Once upon a time‹"Many Moons Ago," as they sing‹there was a compound in the Poconos for artists only, a safe haven where they could hone their art before submitting it to the cruel, sometimes killing glare of critics and nay-sayers. Look for it in storybooks because it, too, is a civilization gone with the wind.
It was called Tamiment, and its roster of artistes-in-residence ran a rangy gamut from high kickers like Jerome Robbins to cap-and-bell types like Woody Allen and Carol Burnett. Indeed, the vehicle that brought Burnett to stardom was developed here (without her) in the summer of 1958, and it would, over the long haul of almost 40 years, wind up looming like Tamiment's shining hour.
We're talking Once Upon a Mattress here, a dizzy spin on a Hans Christian Andersen-spun yarn, The Princess and the Pea, and the second thing it's most remembered for (after the Burnett launching) is it enabled the princess of a musical-comedy kingpin to validate her composing credentials. Mary Rodgers, following the formidable lead of her father (Richard Rodgers), jumped into the family business with both feet and herself composed a big Broadway smash.
"Big" is used advisedly, too‹much more than you might think. After "Daddy's" golden half-dozen with Oscar Hammerstein II (South Pacific, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, et al.), Mattress comes in something like seventh in the R&H catalogue of shows most produced in stock and by amateur groups. "It does very, very well," Rodgers allows, "and it's been doing better every year, rather than worse, because it's a timeless show‹and it has nine principals parts" (a plus, apparently, for spread-the-riches-around high-school groups).
Nevertheless, its hinterland success notwithstanding, Mattress never bounced back to Broadway after its original 460 performances‹not until November when director Gerald Gutierrez and a talent-heavy cast topped by Sarah Jessica Parker march into the Broadhurst Theatre and take it from the top again.
"I think we're the only musical that hasn't been revived, except for Buttrio Square," cracks the composer, but she quickly softens her cynicism with a logical explanation for this grievous oversight: "People, I suspect, thought, 'Where will we find another Carol?'‹which was a mistake in thinking because Carol wasn't Carol when we did the show. She had done some TV guest-shots ["The Garry Moore Show"] and one funny song at The Blue Angel ["I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles"], but otherwise she wasn't a known commodity."
For that matter, she wasn't first‹or even second‹choice for the lead role of Princess Winnifred ("Fred"), the one with the touchy tushy who proves her royal authenticity because she tosses and turns when a tiny pea is placed in her bed under 20 soft, downy mattresses. Marshall Barer and Jay Thompson (Dean Fuller was later brought in to collaborate) wrote the lyrics and libretto with Nancy Walker in mind, and because a dancer in the ensemble named Yvonne Wilder could do a terrific Walker, she got the part. Which didn't sit well with the camp's producer, Moe Hack, who had a resident leading lady already on salary. After much arguing with the creators, it was agreed to restrict Wilder's role to 12 lines of dialogue and pad the part of the queen for the resident "star." Voila! the loquacious Queen Aggravain.
It was a show shaped by the talent available at Tamiment. "Milt Kamen was there," Rodgers remembers. "We thought, 'If he doesn't shut up about what a good mime he is, we'll kill him.' Then we thought, 'No, we won't kill him. We'll write for him.' That's how the silent king came about. And then we had Lynn Maxwell, who had three feet‹not even the luxury of two left feet‹so Marshall and Jay created this schnook, this naive person, Prince Dauntless."
The show ran an hour at its Tamiment launching. "The audience didn't pay to come in, and so, if they didn't like it, they'd leave just as quickly as they came. We were prepared for herds of them to wander off in search of something more interesting to do, but nobody left. The next night, the audience was even better. To our surprise, we were a big hit. Ten days later, we invited some people from New York we hoped would be interested in putting it on as a TV show. Jean and Bill Eckart, the designers, were among them, and they said, 'Do you think you could make this a full-length musical?' We said, 'Oh, sure.' My theory is always say, 'Oh, sure,' then run back and figure how to do it."
They had to figure fast because the Eckarts got the ear of George Abbott. "We played it for George, who said, 'Yeah, it's swell, but I only have May. If you can get it rewritten to my satisfaction and lengthen it and do all these new songs in time, I'll do it,' thinking evidently we wouldn't be able to do that. Well, we did. We stayed all night every night until we got it done."
Mister A, pleased with the night work, took it from there, decreeing that a fresher face than Walker's would be a more effective "Fred" and making his point‹brilliantly!‹with Burnett. As for Rodgers, her Broadway baptism-by-fire gives off a lovely glow after all these years. "It's really a darling show‹not scenically complicated, not emotionally complicated‹but it has its own little subtleties that I don't take any responsibilities for at all, wonderful moments between the father and the son, a lot of delicious family subtext with the aggressive mother. It's just a very true piece. It was always directed that way. George, in his way, felt that, too. He said, 'If you play it for comedy, it'll never work. If you play it for real, it will.'"
Once Upon a Mattress‹once more, with feeling.