grey Gardens,’ which was epic,” Marshall said of Ebersole on how she was able to lure her into the project. “I think this allows her to do everything that she does so beautifully with her gorgeous voice, her wit, her comic timing, but also her drama. Rodmilla has to be formidable as well.”
“I wanted to make her somebody you love to hate,” Ebersole says of her character, with a gleam in her eye.
In addition to Marshall at the helm and Ebersole causing devilish trouble, the cast also features “The Nanny’s” Charles Shaughnessy as King Francis and Tony Sheldon—a Tony nominee for his nuanced portrayal as Bernadette in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”—as Leonardo da Vinci.
The pedigree of the all-star team has Heisler and Goldrich feeling a bit, well, enchanted. “I love how the bar is raised so high; that makes me feel like Cinderella,” Heisler says.
For “Ever After”’s actual Cinderella herself, she just can’t wait for audiences to see it. “Other than getting to sword fight for the first time, I am incredibly excited to do a family piece,” Seibert says. “In this story, one can be a princess, but be a full human being as well. Be a smart girl, be a strong girl, be a loving girl—it’s an all-inclusive thing.”
Don’t miss the world premiere of the new musical “Ever After,” May 21 – June 21, at Paper Mill Playhouse– 22 Brookside Drive · Millburn, NJ 07041. For tickets or more information, visit www.PaperMill.org or call 973.376.4343.