"I was a fan of the movie before I knew about the musical or was approached about working on it," Kathleen Marshall says. "I love the fact that it takes a classic story we all know, the Cinderella story — there are so many Cinderella stories — and gives it a new twist, a new slant, and sees it through fresh eyes, in terms of imagining what could be the real story that inspired the fairy tale."
Marshall, a three-time Tony winner, is talking about the hit 1998 movie Ever After — and the new 2015 musical version, which she is directing and choreographing, that has its premiere this month at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. Two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole (42nd Street, Grey Gardens) stars as Rodmilla de Ghent, the wicked baroness, Cinderella's stepmother, the Anjelica Huston role in the movie.
The book and lyrics are by Marcy Heisler and the music by Zina Goldrich, collaborators Off-Broadway on Junie B. Jones and Dear Edwina. "The score," says Marshall, "is rich and melodic and lush and romantic." It "behaves like a classic musical score, like a Rodgers and Hammerstein show or a Lerner and Loewe show in that there are beautiful ballads, solos, duets, choral numbers. There are numbers that have wit and humor and numbers that are more dramatic, songs that are revealing for the characters — the score has many different flavors and colors."
On the other hand, "It's not a huge dance show," Marshall says. "There's a lot of movement and a certain amount of choreography, but it's more music-driven than dance-driven." In Ever After, the Cinderella story has a definite feminist, and realist, flavor — or, as Paper Mill puts it, "her name was Danielle and it was always about her wit, her smarts, her strength"; she "makes her own dreams come true." Or, as Marshall puts it, the plot "imagines what could be the true story behind the myth of Cinderella" — without "magic, without pumpkins and fairy godmothers." Margo Seibert (Rocky) will play Danielle.
In 16th-century France, Danielle (Drew Barrymore in the movie) does live with her stepmother and two stepsisters. She is "a servant in her own house," Marshall says, "and she has a chance encounter with Prince Henry of France" — while he's stealing her father's horse. One stepsister, though, is kind, and Leonardo da Vinci plays a key role.
It's been a busy season for Marshall (who won her Tonys for Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game and Anything Goes), working on new projects instead of revivals. Last September in Denver she helmed a musical version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In December she directed and choreographed a musical adaptation of the movie Diner at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. "We're trying to figure out our next step," she says. In April her first play as director, Joe DiPietro's Living on Love, starring Renée Fleming and Douglas Sills — originally done last July in Williamstown — opened at Broadway's Longacre Theatre.
Directing a play is "a very different process," she says. "They both have their virtues." With a play, you "slowly get up on your feet." With musicals "you have to hit the ground much faster. There are so many more elements in a musical in terms of learning the music and the choreography and the scenic transitions."
Is there a future goal? "I was talking to Renée Fleming, and she asked if I've ever directed opera, and I haven't. I love opera, so that would be — I don't know what opera it would be, but that would be a huge challenge."