When Once Upon a Mattress opened November 25, 1959, the musical adaptation of the princess and the pea fairy tale had already enjoyed an Off-Broadway run of 216 performances at the Phoenix Theatre. Directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Joe Layton, it would go on to run for another 244 performances on Broadway, making Carol Burnett into a star.
But though the show has become a staple of for schools and community theatres, few fans know all of these fun facts about the musical fable by Mary Rodgers, Marshall Barer, Jay Thompson, and Dean Fuller. Enjoy these nine facts about the show below!
1. Carol Burnett was appearing on The Garry Moore Show on television at the same time as she was starring in Once Upon a Mattress. This caused some crazy antics. According to Burnett, the double duty meant she got less than an hour of sleep some nights. During one Broadway performance as Winnifred, who cannot sleep on the mattresses with a pea underneath (spoiler!), Burnett actually fell asleep onstage! She came to when she heard the stage manager yelling: "Carol! WAKE UP!"
2. Ann B. Davis replaced Carol Burnett as Winnifred during the original run. This was her Broadway debut, and her only other Great White Way stage credit was playing Mother in Crazy for You over 30 years later. A decade after Mattress, Davis would win the role of Alice on TV's The Brady Bunch.
3. The original production played five Broadway theaters — a record for a Broadway musical. In May of 1959, Once Upon a Mattress opened at the Phoenix Theatre on Second Avenue. (This venue alternated between an Off-Broadway or Broadway contract through the years.) The show then moved to the Alvin (now Neil Simon), Winter Garden, Cort, and St. James, never getting to stay put for more than two or three months! During that time, theatre owners would more quickly evict a show if they felt they had a better money-maker for their house. After Mattress closed, Variety reported that because of the many moves, the show's budget had been inflated $55,000 — and that at the Winter Garden and St. James, the theater owners took an unusual share of the gross. All of these moves were not great for Mattress' bottom line.
4. Sarah Jessica Parker promoted the Broadway revival herself in Times Square — while she was starring in it! The 1996 Broadway revival featured Parker as Princess Winnifred, along with Jane Krakowski as Lady Larken. When the show, which played the Broadhurst, was struggling at the box office, Parker took to the TKTS booth with flyers.
5. There have been many acclaimed performers who have appeared in Mattress over the years. Notably, legendary actor Buster Keaton played the King on the first national tour, dispensing chocolates and advice to the younger actors. Movie star Elliott Gould appeared on screen for the first time ever as the Jester in the 1964 TV adaptation. And a pre-Glee Matthew Morrison appeared as Sir Harry in the 2005 TV adaptation.
6. The show started out as an extended skit as a Jewish summer camp for adults. In the early to mid part of the 20th century, there were many summer recreational resorts where adults might do things like write and appear in a musical together. Many theatre professionals, from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock to Moss Hart, got their start at these camps. Once Upon a Mattress began as a one-act at Tamiment adult summer camp resort in the Poconos!
7. Marshall Barer, who wrote Once Upon a Mattress with Mary Rodgers, was also engaged to her for a time...but it didn't work out. Barer was supposedly the inspiration for the Mary Rodgers-Stephen Sondheim song "The Boy From..."
8. The Chicago Daily News thought the title Once Upon a Mattress was too "salacious!" In fact, in their 1960 review of the touring cast, they cautioned audiences not to be turned off by what sounded from its title like a dirty show but was actually "effervescent" and "mirthful."
9. Once Upon a Mattress was up for Best Musical in the 1960 Tony season — pitting daughter against father, as Mary Rodgers wrote the music to Mattress and Richard Rodgers wrote the music to The Sound of Music that year. The other nominees for Best Musical were Gypsy, Fiorello, and Take Me Along — quite a season, and The Sound of Music and Fiorello both won in a tie!