WASHINGTON — Sidney Harman Hall was bustling before a recent matinee of “Once Upon a One More Time,” a revisionist fairy tale mash-up scored with Britney Spears songs at Shakespeare Theater Company here. People were taking group selfies at one of two step-and-repeats. A few girls — and women — tittered in tiaras. Purple T-shirts and tote bags with the show’s title and the names of storybook princesses were being sold. And the theater, which has a capacity of about 700, had no empty seats in sight. At least from the outside, “Once Upon a One More Time” lookedlike the kind of splashy show you might find on Broadway.
I was in Washington for the weekend, at the first post-opening matinee of the show, and it wasn’t the only musical in the neighborhood with Broadway aspirations; the second show I saw here, Woolly Mammoth’s production of “A Strange Loop,” by Michael R. Jackson, has just announced plans for a Broadway run in the spring. It’s a more daring work: a meta show about a queer Black playwright writing a show about a queer Black playwright that opened Off Broadway in 2019 and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Two very different shows in two very different theaters less than a mile apart: “Once Upon a One More Time” and “A Strange Loop” represent opposite extremes of what a Broadway production can be.
Written by Jon Hartmere and directed and choreographed by the husband-and-wife team Keone and Mari Madrid, “Once Upon a One More Time” is set inside an abstract representation of the world of children’s storybooks. That’s to say that whenever a child opens a book of fairy tales, the denizens of this magical kingdom must act out the classic plots for the reader. Meanwhile, the princes and princesses — Snow White (Aisha Jackson), the Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin), Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu), the Princess and the Pea (Morgan Weed), Rapunzel (Wonu Ogunfowora) and several others — hang around like on-call workers, waiting for their boss, the Narrator, to direct them through the scenes of their tales, which they must obediently act out in order to have their happily ever after.
But Cinderella (Briga Heelan) isn’t happy, and becomes even less so after she learns that her Prince Charming (Justin Guarini) is being paid for his services while she isn’t. Then Cinderella meets the Notorious O.F.G. (that’s Original Fairy Godmother, comically played by Brooke Dillman), who comes all the way from the mystical land of Flatbush, Brooklyn, to give poor Cin a copy of “The Feminine Mystique.” Suddenly enlightened by feminist theory, Cinderella leads her fellow princesses in protest, demanding that they be allowed to write their own stories.
The audience cheered at the more clever pairings of popular Spears songs with important plot points, like an unfaithful prince singing “Oops! … I Did It Again” or Cinderella’s evil stepmother singing “Toxic.”
But as I watched the show, I wondered: Who is the target audience for this? So many Broadway shows are aimed at a general audience, and similarly, “Once Upon a One More Time” seems to want to appeal to both children and adults. The fairy tale premise (nodding to shows like “Into the Woods” and “Shrek”)and the earnest sermonizing seem to point to an audience of kids. But the lines of dialogue about microaggressions (the Narrator warns Cinderella about being “difficult,” getting “hysterical” and using a “shrill” voice, all of which made the audience gasp), along with some mild sex jokes, are clearly aimed at knowing adults. Plus, call me conventional, but I doubt a children’s show would include a song called “Work Bitch.” In aiming for a Broadway stage, “Once Upon a One More Time” still seems to be figuring out what its prospective audience would look like.
With its blatant messaging about female empowerment and revisionist approach, not unlike two recent Broadway musicals — “Six” and “Diana,” both of which recast famous women from history as self-possessed and self-reliant feminist icons — “Once Upon a One More Time” reflects the broad strokes of modern-day feminism but shies away from anything too hefty or complex. That includes the pink-pigtailed elephant in the room: Spears herself, who has documented what she has called years of exploitation in her quest to end her conservatorship. So particularly the Britney faithful will most likely be disappointed to find the pop star absent from a show largely based on the products of her career.
At Woolly Mammoth’s space, just a few blocks from Sidney Harman Hall, there were no selfie stations or gift kiosks. The theater seats less than 300 people, and the content of Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” could not be more different from “Once Upon a One More Time.”
Directed by Stephen Brackett, “A Strange Loop” is a carnival of its protagonist’s self-loathing, his insecurities, his introspective reveries on sexuality and identity, society, family and religion. It’s hilarious until it turns vicious, and vice versa. And it defines itself through a critique of commercial productions, like the long-running Broadway show “The Lion King,” as well as through a deconstruction of the expectations society may have of a Black, queer artist, which can crush brave new work.
The musical rejects the polite, family-friendly themes and the tidy endings of what its protagonist, a Broadway usher named Usher (Jaquel Spivey), sees at work. Full of references to sexual assault and racism, and with enough offensive language to fill a gallon-size swear jar, “A Strange Loop” aims to bring taboo topics to mainstream theater. The Woolly Mammoth crowd snapped and mmhmm-ed to lines breaking down queer and race politics; at one point a man in the row behind me got out of his seat and waved his arms around to the music as if he were at a rave — if raves played devastating songs about homophobia and abuse.
Walking out of the theater afterward, I overheard a group of friends wonder if “A Strange Loop” could go to Broadway. One woman had reservations; she liked it, she said, but — and here she paused before awkwardly stumbling through her qualifier — it was a musical about AIDS.
I held my tongue — because I could’ve mentioned that “Rent” and “Angels in America” were two Broadway shows about AIDS. Or that “A Strange Loop” is about so much more than AIDS. Or that this season, Broadway had “Dana H.,” a show about kidnapping and assault, and “Is This a Room,” about a real F.B.I. investigation — both fantastic, critically acclaimed works of art. Or that “Slave Play” brought similarly explicit language and sexual content to Broadway in 2019 and has now reopened.
Or I could’ve simply said that this beautifully brutal work of theater is already headed to Broadway.