When D.C. playwright Karen Zacarías and her frequent collaborator, composer Deborah Wicks La Puma, were commissioned to create a musical version of “Ella Enchanted” that’s having its world premiere at Adventure Theatre, there were hundreds of variations of the Cinderella story to draw on.
Most were written by men, including the best known versions from the Brothers Grimm more than 200 years ago and Walt Disney nearly 70 years back.
Adapting the 1980 Newbery Honor winner by Gail Carson Levine (itself made into a 2004 Disney live-action film starring Anne Hathaway), the women found themselves enjoying the same kind of female empowerment as the work’s spirited heroine. It was further amplified when Mary Hall Surface was added to the creative team as director for the work, which opened this month as part of the theater’s 65th season.
We asked the women about their experience separately. Their answers have been edited.
Q: Was “Cinderella” an important story to you growing up? Are its themes still a big part of the culture?
A: Karen Zacarías: I grew up in Mexico, where the Cinderella myth is alive and well in both good ways and bad: that every young girl is a potential princess, and that salvation is just a prince away. Disney has made millions banking on this fantasy, and our global fascination with Princess Diana and Princess Kate springs from our fascination with the Cinderella narrative. “Cinderella” is both a story of hope, redemption and justice while also being a story of passivity, obedience and physical attraction. Gail Carson Levine’s book sets Cinderella on her head by giving her grit and vision.
Deborah Wicks La Puma: Growing up, I was never a big fan of Cinderella, as she always seemed so passive. She seemed to be a victim of outside forces who merely got lucky. And as a girl, I wanted to believe I had some control over my own fate and could “save myself.” My father, who was raised by a single mother, encouraged me to be strong and independent so that I would always have choices in what direction my life would go. Perhaps that is why I had the courage to become a musician and composer. I love Levine’s take on the story — in her version, Cinderella has a reason for her obedience and has the will to overcome it herself in the end.
Mary Hall Surface: I certainly knew the story as a child, predominantly from the Disney version. But I became more deeply connected to the story as a student of folk and fairy-tale literature, learning that virtually all cultures have their own version. Fairy tales are enduring symbolic explorations of growing up — of a child/youth being thrust into the unknown and having to discover who they are and what choices they will make. The story absolutely endures in contemporary culture, for its themes of self-discovery are timeless.
Q: What were the most important themes you wanted to be sure were represented on stage?
A: Zacarías: Ella, like most girls in the world, is cursed with obedience, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have choices. Although she lives in an oppressive environment, she never gives up or gives in. She resists, and insists on finding a way to have her will be heard.
Ella’s relationship with the prince is based on mutual respect and interests; they become best friends as they fall in love. They both come across as real people who like each other for who they really are. I think modeling a real and healthy relationship is very important to both boys and girls.
Wicks La Puma: Karen and I immediately latched onto Ella’s love of language, which is a wonderful detail Levine brought to the story. Karen and I both come
from households that speak multiple languages (French, Danish, Spanish, Portuguese), so we share Ella’s love of being able to speak our minds in multiple ways!
Surface: The dramatic question of the play for me is “Will Ella find her power?”; Not just, “Will she break the spell?” Finding her power implies Ella’s discovering how she can control her own story and drive the action towards self-discovery, despite struggling with obedience. So even in the transitions from scene to scene, I wanted the audience to follow Ella’s journey — to experience when the world on stage sweeps her from place to place in contrast to when she is in control of where she is going and how she gets there. Ella grows from being a puppet — literally — in the first scene to being in complete physical control by the final scene.
Q: Did it make a difference creating a musical of female empowerment with an entirely female creative team?
A: Zacarías: Not only are the three of us friends, we are also all mothers to daughters. So the process of building this story came from a place of deep understanding and complete clarity as to what was at stake for our young Ella. We knew in our bones that the idea of not having full consent or full ownership of your body and actions is a curse — and yet we never wanted her to be a victim — and ensured Ella used her wit and humor and bravery to save herself. Because that is what Ella does: She saves herself.
Wicks La Puma: Absolutely, it has been a pure joy to create this show with them. Karen and Mary Hall are such dear friends that we have an enormous amount of trust and respect for each other, thus making our collaboration easier and more fruitful. We were able to take the rewrites and production to a level of depth that would not have been possible without our feeling of sisterhood.
Surface: I’m sure it did make a difference. All three of us have made strong choices that define who we are as artists and as women. We brought that strength to envisioning this production. The “curse of obedience” is something all women recognize. I think we could all see in Ella a model for how you live with the curse while fighting to break free from it. We are also all mothers of daughters. We have very personal reasons to fight for a world in which women’s rights are honored and valued. I instinctively imagine theatrical worlds that feature the power and wisdom of women, both on stage and off. Our design team was predominantly female as well.
Q: Adventure Theatre Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt says it’s important that kids hear the story of “Ella Enchanted” in part because of “this time in history.” Do you agree?
A: Zacarías: “Ella Enchanted” is a fun and frolicking musical, but it also carries a powerful message about each child’s responsibility to discover his or her own unique voice and use it to make the world a better and more inclusive place. It’s a play that encourages children to resist bullies, to resist oppression, and to find the true magic of common language and common ground.
Wicks La Puma: I believe this is a timeless story that speaks to anyone who feels oppressed or who is looking for the courage to change their lives. We are at a pivoting moment in our country, where we could swing back or forward in how we treat each other based on our race, our gender or our nationality. Do we have the wisdom to listen to others who might not speak our language? Are we willing to walk in someone else’s shoes and see how our actions affect their lives? Do we have the courage to stand up and say no?
Surface: Ella’s commitment to making good choices in the face of injustice and to standing up for what is right make her an ideal model today — not only for young people — but for all of us.
Ella Enchanted Through March 19 at Adventure Theatre Musical Theater Center, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md. $19.50. 301-634-2270 or adventuretheatre-mtc.org.