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Theatre / Once Upon a Mattress

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A musical comedy that parodies the well-known story of "The Princess and the Pea", Once Upon a Mattress started as a Broadway play, then later appeared as a TV special (more than once). It premiered in 1959, with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer. As The Other Wiki states, it's a popular choice for high school and community theater shows.

Its most prominent claim to fame is that it was the breakout role for actress Carol Burnett, who played Princess Winifred on Broadway, and appeared in several TV versions of the musical (first playing the princess, and then the Queen as she got older). One Broadway revival featured Sarah Jessica Parker in the role. Tracey Ullman played her in the 2005 TV film, which premiered on The Wonderful World of Disney.

A royal minstrel reveals to the audience that the princess and pea story they've all heard (and is recreated as an Opening Ballet) wasn't exactly what happened — he was there and has firsthand knowledge of the truth. Queen Aggravain (whose husband King Sextimus was rendered virtually powerless after he was made mute by a curse) was determined never to let her son Prince Dauntless the Drab marry, so she was constantly creating impossible tests for prospective princesses to pass before they could have his hand. To make matters worse, no one in the kingdom was allowed to wed until he was. Sir Harry, alas, had just learned that he and his sweetheart Lady Larken were expecting a child, so he headed out to find a princess who hadn't yet gone through the tests. He brought back the feisty swamp Princess Winifred the Wobegone — "Fred" for short — who instantly won Dauntless's heart. Now the evil Queen had to come up with an impossible test...

Tropes featured in this work include:

  • Adapted Out: Some productions cut out the role of the Minstrel, particularly The Wonderful World of Disney version and the 2024 New York City Center Encores! production, the latter of which gave the Minstrel's songs and dialogue to the Jester and also cut "The Minstrel, the Jester, and I".
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In the 2024 New York City Center Encores! production, the Jester (as portrayed by Tony winning nonbinary actor J. Harrison Ghee) is portrayed as non-binary using they/them pronouns and is implied to have a romantic connection with the Wizard.
  • Ambiguous Situation: As noted below, the baby’s conception during Whitsunday makes a November due date extremely unlikely. So is this a case of Writers Cannot Do Math or Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe? Or does "November" refer to the due date, or when Larkin expects to start showing (although the latter is far more difficult to predict than the former)?
  • Artistic License – Biology: In disclosing her pregnancy, Larken implies that the baby was conceived on Whitsunday, and subsequently mentions that the baby is due in November. The problem: Whitsunday, also known as Pentecost, can occur on May 11 at the earliest, and usually occurs somewhat later, resulting in a six-month due date.
  • Beta Couple: Sir Harry and Lady Larken.
  • Big Bad: Queen Aggravain is the main antagonistic force trying to drive a wedge between both of our romances.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Dauntless does this to his mother at the end after Winifred passes the sensitivity test, resulting in her being silenced and breaking the curse on King Sextimus.
  • Bowdlerization: Some stage productions, such as the 60's television special, change Larken and Harry's subplot to that they simply married in secret. Arguably, this makes more sense, since they outright defied the Queen's order.
  • Control Freak: "She is quite the royal control freak, isn't she?" asks Winifred regarding Aggravain's ways.
  • Counting Sheep: Winifred attempts this to get some shuteye. Apparently, she has been counting all night as when she enters the hall, she is still counting them.
  • Curse Escape Clause: King Sextimus the Silent is destined to be mute until the "mouse devours the hawk".
  • The Dragon: The Wizard is Queen Aggravain's right-hand man.
  • Eleven O'Clock Number: Not in the traditional musical sense, but Winnifred attempting to get some sleep on the twenty mattresses is usually a tour de force of physical comedy that it is often considered the "eleven o'clock number".
  • Fractured Fairy Tale: One of the earlier examples, presenting the classic fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea" as a somewhat racy comedy, where the princess comes from a swamp and is only trying to marry the prince in the first place so everyone else in the kingdom can finally get some (socially acceptable) action.
  • "Gaining Confidence" Song: Princess Fred's "Happily Ever After" starts off as a slow and rueful number about how other fairytale princesses have had unfair advantages over "normal" princesses like her, then slowly becomes a more raucous and confident number as she decides that her own challenges have made her stronger and determined.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Queen Aggravain is disliked by the kingdom for forbidding anyone from getting married before her son. What’s worse is that she creates difficult tests for the princesses that come seeking her son’s hand, basically ensuring that no one, not even her own son, gets married.
  • Good Parents: Sextimus is arguably a much better parent than his wife. When it seems like Dauntless might marry Winifred, Sextimus decides to give his son The Talk. When the curse on Sextimus breaks and Aggravain is the silent one now, Sextimus tells his wife to let Dauntless go when she tries to stop him from taking Winifred back to bed.
  • Good Princess, Evil Queen: The show is a Fractured Fairy Tale take on The Princess and the Pea, and is thus a humorous take on this trope. The devious Queen Aggravain, ruling largely by herself as her husband has been rendered mute by a curse, has instituted a Wedlock Block on the country; nobody can wed until her son Dauntless does. However, she imposes unfair tests on any woman who tries to marry him to prolong her own rule. Enter the brash and plucky Princess Winifred, who does manage to pass her test. Everyone lives Happily Ever After except for the Queen, who is rendered mute in turn as karma.
  • Henpecked Husband: King Sextimus (actually, he's more hawk-pecked).
  • Hypocritical Humor: You can say it almost relies on it.
    • [softly] "I've... always... been... [belted, full-out] SHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, I confess it, I'm SHYYYYYYYYY!!!"
    • In the opening of Act Two, the Queen wants quiet for Princess Winifred and her sensitivity test, and she will get it even if she has to SCREAM THE PALACE DOWN. "She's ordered twenty mattresses, the softest and the best, and she's threatened execution if we dare disturb the rest of her very special guest, she's ordered QUIET! QUIET! QUIET!"
    • When Larken reveals her pregnancy (with Harry as the father), he says that they shouldn't suffer all their lives just because she had a moment of weakness.
  • Last-Second Word Swap: Near the end of "An Opening For a Princess," the frustrated men and women of the kingdom sing: "No one is getting any... younger."
  • The Magnificent: Parodied, with Winnifred the Woebegone, Dauntless the Drab, and Sextimus the Silent.
  • Meaningful Name: Queen Aggravain (a portmanteau of "aggravating" and "migraine", and there's "vain" in there too as a bonus).
  • Mistaken for Servant: Larken briefly mistakes Fred for a chambermaid. Although, to be fair, Fred was on her hands and knees wiping the floor (she had accidentally broken a vase) at the time.
  • My Beloved Smother: Queen Aggravaine. She doesn’t want her son to get married at all and purposely designs ridiculous tests for each princess that seeks him out so that they fail. Even when Winifred passes the test, Aggravaine still tries to dissuade her son from marrying Winifred.
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: It is very clear that Aggravain wants to keep Dauntless under her thumb despite coming up with a rule of no one else being able to marry until her son does.
  • Opening Ballet: "Many Moons Ago" has the Minstrel presenting the original "Princess and the Pea" story in song, while dancers reenact it behind him. Crucially, the personalities and appearances of the King, Queen, Prince, and especially Princess are completely different from their counterparts in the rest of the show.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Queen Aggravain's wardrobe consists of dresses that are cut and decorated in outlandish ways. The princess in the story wear fancy dresses, but in proper styles.
  • Placebo Eureka Moment: How the Queen comes up with the idea for the mattress test. She asks the wizard to help her think of a test to give Princess Winnifred, but ends up just complaining without letting him get a word in edgewise. She ends up coming up with the idea all on her own, but still calls the wizard "a genius" for it.
  • Plucky Girl: Princess Winnifred. She's so determined to meet the prince that she swims the moat to get to the castle faster!
  • Prophecies Rhyme All the Time:
    • "Throughout the land no one may wed / 'Til Dauntless to the altar's led." (alternatively, "'Til Dauntless shares his wedding bed")
    • "King Sextimus shall never talk / Until the mouse devours the hawk."
  • Prophecy Twist: Yes, they already tried breaking the King's curse with a big mouse and a small hawk, but it didn't work out. Instead the curse is broken when the mouse(y) Prince Dauntless finally overcomes the hawk(ish) Queen Aggravaine.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The subplot with Sir Harry and Lady Larkin. They go through a lot of trouble to find out what the test is, and make sure that the princess passes it. In the end, it turns out that she would've passed it without them.
  • Straight Man: Queen Aggravaine, to virtually every other character's ridiculous shenanigans.
  • The Talk: Has its own musical number; unique in that the King can't speak, and has to do the whole thing in pantomime. Unfortunately, he fails to get the message across and in the end, he just pantomimes a Delivery Stork.
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: "Song of Love" is full of them.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Fred and Larken, respectively.
  • Tomboyish Name: Princess Winifred is known to her friends as Fred.
  • Villain Song: "Sensitivity" certainly has the feel of a villain song.
  • Visual Pun: Queen Aggravaine's tests for prospective princesses include impossibly difficult questions. Those who can't answer them get rubber chickens as consolation prizes.
    Prince Dauntless: Why must every princess get the bird?
  • The Voiceless: The King is the only silent character for whole musical. He's able to get his voice back after his son finally stands up to his mother and turns her into this.
  • Wasn't That Fun?: At the end of the Spanish Panic, all the dancers but Fred have collapsed:
    Queen Aggravaine: Are you feeling a little weary, dear?
    Fred: No, let's do it again!
  • Wedlock Block: Nobody is allowed to marry until Dauntless does, and Queen Aggravain is actively interfering with all of his attempts.