In the whimsical Tony-nominated musical comedy Once Upon a Mattress, the ungainly and brash Princess Winnifred competes for the affections of Prince Dauntless. The only thing standing between them, in this raucous twist on "The Princess and the Pea," is his domineering mother Queen Aggravain. In the Transport Group's 2015 revival —in previews beginning Nov. 23 — Jackie Hoffman will step into Winnifred's unpolished shoes and John "Lypsinka" Epperson will play the cantankerous queen.
Jackie Hoffman, Zak Resnick, Lypsinka and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka Offer a Spirited Preview of Once Upon a Mattress
The man behind the innovative casting and paired-down staging is the Transport Group's artistic director, Jack Cummings III. When Epperson first approached Cummings with the idea for the revival, the director says he was initially unsure. Though he loved the musical, it was unlike the company's previous works. Instead of committing to a full production, he opted for a one-night-only concert presentation.
"It went off like gangbusters," says Cummings of the 2013 concert staging. The show's composer Mary Rodgers, he says – who was also in attendance – "went crazy for it." "She wrote me the kindest letter, though she didn't know me," continued the director. "She was always helping people. She was a major philanthropist, and her mission seemed to locate undiscovered or 'not-quite-out-there-yet' talent and try to help them. I think that's connected to the show with Winnifred being such an underdog... I think she just understood that and it really comes through in her music."
Cummings recalls that the letter Rodgers sent him said: "I loved last night. Everything about it was perfect. I want you to go into production, and I want to meet you and have lunch. And I want to know all of your dreams."
"That was the phrase," he says. "I remember specifically because no one has ever said that to me." Epperson says Rodgers sent him a similar letter, asking to meet with him to discuss an Off-Broadway staging.
The trio met up, and talks were under way for the revival. It has been over 15 years since it was last seen on Broadway in 1996, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Mary Lou Rosato as the Princess and Queen. Once Upon a Mattress first played Off-Broadway in 1959 before transferring to Broadway that same year. It was nominated for five Tony Awards and famously made a bonafide star of its lead actress, Carol Burnett as Princess Winnifred.
Rodgers passed away in June 2014 before having the chance to see the Transport Group revival. Her blessing however, serves as a constant reminder to Cummings.
"The thing that I really got from her was that there was never a doubt in her mind that not only could we do it, but that we would do it," he says. "I have my script in my binder and on the front is a picture of her. It's a reminder every day as to why we're here... With Mary's encouragement and passion, that's really the reason it's happening."
Once Upon a Mattress features music by Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and a book by Barer, Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller. The show begins previews Nov. 23 and officially opens Dec. 13, continuing through Jan. 3, 2016 at the Abrons Arts Center. For more information and to purchase tickets visit TransportGroup.org.