Events, podcasts, teaching

The Dis! Enchanted Life

Flipping the script has become a popular media literacy technique particularly when it comes to reframing the ageless fairy tale of the princess living “happily ever after” with her prince—recast as mistress of her own destiny. This past August, Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons ) dropped his new irreverent and witty animated sitcom (for adults) titled Disenchantment that follows the story of a rebellious and alcoholic princess, her naive elf companion and her “personal demon.” Unconventional, for sure.

But before Disenchantment, there was the irreverent musical comedy Disenchanted! that brings the original storybook heroines back to life to set the record straight with an empowering message for modern girls. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and others reflect on their lot in life. They sing about sexuality, body-image issues, and even racism.

The play is based on the book, music and lyrics all written by Dennis T. Giacino, who was a teacher in New Jersey and acted at the Black River Playhouse in Chester nearly 40 years ago. Originally, Disenchanted! was a limited-engagement off-Broadway production in 2014 it then in 2015 it had an open-ended run at the Westside Theatre in Manhattan. It played to sold out houses, rave reviews, and received several NYC award nominations and won the 2011 NJ Playwrights Contest. A teen version of Disenchanted has also been licensed out to high schools in Florida, Canada and worldwide. In 2019 there are performances in Italy, the UK, Australia, Argentina. It had a local run with the Chester Theater Group October 5-21, 2018.

Joining the C+MRC podcast for this episode is Susan Hagen, who by night plays Rapunzel in DisEnchanted! By day, Susan is the Department Administrator and Program Advisor in the Department of Secondary and Special Education in the College of Education and Human Services here at Montclair State University. And in the interest of full disclosure, Susan and I have worked together in various capacities for more than a decade. Whether she is on stage or behind her desk, I am one of Susan Hagen’s biggest fans.

In 2014 The New York Times described “Cinderella is kind of a nitwit, Snow White can be a little mean, and Sleeping Beauty? Narcoleptic, apparently.” But Rapunzel is pretty brazen and, well, she is German, flaunts a unibrow and wears combat boots. There is a song that Rapunzel sings with Snow White and Cinderella titled, “Not V’One Red Cent.” It points to the über-commodification and commercialization of the Walt Disney Company. It really is Susan’s swan song in the show.

From snippets that I’ve seen on YouTube and a few numbers performed on broadcast television, I wasn’t expecting such a cohesive play. There is actually a storyline that threads it altogether quite nicely—that each of us women are perfectly imperfect.The moral is to dance, sing and march to your own drum in ways that are perfectly imperfect, but most of all—true and honest.

As an audience member of Disenchanted! I was struck by the more poignant parts where Pocahontas sings “Honestly,” pointing out that she was actually ten years old at the time of John Smith (she never really kissed him) and how could these white male animators draw her with such big breasts? All valid lamentations. There is a layer of melancholy beyond the wacky slapstick comedy. Like when the Little Mermaid in a drunken stupor (reminiscent of a country music ballad) is listing all the cons of trading her mermaid tail for clumsy legs and a vapid Prince. Relatable, for sure. And just in case you were wondering, I did a head count of the audience members in the round and there were just as many men in the audience as there were women.

Truth be told, educators have been “reading beyond the princess,” so to speak for quite some time. In a 1993 study, Cornish primary school students studied Disney Princess fairy tales alongside alternative “upside-down” fairy tales. Many teachers ask students to compare and contrast characters, settings, and plots across the early versions of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, Disney fairy tales, and multicultural versions from outside the United States. The idea is to expand student understanding beyond the pervasive Disney version that tends to dominate American culture.

The Chester Theatre Group performs Disenchanted! at the Black River Playhouse through October 21, 2018. If you missed it, you can catch it at the Women’s Theatre in Parsippany, New Jersey in June 2019.

Further reading:
Hurley, D. (2005). Seeing white: Children of color and the Disney fairy tale princess. The Journal of Negro Education74(3), 221-232.
Kaminiski, R. (2000). Using multicultural Cinderella books to engage students in comprehension strategies: Classroom connections. Council Connections, 6(1), 14-17.