THE BLOG

How to Reboot a Classic

05/02/2013 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2013

1) Accentuate the political (and comical)
Some day your prince will come. And he'll have issues. Who am I? he'll ask, and What meaningful activity should I be engaging in rather than this monotonous if crowd-pleasing business of slaying dragons? The high-maintenance narcissist your father married will do her utmost to wreck your chances with him, of course. (She'd actually be kind of entertaining, if only her sarcasm and Romney-esque way with a minion weren't always aimed at you.) But at least your step-sibs are fine with you following your bliss -- as long as they get a shot at their own princes, plus a little gender parity and political justice on the side.

There's plenty of old-fashioned magic in the current Broadway production of Cinderella, which just nabbed nine Tony noms -- enough to make all the little girls in the audience sigh and swoon and stare enraptured, and their parents too. Reality-defying costume changes to provoke even a hard-hearted cynic's gasps -- are there any of those in the audiences for Cinderella? -- and lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein songs to make one hum. There's a versatile and winning cast, including Victoria Clark, for once not squandered, and Santino Fontana, adding another irresistible hero, this one singing and silly, to his remarkable repertoire.

But it's the inventive reimagining of the pink-is-for-fairy-princesses chestnut that makes this Cinderella not a guilty pleasure but a pure one. It may seem a minor detail that the show's talent comes in many shapes and hues: One of Evil Stepmaw Harriet Harris' "real" daughters is short, sturdy and Asian (the inspired comedian Ann Harada) and several of the prince's guard are matter-of-factly female or, like the townsfolk who dance across the stage, not a monolithic white. But the casual reflection of that great American tapestry one hears so much about infuses the story with a fresh power, as does viewing the heroine's predicament through the filter of contemporary economic inequities. If the play's Cinderella is a bit too conventionally sweet 'n' slender, director Mark Brokaw surrounds her with enough tart and colorful cohorts that her mildness doesn't dampen the ebullient charm of Douglas Carter Beane's clever script. Somehow he and Brokaw sidestep the traps of topical gimmickry and find within the story a way to Occupy Broadway without dimming its wonders. And the twist with the glass slipper has a subtle genius.

2) Don't be afraid to get bizarre

A different kind of evil stepmother haunts Blancanieves, a surreally beautiful and dementedly effervescent take on Snow White, with a bit of Sleeping Beauty thrown in. Blancanieves' rapacious faux-mamacita (Y Tu Mamá También's Maribel Verdú) is like something out of Almodóvar crossed with David Lynch, and she torments another little girl who's lost her father -- a spirited innocent who grows up to be a bullfighter, just like her beloved papá. Photographed in gorgeous black and white, the silent picture (last year's Oscar nominee from Spain) is so mesmerizing and odd it makes one realize how few elements a story needs to weave a spell, how many of the trappings of contemporary cinema can be shed as long as an artist with a distinctive eye gives his uniquely skewed vision free rein. Blancanieves may not literally have seven dwarfs, but this gleaming fairy tale has its own irrefutable logic.

3) Throw the Book Away

The six-year-old calmly playing as her parents' screaming battles provide an endless stream of background noise is neither a screwed-up mess, a brat, nor a ball of resentment and recrimination. In this reboot of Henry James's What Maisie Knew set in contemporary Manhattan, she is the wide-open heart of a broken love triangle, a prize fought over -- or, more often, forgotten -- by her childish parents, a rock diva (Julianne Moore) navigating a waning career and an eternally hustling art dealer (Steve Coogan, comedy-free) focused solely on the means to fund his lifestyle. James's dense novel resists easy access, and the jettisoning of its highly specific time and setting proves an audacious and surprisingly satisfying choice. So, too, does the film's softening of the parents' malevolent vanity to narcissistic obliviousness; they're not simply using Maisie as a pawn to fan their loathing of each other but do in fact love her, to the best of their abilities. (Their neglect is somehow more shocking in its carelessness than deliberate malice might have been.) Onata Aprile carries the film on her astonishing young shoulders as she gives her trust and affection to all who try to love her -- including two poor outsiders (Joanna Vanderham, Alexander Skarsgård) who seem to be the only ones truly capable of caring for her. Maisie doesn't judge those who abandon her, which makes her ultimate choice to save her own life even more unexpected. The pleasures of the film's shiny vibrant world underscore the achingly sad story at its center, told with a clear eye and deceptive simplicity that makes its wounds sting all the more.

4) Think big

If it were simply the story of a tiny girl who braves indifferent and bullying circumstances to save everyone in her chosen world, Matilda would be a rarity. But the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic is so bursting at the seams with over-the-top personality and a wildly creative embodiment of the author's dark voice, it's practically revolutionary. No element is overlooked in its Broadway auteurs' attention to detail: the overstuffed visual cleverness of the sets and costumes, the giddy choreography of its characters' movements, the rollicking wit of the script and lyrics, the fleetness of its complex plot's unfolding, the cornucopia of rude and villainous and heroic and hilarious characters, the elaborate musical delights. Matilda sets the bar high, then vaults way over it (12 Tony nominations, just because). In the right creative hands, it seems, more is more.