Ask Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) Artistic Director Simon Godwin if he’s a fan of Britney Spears, and he’ll say yes — we all are. Not in the traditional sense of late ’90s teeny boppers screaming along to her songs in the front row, but on a level similar to Shakespeare himself.
“What’s interesting about Britney Spears is we’re all fans, even if we don’t realize it,” Godwin says. “Similar to Shakespeare, her influence is deep within us. People can always quote ‘To be or not to be.’ When you hear Britney’s music, you can’t help but recognize it.”
Britney’s pop tunes will take center stage November 30 to January 2 at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall with the world premiere of “Once Upon a One More Time” by writer and actor Jon Hartmere. The first production of Shakespeare’s 2021-2022 season, the Spears-inspired musical turns the idea of a fairytale princess on its proverbial glass slipper.
“Once Upon a One More Time” follows female protagonists including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel who, at their book club meeting, are introduced to “The Feminine Mystique”— an eye-opening tome delivered by one sharp fairy godmother.
“We travel with the characters as they discover their stories can be rewritten,” Godwin notes. “They feel trapped in their own narratives and discover a way out.”
The production’s concept was Spears’ idea, one many years in the making. The show was originally set to launch in Chicago in 2020 but was canceled due to the pandemic. Yet it’s particularly prescient now, considering Spears’ widely publicized conservatorship struggle which draws parallels to the princesses’ realization of independence.
“Society is interested in metamorphosis,” Godwin says. “In the original fairytales, female characters were passive. They were not given the same agency as males. ‘One More Time’ represents those stories in a way that celebrates female agency.”
Consider the production’s soundtrack. Aside from the obvious title song, you’ll hear “Stronger,” “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “Toxic” and “Lucky,” the latter about a young starlet considering what her life could be out of the spotlight.
“Britney is very much in the show,” Godwin says. “You feel an amazing dialogue with her — her legacy of music, art and personality.”
The production also presents a form of meaningful escapism (with a large helping of humor) at a time when people are reevaluating their own journeys.
“It’s an empowering, entertaining and euphoric story,” Godwin says. “The experience is joyous and I think it verges on a party. Theatre that does that right now is extremely valuable.”
“Much of the work is about creating flow and shapes,” Godwin says. “Keone and Mari Madrid are interested in creating something with uninterrupted narrative and momentum. It’s a heightened physical piece of theatre.”
“[Justin] is an exciting embodiment of wit and depth,” Godwin says. “He has an incredible singing voice and I really enjoy his mastery of style: It’s heightened but still true.”
There’s Tony winner John Glover (of “Love! Valour! Compassion!”) as the narrator, Aisha Jackson as Snow White and Brooke Dillman as the Original Fairy Godmother (O.F.G.). Tony nominee Emily Skinner, Mimi Scardulla and Tess Soltau play the Stepmother and Stepsisters, respectively.
“I find their comic timing, heartfulness and charisma very appealing and enticing,” Godwin says.
“Once Upon a One More Time” is a key play for STC’s mission.
“When I took the job in late 2019, I was passionate about creating a holiday musical for families,” says Godwin, whose resume includes working at Royal Shakespeare Co. and National Theatre of London. “I was keen to attract new and younger audiences and [focused on the idea that] we weren’t just Shakespeare. We are broader — a theater that takes old stories and discovers audacious ways of producing them.”
And that’s just what “Once Upon a One More Time” achieves.
“It’s extraordinary and new, and yet somehow deeply resonant,” Godwin reflects. “We’ll be sharing a dream together that’s at once familiar and strange.”
“Once Upon a One More Time” runs from November 30 to January 2. Learn more and buy tickets at shakespearetheatre.org.
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