It’s Britney, bitch.
Or at least, it’s a Broadway musical based on songs from the pop star’s catalog.
Entitled Once Upon a One More Time, the musical — which opened at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre on Thursday — is set to Spears’ hit songs, including “Crazy” and “Circus.” The story itself, however, is not about her own life, despite fans who may see parallels between the pop icon and the musical’s cast of fairytale characters.
The plot of the two-act show featuring more than 20 of Spears’ hits follows Cinderella and other well-known storybook princesses as they try to break free from their presumed “happily ever after” narratives in search of their own empowerment. (A clandestinely acquired copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique plays a key role in this.)
“In that sense, it really feels a bit kismet that it’s tracking what she’s going through,” said book writer Jon Hartmere. “I was fascinated by the idea of these women in this cocoon-like environment, who don’t know what they don’t know and don’t know what they can have, then being awoken to the possibility of it.”
Importantly, Spears has signed off on the musical. She also suggested initial themes for the plotline and signed an underlying rights agreement with the production, in one of the first deals signed since the singer was freed from her conservatorship in November 2021. Members of the production sought to honor Spears, whether that be financially or creatively, as the elusive star influenced the show from afar.
The idea for the musical came after an agent at Creative Artists Agency called James L. Nederlander, a Broadway theater owner/producer and president of the Nederlander Organization, and asked if he wanted to make a musical based on Spears’ catalog.
Nederlander and his team had prior experience with artist-based musicals after working on Movin’ Out with Billy Joel and On Your Feet with Gloria and Emilio Estefan, which the team was in the middle of creating at the time, and were attracted by the global appeal of the pop star and her importance to generations of fans.
“She sells a lot of records. She’s a big star, and her music means a lot to a lot of people,” Nederlander said. “If you listen to her lyrics, they’re quite good. So I thought: Let’s take a shot with this.”
Nederlander then flew out to Las Vegas in 2016 to meet with Spears after one of her shows to propose the idea of doing a musical. Spears was excited by the idea, Nederlander said, and she provided the inspiration for some of the main themes of the show.
“We asked her what she would like, what ideas interested her, and she talked about fairy tales and princesses and butterflies, which is eminently a part of her journey,” said Nick Scandalios, evp of the Nederlander Organization. (A representative for Spears confirmed the timeline and statements about Spears in this piece.)
Spears and her team did not want the musical to be about her own life story, as has been the case for many catalog-based musicals. “They tried to get ahead of, what are the ways that we can pay tribute to and monetize the legacy of her 30-year career that fit within the boundaries that she has as a person who’s been really abused by a system?” said Hunter Arnold, a lead producer on the musical.
The Nederlander team then commissioned a written treatment, which was also presented to and approved by Spears. Hartmere, who has written and rewritten the show through its various iterations in D.C. and on Broadway, first became attached in 2016 after getting a call from his agent about pitching for the musical, which “was not going to be a bio musical at all.”
“He said that she loves fairy tales, and I’d just written a spec script set in the world of fairy tales,” Hartmere recalls. “He was like, ‘Is there something you can use from there?’ I thought about it over the weekend and said: Actually, looking at her songbook, she literally has a song called ‘Cinderella,’ so there probably is something I can do here.”
The team later conducted a series of readings, and had Spears attend one of them in spring 2018. During that reading, Spears would give the show “the thumbs up,” Scandalios said, and the creative team continued on with the development process.
At this point Keone and Mari Madrid, the husband-wife duo who’ve collaborated with Justin Bieber, BTS, Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran and Kendrick Lamar, boarded as the musical’s director-choreographers. “We were just so surprised that we got hit up at all, because we’re not really from the musical theater world. We were also just like Britney Spears? We’re not her choreographers. Do you need to talk to them?” Madrid recalls, laughing.
“I was like, ‘Did they confuse our email for Brian Friedman’s [Spears’ choreographer at the time] email? Because we know Brian and you can hit him up,” Keone adds. “But when we came to the reading, we were just so sold by how Jon was able to marry not just Britney’s music into the story, but her spirit. Then, equally so, having this unique take on fairy tales. We love fairy tales. We grew up on them, and we’re ’90s kids, so we grew up in that era. It felt like a millennial musical, and we were so excited to have the opportunity to be a part of that.”
Once Upon A One More Time was originally slated to make its world premiere in Chicago in October 2019, but the opening was pushed back to April 2020. Those plans were then scuttled by the closure of all theaters during the global pandemic. For Hartmere, the pandemic pause played an important role in giving him time to fine tune the show ahead of its Broadway run.
“The world has changed so much. It almost feels like we’re on a different planet from where we started,” he said. “So each iteration of the show that is talking about, in a way, current events, you’re trying to keep up with that bit of a roller coaster ride that humanity is on. In that sense, [the musical] was informed and changed based on what’s going on around us.”
It’s a cultural timeliness that is evident in the musical’s sly references to women not being paid fairly (in the case of Cinderella versus Prince Charming), as well as tongue-in-cheek lines about the U.S. being a “great place for women.”
The musical made its world premiere in December 2021 at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, before starting previews on Broadway in May 2023. Briga Heelan leads the Broadway cast as Cinderella, alongside Justin Guarini as Charming, Adam Godley as the narrator and Jennifer Simard as the stepmother.
As Once Upon a One More Time moved forward, production signed the underlying rights agreement with Spears, notably one of the first deals Spears signed since a judge terminated her conservatorship, which she had been in since 2008. It was a situation she later described as controlling both in terms of her personal life and finances, with the singer alleging in court that it was “abusive.”
The show’s agreement, which Spears signed in December 2021, goes beyond a music and song licensing deal, providing the singer with a revenue stream from the Broadway production, as well as potential subsequent touring productions and licensing of the musical.
While speaking to THR, Scandalios affirmed prior statements made by the production and Spears’ team, saying: “Britney’s contract negotiation was concluded post-conservatorship with Britney’s team post-conservatorship and executed as such.”
Though the idea for the production began several years ago, an underlying rights deal with Spears would not have been strictly required, given that the producers already had the rights to the music cleared through various publishers. They also did not need life rights due to the musical’s non-biographical storyline. But Scandalios and Nederlander said their intent was to have an agreement signed by Spears.
“As brilliant as the songs are themselves, it’s Britney as an artist that makes those songs what they are. So we always intended to honor her ubiquitous contribution to what made those songs what they are,” Scandalios said.
While the basic themes remain the same from the reading Spears attended, the production has undergone many changes, as the creative team has been “testing which songs deliver [the] messages” of the core concept,” Scandalios said. The second act has been retooled even in recent weeks, with the notable addition of the song 3, which is sung by Prince Charming as he tries to find a way to appeal to Cinderella but is limited by his literacy, and a change to the climax of the plot involving the stepsisters.
When THR spoke to Hartmere, Madrid and Keone on June 14, they were in the middle of a week where “the changes were flying fast and furious,” according to the book writer, which may have made it feel like there were more adjustments post-pandemic than pre-pandemic. He conceded that with “each iteration, we would try things.” But when it came to the musical’s core pillars song-wise — think “Oops!… I Did It Again” or “One More Time” — those “are never going anywhere.”
“She’s got so many great songs,” he explains. “We were talking about how when we’re trying to put a song in, we have three options. And not three options that if we really squint, this might work. It’s like three options where you just could flip a coin, and they’re all good songs. That’s been a real luxury.”
Spears’ involvement in the production has been “iterative over the entire genesis of the project,” Arnold said, including the themes the pop star originally suggested. The production team frequently sends updates to her team and Spears is able to weigh in, if she so chooses.
“We send [Britney] and her team things, and we know she sees them,” said Scandalios, adding, “We support Britney’s journey for whatever she needs it to be today.”
“They are aware of the day-to-day, and they can get as or not as involved as they’d like,” Arnold added of Spears’ team.
For Hartmere, in the case of lyrical changes, he hasn’t faced pushback. “There was never a ‘Hey, can you run this up the flagpole and see if they’re OK with these lyric changes? It’s really been carte blanche and, in a respectful way, I don’t want to change anything that doesn’t need to be changed,” he said.
There are a few instances where Hartmere has played with the lyrics of Spears songs, which has included mentions of the musical’s title in the song “One More Time” and changing the lyrics to 3, as sung by Charming, to “One, two, three, gonna learn how to read.” But he says he made the changes only when it felt in service of the show. He adds that Keone and Madrid have also been there with their “great sense” in terms of what does and doesn’t need to change.
“When I do change it, I try as much as possible to keep it sounding like the lyric that was there. I’ll keep the vowels sometimes, because I like that as a puzzle, and it’s just to me more pleasing to be ear,” he explains. “It also depends on how much time I have to make that change. Sometimes it’s really quick, and then it’s maybe less seamless.
“I think more often than not, you go, this actually does work — or, can we change this one word or have fun with this one line?” Hartmere continues. “But then something like ‘Toxic,’ I don’t think there’s a single word changed. We’ve done versions of it before where there were word changes, then you come to learn, actually, let the song do the work.”
In terms of the choreography, much of it is in the tune of Madrid and Keone’s own style, but has drawn from the spirit of Spears. That includes one moment during “Oops!” where they use Tina Landon’s original choreography — a sequence the two told THR the production got direct permission to use.
“Early on, to have the permission from Britney’s camp and the producers — after seeing our work in the workshop and them going you’re doing a great job — meant we could attack this the way that we feel is most authentic to our movement language, by extension of us growing up in that era, naturally has influence from Britney.”
The duo has also been inspired by her music videos, but even more so by her storied live performances at award shows like the AMAs, VMAs and her tours.
“In Act One, there are so many songs, and we really tried to stay true to her music and not change much,” Madrid said. “But we were super inspired going back and watching a lot of her live performances because she has dance break on dance break on remix. We’re dancers, so we love and want all of that, and we wanted to be able to fuse that energy into the story.”
“A lot of the dance breaks — the opening of ‘Crazy’ and even in the ball where we did ‘Boys’ but a girls’ rendition — all have come from a single Britney concert in St. Louis; a single Britney concert that she did for a radio show; this really old video of her before she was even huge, when she was young Britney,” Keone added. “She did live performances so much, and she was never afraid to reinvent her music inside of those concerts.”
The spirit of reinvention has served as a “compass” for the creative team as it navigated its journey to opening night on Broadway. But what one thing that has always remained consistent is the show’s sense of humor and ultimately who or what it would be willing to set its comedic sights on.
Women have a history of being the butt of the joke, something Hollywood and tabloid culture have been asked to reckon with in recent years, including in its treatment of the Princess of Pop. According to Hartmere, while the show has plenty of inside jokes for Spears’ fans, they would never be at the expense of Spears or the women of Once Upon a One More Time.
“A lot has changed about what is funny over the years and, sometimes month-to-month, it’s been a real learning process for all of us,” the musical’s book writer says. “But I’m never going to make a joke at the expense of these women. I think some of the process has been like, ‘Let’s make sure we’re not too harsh on the men to make sure that they’re along for this ride as well.’”
Ahead of opening on June 22, there was still some trepidation over how the musical might be received by the New York critics and audience members. Any jukebox musical faces a “little bit of a headwind” in New York, Arnold said, adding that the production’s camp factor may not gel with an audience looking for “high art,” even if it does have emotional resonance.
In the end, the production received mixed reviews, with Deadline calling it “smart, funny, splendid to look at” and the New York Times calling it a “big, splashy show, which is quite entertaining at times,” but also critiquing the way in which the feminist messages and fantasy storylines were delivered. The Washington Post called it a “storybook mess” amid similar recent “proto-feminist” offerings like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella, and “savvier” jukebox musical & Juliet.
The musical also has the challenge of explaining its plot in a tight elevator pitch to an audience who may be expecting a storyline about Spears, Arnold said. But ultimately, opening on Broadway will give the production branding and a stamp of prestige that can facilitate productions across the world.
“I’m hugely bullish on this content globally. I think landing this content in New York has nuanced challenges,” Arnold said.
And, he added, the production is still one of the only places for fans of the pop star to experience her music live: “If you love Britney, as an audience member, where else can you get it right now?”
As for whether Spears will attend the Broadway production — which she praised as funny and brilliant ahead of its opening night performance — the producing team says the invitation is there.
“Our hope is that as soon as Britney feels it’s right for her, she will be with us,” Scandalios said.