Milwaukee, Madison companies embrace Cinderella’s feminine journey this season

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Filmmaker Walt Disney was fond of rewriting literary history, making it more palatable for a post-World War II, white-bread America. The 1950 animated film version of Cinderella may have been his most questionable revision.

The popular folk tale can trace its roots back to the first century B.C. A young girl, fallen on hard times and pressed into demeaning servitude, perseveres against unspeakable odds. Through determination and virtue, she rises to a spectacular level of happiness. It’s a heroine’s journey that resonates in the hearts and minds of many cultures.

Then there’s Disney’s version, where all it takes is a little magic, a beautiful gown, a stylish coiffure and the requisite handsome prince to whisk Cinderella from a life of drudgery to a stunning palace that clearly never requires cleaning.

The magical scenario of salvation through a knight in shining armor enjoys enduring popularity. But isn’t there something inherently wrong with a myth that rewards a young woman’s obedience and beauty rather than her fortitude, strength and human right to happiness?

Milwaukee and Madison theatergoers will have a chance to untangle the taffeta of the Cinderella myth during a season that explores three distinct interpretations of the character.

Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre takes the lead on Sept. 19 with its season-opening production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, the most popular of several operatic versions of the Cinderella story. On March 28, Madison Ballet mounts the first of three performances of Cinderella. And on May 14, Milwaukee Ballet offers its version of the tale danced to Sergei Prokofiev’s famous score.

What’s behind the eternal appeal of this simple tale? That depends on the version being told, says Viswa Subbaraman, Skylight’s artistic director and music director for the Rossini opera.

“What I like about Rossini’s version is that Cinderella is a much stronger person than she is often portrayed,” says Subbaraman, who has scheduled an entire season of fairy tales and fantasies at the Skylight. “She’s a strong woman who knows herself, and it’s always driven me nuts that she wasn’t portrayed that way in the Disney version.”

Subbaraman has updated the 1817 opera to the present day and employed the talents of New York costume designer and personal friend Cesar Galindo to create a striking contrast between Angelina (the Cinderella character), her wicked stepsisters and, in this version, a wicked stepfather. In this production, clothes make the heroine — and the hero. Virtue and honor, in the guise of clean lines and a “preppie” look, triumph over evil, represented largely by gross consumption and loud, ill-fitting clothes.

Rossini’s Cinderella is diplomatic, honorable and, despite her servitude, the most self-realized of the opera’s characters. In the end she wins out largely because of her virtuous nature, Subbaraman says.

“The performance closes with a strong woman character singing a huge solo,” he says. “It was a pretty revolutionary opera for its day.”

Rossini’s interpretation of the Cinderella character is more in keeping with the traditional story than Disney’s, according to Robin Mello, professor of theater at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. 

“It’s a story of a hard worker who endures an oppressive system and gets rewarded in the end,” says Mello, who examined the Cinderella myth as part of her doctoral dissertation. “That doesn’t often happen in real life, which makes Cinderella the perfect story of hope and essential for surviving the human condition.”

The Cinderella myth can also be seen as the female counterpart to the hero’s journey, which was explored in-depth by the late Joseph Campbell and is a prevalent theme in literature, theater and film. Heroes have to find the right path and maybe slay a dragon along the path to becoming fully realized. As a feminine equivalent to what is ultimately a masculine story, Cinderella must operate differently, Mello says.

“The masculine hero must undertake his journey to discover his identity,” Mello says. “Cinderella arrives with an identity and has to figure out what to do with what she’s got in order to succeed.”

The Cinderella myth’s strength lies in the incorporation of archetypes identified by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The animus and anima — the male and female equivalent of the self — and the shadow, which represents the nature of evil, play critical roles in the tale, Mello says.

“The characters of the fairy godmother and wicked stepmother divide the divine into benevolence and evil,” she explains. “The only problem with leaning too heavily on Freud, Jung and Campbell is that they created this masculine way of looking at a story, but never accounted for the feminine experience.”

At its heart, Cinderella is a heroine’s story. The prince plays a critical role that goes beyond merely saving a damsel in distress, Mello says. The Greek concept of hiero gamos — “holy marriage” — is part of the myth. The concept refers to a critical union that’s created for the greater good. In many versions of the Cinderella myth, hiero gamos is attained through the union of Cinderella and her prince.

Using Cinderella’s virtue and triumph for the greater good of the community plays a role in many cultural retellings of the tale, Mello says. In the German version, she’s given land and makes it very prosperous. In the Chinese version, she dies but comes back as a benevolent being who helps her village and her people regain their harmony. 

“There are lots of different endings, but they all embrace the concept that all the upset and hatred and oppression has been made right,” Mello says. 

Milwaukee Ballet’s version of Cinderella next spring takes a more fanciful approach while still following earlier versions of the tale. Prokofiev’s score largely dictates the action, but the story has an intellectuality that appeals to the ballet’s artistic director Michael Pink, who created an original ballet around the narrative.

The ballet opens with Cinderella at the gravesite of her mother. A dove that appears in a tree over the grave, then reappears and drops autumn leaves on Cinderella when she most needs assistance, represents the mother’s spirit. 

While the dove adds a spiritual dimension to the story, the wicked stepsisters, danced by men in drag, add a raucous comic dimension to the performance.

“‘A cock in a frock’ is great English musical tradition,” says Pink, a himself a Brit who once played just such a role.

Even though there will be an ample supply of taffeta, Pink’s Cinderella also is about a young woman who comes into her own. Being saved by Prince Charming is not the lesson that audiences are meant to learn. Instead, Pink wants to present the message that kindness and virtue are the most effective ways to resolve conflict.

“Cinderella is a powerful creature because she has the skill to forgive, which triumphs over everyone else and gives her strength,” Pink says.

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