Counting on the results being “Lucky” rather than “Toxic,” Broadway producers and the Shakespeare Theatre Company have joined forces for the world premiere this fall of an unlikely show: “Once Upon a One More Time,” a fractured fairy-tale musical built around the songbook of Britney Spears.
“Once Upon a One More Time,” with a book by Jon Hartmere and directed by the choreographic team of Keone and Mari Madrid, will debut Nov. 30 at the company’s flagship, 774-seat theater, Sidney Harman Hall, and run through Jan. 2. The expectation is that it will move to a Nederlander-owned theater on Broadway after that.
The plans for the musical — which, before the coronavirus shut down American theater, was to have had a trial run in Chicago — represent a wild pivot for a Shakespearean company. It’s also a high-wire act, as Hollywood already has designs on a movie version.
“This is something so magical — it’s Shakespeare and Spears!” said Simon Godwin, the company’s artistic director, adding that he was approached several months ago by producer Susan Bristow with the Nederlander Organization. “She came to us and said, ‘Can I share this idea with you?’ I was delighted that people were identifying us as a space that they want to work with. I said, ‘Yes, I am all in.’ ”
James L. Nederlander, president of the Nederlander Organization, said in an email: “Shakespeare Theatre Company was always a place we were interested in for ‘Once Upon a One More Time.’ We love the idea of debuting this musical — filled with beloved fairy tale characters — at a theater dedicated to the exploration of classic stories reframed for modern audiences.”
Nederlander added that he was “absolutely looking to bring it to Broadway in an upcoming season.”
The hosting of “Once Upon a One More Time” extends the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s embrace of popular entertainment, exemplified by its musical-theater offerings of late, as well as plays such as the 2019 world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s “Peter Pan and Wendy.” Godwin has made one of his goals a broadening of the company’s reach, in the way that, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company developed the musical “Matilda,” which enjoyed a robust New York run.
The musical will be a family-centric centerpiece for STC’s 2021-2022 season, a return to in-person performance that starts Sept. 14 with “The Amen Corner,” a well-received revival of James Baldwin’s gospel play. Director Whitney White’s production was forced to close at Harman Hall in March 2020 as the pandemic spread.
Other offerings in the new season include David Strathairn in a special engagement of “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” (Oct. 6 to 17), directed by Derek Goldman. Also on tap: director Alan Paul’s revival of “Our Town” (Feb. 17 to March 20, 2022); “The Merchant of Venice,” directed by Arin Arbus and featuring John Douglas Thompson as Shylock (March 22 to April 17, 2022); and “Much Ado About Nothing” (April 21 to May 22, 2022), set in a Washington TV newsroom and staged by Godwin.
“Red Velvet,” a play by Lolita Chakrabarti about the first Black actor in London to play Othello, concludes the season. It will be directed by Jade King Carroll and run in the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh from June 16 to July 27, 2022.
Thompson is an especially exciting choice for Shylock: One eagerly awaits how a superb Black actor navigates that eternally provocative Jewish character. The production will start at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, where Godwin’s evocative “Timon of Athens” also ran before coming to Washington.
Undoubtedly, though, the marriage of Spears and Shakespeare will be one of the most talked-about convergences of a revivified D.C. theater scene.
The large-cast musical will contain a passel of Spears hits — including numbers such as “Lucky,” “Toxic” and “Oops I Did It Again.” It takes as its story a book club whose fairy-tale members — Cinderella, Snow White and the like — are changed after they read a feminist manifesto.
Godwin said it was the “intellectual rigor” that made him want to present “Once Upon a One More Time.”
“Some folks might think it is a jukebox musical, but it is not,” he said, referring to a genre that recycles the songs of a celebrated popular songwriter and constructs a narrative to go with them. “Mamma Mia!,” featuring the music of Abba, is a prototype. “This is taking classical stories and refashioning them. I felt there was a promise of excellence.”
Godwin said that Spears has been supportive of the project from the outset and that he hopes to get her reactions. David Leveaux, a British director who has staged plays and musicals on Broadway, including a well-received revival of “Nine” with Antonio Banderas, is serving as a consultant.
In a Zoom interview from San Diego, Keone and Mari Madrid said they were hired in 2018 to choreograph the show and, several months later, were asked to direct as well. They replaced director Kristin Hanggi (“Rock of Ages”).
“We were so intrigued about the entire concept of, you know, fairy-tale characters and wanting to change their stories,” Keone Madrid said. “And once we attended the reading and we saw — we immediately fell in love with it and saw the potential.”
The Madrids are married and have a young daughter, 2-year-old Numah. Just before the pandemic, they directed and choreographed their first full-length, off-Broadway dance show, “Beyond Babel.”
They also choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber’s music video “Love Yourself.” Assuming the reins of a musical with Broadway intentions — not to mention a cast of 20 or so — is a whole other level of challenge.
It also carries significant opportunity and risk for the Shakespeare Theatre, which has long been stymied in its efforts to fill the Harman, the newer and larger of its two spaces.
“I think it very much represents what Simon wants to do: being bold and audacious and to welcome a Broadway swatch of audiences into our theater,” said Chris Jennings, STC’s executive director.
Who says, after all, that Spears can’t find a place in the canon?
“As Simon said,” Jennings recalled, “good theater is good theater.”