As horrible as the human race can seem at times, it may be said at least that we invented the musical comedy, that alongside our peerless capacity for self-destruction there glows a spark that can conceive of a world in which men and women burst into song or dance just because the moment demands it. It is as unlikely a thing, the musical, as it is easy to accept.
"Once Upon a Mattress," the third TV adaptation of which premieres Sunday night on ABC, was a product of the High Golden Age of the musical; it opened on Broadway the same year, 1959, as "The Sound of Music" and "Gypsy," a little after "Damn Yankees" and "My Fair Lady." The score, by Marshall Barer and Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard and the author as well of "Freaky Friday"), produced no hit songs -- the words are all too site-specific -- but it is witty and tuneful; its spirit, which is ironic and parodic and midcentury modern, seems as akin to musical satirist Tom Lehrer, whose first album also came out in 1959, as to anything else on Broadway. It was also the year that the similarly inclined "Fractured Fairy Tales" debuted as a feature of "Rocky and His Friends" ("Once Upon a Mattress" is a revisionist "The Princess and the Pea").
The show's greatest gift to pop culture, however, is that it made a star out of Carol Burnett, as Princess Winnifred ("Fred" to her friends), and that association may have as much to do with its longevity as anything within the play itself: Burnett, who is an executive producer of the current version, re-created her Broadway role in the first two TV adaptations, in 1964 and 1972; this time she plays villainess Queen Aggravain, a domineering mother with an unhealthy attachment to her milquetoasty son Prince Dauntless, whose marriage she has been contriving to prevent by submitting eligible princesses to impossible tests. Tracey Ullman steps into Burnett's old part, that of a princess from a swamp kingdom who makes her first entrance soaking wet, having swam the moat.
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who also choreographed Matthew Broderick's 2003 TV turn as "The Music Man" (like "Once Upon a Mattress," a product of Disney/ABC), this is a solid (too solid at times), almost aggressively colorful production of a decent show, streamlined as Broadway books usually are, but not substantially revised. Adapter Janet Brownell has wisely resisted the temptation to modernize. Even the performances feel true to the spirit of an earlier age: Zooey Deschanel ("Elf"), who essays what used to be called the ingenue and was not yet born the last time "Mattress" was made for TV, has the sound of 1959 Broadway down pat, without ever approaching parody.
Burnett is on firm ground, channeling all those movie divas she parodied on her TV series, and wearing Bob Mackie again; he has covered her in sequins and given her headgear that would make a Vegas showgirl blanch. She pulls out her trademark squeaks and squeals and sudden changes of range, from high pitched baby talk to low arresting rumble; even allowing for cosmetic surgery, she does not at all seem her years, which number more than 70. Ullman, who is so good at everything it's easy to take her for granted, gets the best of the score to sing ("Shy," "The Swamps of Home," "Happily Ever After") and the madcap "Spanish Panic" to dance, and handles all with enthusiasm and ease.
Broadway ringers Denis O'Hare (Tony-nominated last year for "Assassins") and Matthew Morrison (Tony-nominated this year for "The Light in the Piazza") play Prince Dauntless and Prince Harry (the "juvenile") respectively. Tom Smothers, of all people, plays the king, mostly in pantomime. (He sneaks in a bit of yo-yo work.) Michael Boatman, from "Spin City," plays the Jester, and Edward Hibbert of "Frasier" is the Wizard, and everyone is as good as can be.
Still, while the performances are first-rate, and the film is never less than enjoyable, it doesn't quite take off. It's odd that the dances don't read better than they do, given Marshall's bona fides, but it may be a bit of a lost art, putting these things on film. Given that in their natural habitat stage musicals depend on the excitement and risk of live performance, it's possible that the best way to present them on television is just to turn on a couple of cameras and let it all happen in real time, like the old Mary Martin "Peter Pan," or the Angela Lansbury "Sweeney Todd."
Children will likely enjoy themselves here, but sensitive adults may want to note that the queen's regard for her son is just a hair shy of incestuous; that Deschanel's character is pregnant, as they say, "out of wedlock"; and that there is a whole song devoted to sex.
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Zooey Deschanel...Lady Larken
Executive producers Marc E. Platt, Carol Burnett, Marty Tudor. Teleplay Janet Brownell. Director Kathleen Marshall. Based on Broadway musical by Marshall Louis Barer, Dean Fuller, Jay Thompson and Mary Rodgers.