Once Upon a Mattress is a critically-acclaimed musical comedy that opened on Broadway on May 11, 1959 and ran for 460 performances. The play was written as an adaptation of the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. The show's music was written by Mary Rodgers with lyrics by Marshall Barer. The book was written by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer.
Stage and screen
Once Upon a Mattress was originally written as a shorter play during an adult summer camp. The play was later expanded for the Broadway stage. Initial reviews of the play were mixed, but critics and actors alike were surprised by the show's enduring popularity.
The Broadway production was directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Joe Layton. Once Upon A Mattress also marked the Broadway debut of stage and TV legend Carol Burnett, who founded the role of Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. The Broadway cast also starred Joseph Bova, Allen Case, Jack Gilford, Anne Jones, Matt Mattox, and Harry Snow. Actress Jane White played the role of Queen Aggravaine, becoming the first African-American woman to portray a white character on stage. The play was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Revival of a Musical, and Best Leading Actress (Carol Burnett).
Once Upon a Mattress opened in London in 1960. It was made into a TV movie in 1972. The movie included many members of the original cast (including Burnett and White) and also featured Bernadette Peters as Lady Larken. Many fans of the stage show have complained that the movie is unfaithful to the original book. In the movie, several songs were eliminated and characters were cut or altered (including a prologue sequence with Burnett playing a storyteller).
The play has been revived several times, including a 1997 revival starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Today, Once Upon a Mattress is a standard of amateur and high school theater programs.
A movie version aired on December 18, 2005 on ABC in the US, and was released on DVD on December 20, 2005. This version starred Carol Burnett as Queen Aggravain, Denis O'Hare as Prince Dauntless, Tom Smothers as King Sextimus, Tracey Ullman as Princess Winnifred, Zooey Deschanel as Lady Larken, and Matthew Morrison as Sir Harry. The Minstrel was cut from this version, negating and also cutting most of the songs featuring the Minstrel except Normandy, which was changed to describe Larken's and Sir Harry's honeymoon. There were also additional plot changes.
Once Upon a Mattress takes place in a fictional medieval kingdom ruled by the devious Queen Aggravaine and the mute King Sextimus the Silent. King Sextimus suffers from a curse that can only be reversed "when the mouse devours the hawk". As the show opens, the populace of the castle complains about an unjust law levied by Queen Aggravaine. The law states that no one may wed until the Prince, Dauntless the Drab, first marries. However, every petitioning princess is sent away after failing an unfair test devised by the Queen. It seems that no one is good enough to marry Prince Dauntless.
The crisis escalates when the leading knight of the realm, Sir Harry, discovers that his girlfriend, Lady Larken, is pregnant. Facing great embarrassment and loss of his station, Sir Harry embarks on a quest to find the last princess in the realm. He soon returns with Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, a brash, unrefined, and muscular princess from the marshlands. She immediately charms Dauntless and most of the townspeople. However, she also succeeds in offending the Queen, who vows to find a way to stop her.
The Queen, assisted by her Wizard sidekick, quickly designs Winnifred's secret "test". They will place a tiny pea beneath twenty thick downy mattresses. If Winnifred is unable to sleep due to the pea, then she will be sensitive enough to marry Dauntless.
As the day of the test approaches, Dauntless and Winnifred fall in love, Harry and Larken break up (only to be later united by Winnifred), and the King, Jester and Minstrel trick the Wizard into telling them of the test. When she finally takes the test, Winnifred cannot fall asleep. She drowsily confronts the Queen the next morning, but Aggravaine insists that the test was rigged. Dauntless tells Aggravaine to "shut up", and the curse on King Sextimus is lifted (the "mouse", or Dauntless, thus devours the "hawk", or Aggravaine). Aggravaine discovers that she cannot talk, and Dauntless and Winnifred are free to be married. The Wizard falls for the King's charm and wit, and leaves the poor Queen hopelessly hopping and skipping on stage.
In the final seconds of the play, the real reason why Winnifred passed the test is revealed. After learning about the test, the King, Minstrel, and Jester stuffed the mattresses full of weapons, jousting equipment, and other sharp items. The Princess finally falls asleep when the pea is pulled out from under the bed.
And everyone lives happily ever after.
(1959 version of "Very Soft Shoes" is split between the Jester and the Wizard--left to director's discretion)