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Burnett stacks up another version of ‘Mattress’

Comedian plays queen in musical she’s made her own
/ Source: The Associated Press

For Carol Burnett, once around with “Once Upon a Mattress” was far from enough.

Before Burnett established herself as one of television’s great comedians, she made a sparkling Broadway debut in the 1959 musical. She revisited it in a 1964 black-and-white TV special and in another broadcast version in 1974.

But her fondness for the tale, a peppy spoof of the tale of the princess and the pea, remained undiminished. So Burnett is taking a fourth crack at it, with a twist: she’s graduated from the role of princess to that of queen, as well as executive producer.

The new version airs 7-9 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney,” with Burnett in fine form as the overbearing Queen Aggravain. With overblown motherly devotion, she has contrived to keep her son, Prince Dauntless, from marrying and living happily ever after.

“It’s been kind of roiling around in my mind for 10 years now, redoing it, playing the queen, having a part in the production,” Burnett said. “I felt a lot of people now watching television have never seen ‘Mattress.’ There have been two or three new generations.”

For a fair number of TV viewers, however, it will be familiar material. A Broadway revival (in 1996, with Sarah Jessica Parker) had a lackluster run, but “Once Upon a Mattress” remains among the most-performed musicals at schools and community theaters.

Juicy roles aplentyPart of its appeal, Burnett speculates, is its array of “meaty, wonderful roles.”

Then there’s the offbeat story, with the fairy-tale roots that attract children and, for adults, the “smother love, the Oedipal thing,” as Burnett put it, referring to the overzealous queen so intent on keeping her aging boy a bachelor.

Aggravain has rejected dozens of potential brides for Dauntless, a blow not only to the prince but to the royal court, including lovebirds Lady Larkin and Sir Harry. They are forbidden to marry until, it is said, “Dauntless shares his marriage bed.”

On a last-ditch search the prince finds boisterous Princess Winnifred. The queen’s baneful plot to sink her: Put Winnifred to bed atop a towering stack of mattresses to prove she lacks the royal sensitivity to detect a troublesome pea buried beneath.

The queen’s machinations include staging a ball in which partygoers dance the Spanish Panic, a madcap number that Aggravain believes will exhaust Winnifred and guarantee a sound night’s sleep.

Other numbers in the musical (created by Marshall Louis Barer, Dean Fuller, Jay Thompson and Mary Rodgers) include “In a Little While,” “Shy” and “Sensitivity Waltz.” The ABC special was directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.

Tracey Ullman plays spunky Winnifred with comedic gusto, while Burnett clearly relishes the chance to put her stamp on the scheming royal. Adding to the show’s charm are Denis O’Hara as Dauntless; Matthew Morrison and Zooey Deschanel as star-crossed Harry and Larken and Michael Boatman as the jester.

Tom Smothers plays beleaguered King Sextimus, forced to cope silently with his imperious wife.

The production was nearly stymied by ABC’s insistence on snagging a hot young celebrity to play Winnifred.

“I don’t fault them at all,” Burnett said. “Any network would say, ‘Let’s get Britney Spears or Hilary Duff.”’

Figuring that snaring such a performer would be difficult and could “skew the show a little bit wrong,” Burnett suggested finding a newcomer who could shine in the role.

“They said, ‘No, no, no.’ It was pie in the sky, what they were aiming for. I was getting more and more frustrated. I didn’t think it would ever be done.”

Then Ullman came to mind.

“We realized everybody was going in the wrong direction — why don’t we go for talent, really major, major talent? This is a woman who’s got the comedy, she can sing, she can dance. She can do the Spanish Panic backwards,” Burnett said.

She felt comfortable seeing another actress in the role that helped catapult her into a remarkable career that included more Broadway, movies and, of course, the acclaimed “The Carol Burnett Show,” CBS’ 1967-78 variety hour.

“I am able to disassociate myself at times and just be an audience member,” Burnett, 72, said of watching her successor. Besides, she had the juicy role of the queen, played previously by Jane White, to occupy her.

Aggravain’s flamboyant look, the product of designer Bob Mackie and makeup artist Yvonne Weber McDonagh, helped make her performance, said Burnett, who’s generous with praise for those involved in the production.

“I asked Bob, because I trust him with my life, ‘How do you see Queen Aggravain?’ He said, ‘Well, I think a cross between a medieval Joan Collins, Mae West and drag queen,”’ Burnett recounted.

Add in the elaborate makeup (“I felt like Yvonne should sign my face; I had so much powder and paint on”) and Burnett claims, “I really didn’t have to do much.”

Creating a “definitive” version of the musical, produced as a movie rather than as a stage show, was the goal this time around. The big, sometimes elaborate sets provide “a really wonderful fairy-tale look,” she said, and the songs were recorded in a studio with an orchestra.

That’s in sharp contrast to the original TV shows.

“When we did it twice before, it was almost like a live show on television: We had an audience, ran and changed costumes and got back as quickly as we could to continue with the next act.

“If something happened on stage that was a bit of a goof, unless the scenery fell down, we wouldn’t stop,” Burnett said.