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Once Upon a One More Time and the rise of the faux-progressive pop musical

On June 22, the new Britney Spears jukebox musical Once Upon a One More Time opened on Broadway. Airy as a fallen souflée from an Easy-Bake Oven, the new show aims to reimagine the Spears songbook as a fairy tale turned feminist parable.

You get the idea pretty quickly. The Cinderella of Once Upon a One More Time, discontented and isolated, fears that her loneliness is killing her, even as her stepsisters instruct her to work, bitch. After her fairy godmother offers her a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, however, Cinderella is empowered. At the end of the show, she finds the strength to rip off her sparkling princess gown to reveal another, shorter sparkling princess gown and belt out “Till the World Ends” with all her fairy tale friends. You want a piece of her?

Both as an interpretation of Britney’s oeuvre and as a feminist polemic, Once Upon a One More Time is a failure. (Surprisingly, it works pretty well as a showcase for Justin Guarini of runner-up-to-Kelly-Clarkson fame — he makes a meal out of some of Spears’s best songs in the role of Cinderella’s caddish Prince Charming.) It’s an oddly familiar kind of failure, though.

One More Time is one of a spree of recent Broadway musicals that attempt, with various degrees of hamfistedness, to marry a bubblegum pop songbook to a politically progressive reinterpretation of an existing story. It’s as though, after the success of Hamilton, producers all over New York City ordered up message musicals with radio-friendly songbooks by the dozen. Only now are they beginning to realize that it’s actually pretty hard to make that combination work.

First came Six. Arriving on Broadway in 2021 after originating in London, Six uses original songs heavily inspired by existing pop numbers to tell the tale of the six wives of Henry VIII, this time with more girl power. Following fast on its heels was 2022’s & Juliet, which uses the songs of Swedish megaproducer Max Martin to imagine a story where instead of killing herself after Romeo dies, Juliet goes to Paris to party with her genderqueer best friend. This spring came the show with the name that tempted fate: Bad Cinderella, another feminist take on the fairy tale. (Bad Cinderella closed in June after just 85 performances.) This time the songbook was provided by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the man who reinvented the Broadway pop musical in the 1980s.

Together, these shows form a bizarre kind of mini trend, one worth examining carefully. A close look at the ways these musicals fall apart and the ways they succeed reveals the political limitations of the pop musical — as well as its pure, blazing potential.

Pop music celebrates the now. That makes it a weird choice for amplifying progressive ideas.

Read on its face, pop is a politically conservative genre. It is about girls kissing boys for true love and girls kissing girls to turn on boys; about hedonism; about the pleasures of the now rather than the possible, the empowerment of the individual rather than the solidarity of a group, and the comforts of the status quo. Pop songs with explicitly left-wing messaging exist (Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” is probably one of the more artistically successful), but they are not doing the thing that the genre is designed to do. They stick out.

What pop is designed to do is make you feel really good in the present moment. It is designed to give its listeners a pure jolt of joy, of exhilaration. Its most politically subversive potential comes, like disco before it, from its ability to grant that joy to an audience of mostly women, queer people, and people of color.

The faux-progressive pop musical, however, mostly ignores that potential. It generally attempts to try to cram liberal slogans into a musical form that was never designed to bear them.

Six is a good case study in this problem in part because it is such a frustrating show. The frame narrative there is that the six ill-fated wives of Henry VIII are competing to see who had the worst time of it as Henry’s queen. One after another, each queen sings a song inspired by a real-life pop star detailing her tale of woe — and since pop has a long and rich tradition of songs about women dealing with infidelity and no-good men, the songs are mostly bops.

At the end of its run, though, Six decides to aim for a progressive critique of the history it has been retelling. It informs us that in fact it is tasteless and unfeminist to pit one woman’s suffering against another’s. It informs us that it is doing a disservice to the real-life wives of Henry VIII to care about their stories only within the context of their marriage to Henry.

This is a baffling choice because what Six is about is retelling the story of Henry VIII’s six marriages and pitting the suffering of each wife against the other, set to deeply catchy music. When the queens inform us that they were faking their catfight all along in order to prove a larger point, it lands as hollow lip service. Six only works, musically, if it is about pitting women’s sorrow against women’s sorrow. The ending pretends the rest of the show was joking because, if you’re looking at it through a genuinely progressive lens, the rest of the show is indefensible. It’s also the only way the music actually works.

Bad Cinderella has a similar problem. The show pretends to be about how beauty standards are fascist and oppressive. “Beauty is our duty,” sing the regimented citizens of Belleville, where it’s a matter of civic pride to hew to mainstream beauty standards. They revile Cinderella, who we are told is the one citizen of Belleville who can see through their shallow values. “I’m the opposite of everything you are!” she taunts them.

But pop celebrates beauty, and this Cinderella is beautiful. In her ’90s cool girl alt gear, she is the Alanis Morisette to the rest of the show’s Mickey Mouse Club; Avril Lavine in a tie belt. She keeps insisting she’s a rebel when nothing about her or her genre is rebellious.

Pop, after all, has always been good at commodifying critiques of itself, at making money off the idea that its candy-coated sheen hides something dark. Well before her downward spiral in 2007, Britney Spears spent half her time singing songs like “Lucky,” about a pop princess hiding deep sorrow underneath her perfect exterior. Yet there was never any suggestion Britney wrote the song itself, that it was autobiographical, that it expressed some version of her authentic experience. It was just another shade in her pop princess rainbow, her real perfection becoming all the more marketable by contrast with her fake pain.

In Once Upon a One More Time, “Lucky” becomes an anthem of Cinderella’s pain, a symbol of how discontented she is with her housework and her handsome prince, despite her fairy tale happy ending. But “Lucky” was designed to sell the very archetype Once Upon a One More Time pretends it is interested in critiquing. That means none of its weapons are actually sharp.

Where Once Upon a One More Time succeeds, it’s with its villains. The Stepmother vogues her way through “Work, Bitch” and “Toxic;” the faithless Prince Charming eats up the stage on “Circus” and “Oops, I Did It Again.”

These characters work not just because they get the best songs, but because the campy artificiality of their personas is pure pop. They’re not pretending to be authentic. They’ll tell you straight out they’re lying to you, and they’re having a ball doing it. That’s what pop is. That’s why they get the best songs. What’s sweet and straightforward Cinderella going to do with “Toxic?”

The progressive pop musical that comes closest to being good is & Juliet. Hear me out.

The show that probably comes the most consistently close to understanding how to deal with the problem of pop politics is & Juliet. I understand that this argument is a bit of a chaotic hot take on my part.

In a recent essay for New York magazine, Andrea Long Chu used & Juliet as an example of the ne plus ultra of the bad message musical. It is, Chu writes, “an excruciating retelling of Romeo and Juliet in which a trans-feminine character is made to tearfully croak Britney Spears’s ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.’”

I would argue, though, that & Juliet is the most successful of the shows I’ve listed here when it comes to sticking the landing on its political message. That’s because it mostly has the good sense not to have one.

& Juliet doesn’t rewrite Romeo and Juliet into an argument for equal pay and women’s work outside the home, as Once Upon a One More Time attempts to do. It makes no attempt to critique oppressive beauty standards, like Bad Cinderella. Nor does it have any pretense at feminist historiography, like Six.

Instead, the primary political argument of & Juliet is that Juliet shouldn’t have killed herself for a boy because that meant she missed out on such life experiences as swinging from a chandelier at a Parisian nightclub while singing Kesha’s “Blow.” That’s the big change this revision makes to the canonical story: it lets Juliet party more.

& Juliet does offer some light political criticism of Shakespeare and of pop itself. In a frame narrative, Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway rewrites Romeo and Juliet to grant Juliet the carefree girlhood that she never got herself, frequently upbraiding Shakespeare in the process for his role as a symbol of the heterosexual patriarchy. Still, the show winks at the fact that such a criticism doesn’t really make much sense for a man whose body of work is so overtly queer. Shakespeare is, Anne admits, “the man whose name is basically synonymous with gender-bending.”

& Juliet also subtly critiques its pop sources. A trans-feminine character named May does indeed offer up that rendition of “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” Chu found so excruciating, and I must admit I found the number fairly cringe-inspiring. I forgave it, though, when May kissed a boy and became the subject of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”

“Us girls, we are so magical,” they gloat, in a moment that pays off 15 years of queer-baiting in one joyously subversive swoop. Meanwhile, a couple of middle-aged lovers serenade each other with “Teenage Dream,” the power of their infatuation pushing them to insist that they will be young forever.

Insofar as & Juliet has a political argument to make, it is that the pleasures of pop should be available to everyone. Girls should be able to have a nice time with their friends instead of pinning their lives to boys. Queer people and old people should all be able to fall in love and sing the same conventional love songs about it that straight teenagers get to sing. This is an argument that pop is more than equipped to make. It plays straight to the strengths of the genre, showcasing the immense joy pop is able to bring audiences as well as its queer, campy aesthetic sensibility.

Pop is not necessarily the best genre to turn to if you want to critique beauty standards or argue for systemic change or equal pay for equal work. But if you want to argue that it is good for lots of people to get to have fun, pop is ready and waiting to give you an absolute blast. If you want to use pop to bring a message to an audience, & Juliet might be the best option you’re going to get. Just leave poor Betty Friedan in peace.


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