The principal at the elementary school where John Hartmere was teaching was aghast. “You’re going to turn down Harvard to write?” he said, to which Hartmere responded, “Did my mom call and tell you to say that?”
Harvard University loomed large and ever-present in the Hartmere family from Woburn, Massachusetts. Yet Hartmere had a vision of becoming a writer for stage and screen, giving the University of Southern California the clear edge over Cambridge for his undergraduate studies. After college, Hartmere stayed in L.A., but took a job as a teacher for LA Unified — so close, yet still so far from Hollywood. “Hats off to teachers everywhere,” he says, “because I thought, at 3 p.m., ‘Oh, I’ll have all this free time to write.’ I don’t think I produced a single thing in the first couple of years because it was so exhausting.”
Hartmere abandoned teaching and took “a leap of faith” to pursue full-time writing, which led him to work in TV and film, including PBS’s The Electric Company and the 2017 dramedy The Upside starring Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman. Yet before he went for it, he agonized over going back to school to pursue a master’s degree in public policy and economics — yes, at Harvard.
It was a dilemma for Hartmere, who remembers thinking at the time, “‘Okay, here’s a crossroads’ — pun unintended.” The pun, as it were, is that Britney Spears made her film debut in a 2002 teen drama called Crossroads — and the 47-year-old Hartmere knows this not simply as a fan but as the writer of a new musical built around the music and themes from Spears’ career. “At this point I’ve listened to every single song I think that she’s ever recorded, just to try to find, ‘What can we put where?'”
Hartmere began work on Once Upon a One More Time five years ago, in response to a call for script submissions from The Nederlander Organization, a Broadway theater and production powerhouse.
“All I really had to go on was that it wasn’t going to be a bio-musical, and that Britney loves fairies,” he says. Hartmere had valuable knowledge and insight about fairytales from his years in the classroom. “Having taught elementary school, I read quite a few to a lot of different children, and I’m well aware of the power of them and how the messaging…can be off at times, viewed through a modern lens.”
Hartmere, who is gay, confronts some of those problems head-on in Once Upon a One More Time, now playing at The Shakespeare Theatre ahead of a 2022 Broadway debut, which centers around a cadre of the most popular and enduring fairytale princesses. He developed the musical alongside the husband-and-wife creative team of Keone and Mari Madrid, whose stunning range of expressive choreography is a show in its own right.
Early on, Cinderella, the belle of them all, expresses existential ennui over her life and story, and questions why she doesn’t feel particularly happy in her “happy ever after” state. In response comes one of Spears’ earliest hits, performed by the other princes and princesses — powerfully portrayed by an assortment of true up-and-coming triple threats: “She’s so lucky, but why does she cry?”
“That’s really the big aha moment for us,” Hartmere says. “What they’ve been sold is not really what in their heart of hearts they want out of life, and they’re very confused about why it’s not matching up. And that tracks pretty closely with what Betty Friedan found in The Feminine Mystique.” The trailblazing work of women’s empowerment becomes a feminist rallying cry for the princesses, just as it did for American women nearly sixty years ago. Naturally, it also provokes a backlash from traditionalists with real-world echoes and antecedents as well.
Spears hasn’t had any direct involvement in the musical’s development, but she has given her assent, says Hartmere. “She came to one of the later readings and was very sweet beforehand and even sweeter afterwards. She was laughing and clapping and singing along.” Hartmere doesn’t know “when, or if, she’ll see this production, but she’s definitely supportive.”
In the end, Hartmere finds it remarkable just how much unintentional overlap there is between the story he wrote and the Spears saga that has played out in real life and in real time over the same time period.
“We started this a long time ago, well before anybody was talking about this,” he says, referring to the conservatorship that had control over Spears and her estate up until just last month. “For something that’s not a bio-musical, the actual piece tracks really closely with what she’s gone through. This is about…women learning that they should have autonomy in their own stories. That really predated everything. But, I follow her on Instagram just like everybody else, and she talks a lot about magic and fairies. So it feels, in a way, almost like she willed this thing into existence.”
Once Upon a One More Time runs to Jan. 9 at The Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $142 to $190. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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