As the director Timothy Sheader waited for a bus in Philadelphia three years ago, he glanced at a poster on the bus shelter, and did a double take. It advertised a tour of a musical called Cinderella, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. How, he wondered, could he have not known about it, given his love for musicals, fairy tales and Rodgers and Hammerstein?
The answer was that the show was not written for the stage but for television - the first, in fact, to be created for the medium. A huge hit on its first showing in 1957, with Julie Andrews in the title role - its audience of 107 million was the biggest viewing figure at the time - it was remade in 1964 with Lesley Ann Warren, and, video having then been invented, it became an American Christmas perennial. In 1997, a new version was made, with a multicultural but less-than-enchanting cast - Whitney Houston played the fairy godmother and Whoopi Goldberg the mother of the prince - and three years later, a stage show, with Eartha Kitt as the woman with the wand, toured the country.
On hearing the score, Sheader found it "a charming, old-fashioned musical. The 1997 film was harsh and unmagical, with very saturated colour. I wanted to bring the magic back." The songs aren't up with the greatest Rodgers-and-Hammerstein tunes - the team had just had two flops, and Rodgers was fighting a depression that, after he finished Cinderella, became a nervous breakdown. But, even at his lowest, Rodgers could easily show how well he deserved his title of 20th-century waltz king. Cinderella has not only the airy "Ten Minutes Ago", but also the stately ballad of infatuation "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful (Or Are You Beautiful Because I Love You)?". This chicken-and-egg conundrum is never resolved, but, in voicing his doubts ("Am I making believe I see in you/ A girl too lovely to/ Be really true?"), the prince emphasises the firmness of his love for the uninvited guest by deciding that they don't matter. The wicked stepsisters - played by women - are even more dubious about his attraction for their unloved sibling. "Why should a fellow want a girl like her?" one of them demands, "a girl who's merely lovely? Why can't a fellow even once prefer/ A solid girl like me?"
Sitting alone by the fire, Cinderella sweetly sings the song that characterises her at the start: "In my own little corner, in my own little chair/ I can be whatever I want to be." Later actresses may have punched the wistful button too hard, but Julie Andrews made this, as with her famous rendition of "If Love Were All", a song of exquisite pathos. When the fairy godmother appears, however, she sweeps this self-abnegation away with characteristic American briskness. "She's like one of those austere but inspiring teachers," Sheader says. "She tells Cinderella, 'Stop sitting in that corner! You can't just dream!'." The godmother beefs up her pep talk with the energetic, triplet-crammed "Impossible!", in which she urges Cinders not to think that being "sensible" means being defeatist. "Because these daft and dewy-eyed dopes/ Keep building up impossible hopes/ Impossible things are happening every day!" When Cinderella arrives at the ball, the magic of that moment is brought home by an unusual grand entrance for the heroine of a musical: silence.
The show has played Bristol before, but not for more than a generation, and in a much altered state. The year after the television transmission, it was staged in London, and the next year at the Bristol Hippodrome, "translated" from the American and tricked out with everything that the British public expects at Christmas. The stepsisters were played by men, one of them Kenneth Williams, and the character of Buttons, unknown in America, was added.
"In today's terms," says Sheader, "he'd be Cinderella's gay best friend." The new part was vital, for the show's main attraction was the 21-year-old Tommy Steele, taking his first step away from the world of rock'n'roll. The cast also included six Shetland ponies and a flock of geese, which on opening night were the worse for nerves. There were also smutty asides for the adults in the audience: one critic wondered whether children should be taken to a show whose fairy godmother said "bloody".
Sheader's version won't have any of this local colouring, and the jokes will all be on one level. "My hope is that adults will come and abandon their senses. I want everyone to go on a journey of transformation together." But, if he is respecting the original show, he isn't copying the original style, a cod-medieval setting. "We wanted the men in trousers," says the designer Laura Hopkins, who is going for a look of Fifties lavishness mingled with exotic mystery. "It's The Red Shoes plus the Cocteau film La Belle et la Bête. The stepmother will look like Joan Crawford, glamorous but hard, and the stepsisters try to emulate that but just look vulgar. Cinderella will be sitting in front of a cooker, the kitchen will have creepy, Gothic floral wallpaper, and the godmother will wear a very severe, fitted Dior-type suit.
"The king and queen are very tweedy, with sensible shoes, and the prince will look like a Fifties movie star - what he wears will be in good taste, but it will be shiny."
The biggest changes, however, are dictated by economics rather than aesthetics. The Bristol Old Vic production has a cast of 10, one-third the size of the original. As a result, choral pieces are being made conversational, and the stage is having everything done to it that ingenuity can provide so that it doesn't look underpopulated. "For the ballroom scene," says Hopkins, "the palace will be a drab grey-green, the same colour as the Old Vic, and with the same light fittings, so that it looks like an extension of the theatre. The audience will feel as if they're just glimpsing a corner of the ballroom rather than looking at the entire dance." The coach-and- horses will be a cleverly lit silhouette, and if small patrons are disappointed by the lack of real horses, at least they won't be scared by the mice: "We've copped out," says Hopkins, "they're going to stay in a box."
"I love fairy tales," says Sheader, who feels they have much in common with his favourite theatrical format, the musical. "They're not so far apart. If a musical works, you start on earth and end in heaven."
'Cinderella' is at the Bristol Old Vic (0117-987 7877), 28 November-24 JanuaryReuse content