Fairy Tale Friday: Once Upon A Mattress

OnceUponAMattressThe musical, Once Upon A Mattress, is a very funny adaptation of the Princess and the Pea story. It sets out to answer some of the questions that I raised in my previous post — where did the princess come from? What was wrong with the other princesses? Why the pea under the mattress test? How did she actually pass the test?


In this case, the princess is actually brought to the castle by Sir Harry, who desperately wants the Prince to get married, so he can marry is own love, Lady Larken. (The Queen has decreed that no one else in the kingdom may marry until the Prince does). The Prince he has found is named Fred, and she lived in a swamp. She truly is a princess, but not like any princess this kingdom has ever seen.

The prince is immediately taken with her, which scares the Queen, who is a domineering tyrant with a mute husband, and a son who is so pathetic, you feel quite sorry for him.

As the Prince and Princess Fred get to know each other (and fall in love?) we learn that Sir Harry and Lady Larken REALLY need to get married ASAP, because a little picnic they enjoyed has resulted in an impending blessing. (And one gets the feeling that they aren’t entirely sure how that happened…) Sir Harry is more worried about the impact on HIS reputation than on the consequences for his love, and frankly, one wonders what Lady Larken sees in him.

In the meantime, the Queen and her Wizard are devising tests to get rid of the completely unsuitable Princess Fred, and decide upon the mattress test.

once 2005

A visiting minstrel, and the court jester turn out to be the heroes of the story because they (a) come up with a plan to help Lady Larkin escape her situation and go to the beautiful land of Normandy and (b) they overhear the Queen scheming with the wizard about the pea plot, and are able to “help” matters along — they stuff Princess Fred’s mattresses full of swords and armor and other bulky metal objects, so it’s no wonder she doesn’t sleep a wink.

Lady Larken is caught escaping, but it doesn’t matter, because Princess Fred has passed the test — the prince has a bride, and the King finally puts his stands up to wife, finds his voice again, and everyone lives “happily, happily, happily ever after.”

Broadway and TV

Carol Burnett was the Princess Fred in the Broadway production (1959) (and in 2 made for TV versions, 1964 and 1972). The musical has also been filmed more recently (2005), with Carol Burnett as the Queen, Tracey Ullman as Princess Fred, and even more notably: Glee’s Matthew Morrison (Will Schuester) as Sir Harry. It was fun to watch, especially when we were getting ready for the high school production, however it was only just OK. The Carol Burnett version was infinitely better…unfortunately, I’ve only ever seen the 1972 version, and that was many years ago: I haven’t found it on DVD, and YouTube only turns up some very bad screen captures of someone’s TV.

Suzanne’s Trip Down Memory Lane

I’ve mentioned that this has a special place in my heart: during my senior year of high school (a million years ago! OK, it was 1990), our school staged a production: and I was Lady Larken. And more recently, the high school that I am now working at staged it, and I was the accompanist for the show. Plus, I made a “quilt” that we draped over a metal bunk bed to be our 20 mattresses…my dogs still sleep on that “quilt.”

It has become very hard for me to separate the additions of “Once Upon A Mattress” from the original story when I think of the Princess and the Pea. The fact that Princess Fred was “helped” in the mattress test harkens back to versions of the story prior to Andersen’s most popular telling — she was often only able to pass the test because a helper had told her about the test beforehand. And the fact that the Queen is such a miserable person colors my perspective of her, even in the original.

As a musical, Once Upon A Mattress is a lot of fun, and lends itself well to high school productions. It’s not spectacular by any means, but it is a sweet and funny retelling, and I will always remember it fondly, not just for the story itself, but also for the high school memories.

It’s funny, the high school productions that I have helped with as an adult  have all been fraught with both highs and lows. Every single productions has been plagued by worries that the students won’t pull it off because they are still learning lines and stage directions and music and dancing right up until a week before the production. They always manage to pull it off, barely, but it makes me wonder back to my high school days — I suppose we were that way, too. In fact, I know we were: we had to make changes to one of the songs because some of us hadn’t learned the music in time!

Have you seen a production of Once Upon A Mattress? What did you think?

As I mentioned last week, my fairy tale posts this month are inspired by a group of bloggers who are writing about fairy tales and retellings this month, the host is The Cheap Reader. I am participating unofficially, as I did not get signed up (I didn’t hear about it until just a few weeks ago!)


  1. Brandy @ A Little of the Book Life says:

    I, too, have a special place for this one. When I was a junior in high school we staged a production of this and I was the director for it (I opted not to act in it since I’m not a huge fan of singing in front of people, especially with a microphone!). It was an amazing experience and such a fun production. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Madigan says:

    I’ve never seen Once Upon a Mattress, but this post sure brings back some high school drama club memories! I think there’s something very universal about learning lines at the last minute.

    There are so many fairy tales about a hero (or heroine) who only makes it based on the unsolicited advice or help of others. I think it’s a good lesson. Don’t turn down help from any corner!

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