Telling the Cinderella Story

Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio in Ashton's Cinderella

Photo credit: Gene Schiavone

The magical fairy tale we know and love has taken many forms around the world and across the ages.

Cinderella picture book circa 1875

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Boston Ballet in Ashton’s Cinderella

Photo credit: Gene Schiavone

Most of us know the Disney version of Cinderella: a young woman, down on her luck, magically transforms into the belle of the Royal Ball and wins the Prince’s heart. There are glass slippers, pumpkin carriages, and fairy godmothers—but that wasn’t always the case. The story of Cinderella has seen countless iterations, but all have been well-loved in their time and have at least hints of the fairy tale we see today.

History of a Fairy Tale
The earliest Cinderella story was written nearly 2,000 years ago. In it, an eagle steals the sandal of a young Greek woman and drops it in the lap of the Egyptian king. Seeing this as a sign from the heavens, he sends his men to find the sandal’s owner so he can make her his wife.

Many other versions of the story exist across cultures, including the Chinese story of Ye Xian, the Vietnamese story of Tấm and Cám, and the medieval French story Le Fresne. Each version includes different recognizable elements: a virtuous young woman mistreated by her step-family; magical intervention that enables her to attend a festival or royal ball; a lost slipper or another identifying item; and her eventual marriage to royalty.

On the Page
In 1697, French author Charles Perrault published Cendrillon, which is the model for some of the familiar details of the modern story: the fairy godmother who transforms a pumpkin to a carriage and mice into horses, and bestows the iconic glass slipper on our heroine. If Perrault’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the father of the fairy tale genre, and gave us The Sleeping BeautyLittle Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots.

Two other settings (much darker in their retellings) are the Italian Cenerentola, published in 1634, and the Brothers Grimm rendition from 1812, titled Aschenputtel. These versions are ripe with dramatic irony and incorporate more violence and mayhem than the others.

Illustrations of Cinderella featured in Asschepoester (The Glass Slipper) by Charles Perrault

Courtesy of the Dutch National Library

On the Stage and Screen
The first dramatic presentation of Cinderella was produced in London in 1804. Two operatic retellings—Rossini’s La Cenerentola (1817) and Massenet’s Cendrillon (1894)—are still performed today.

Disney premiered its animated Cinderella in 1950 to tremendous critical and box office success. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a musical version for television, first broadcast in 1957, with Julie Andrews in the title role. The musical made its way to international stages shortly thereafter, but only recently enjoyed its Broadway premiere in 2013. Cinderella and a host of other fairytale characters also appear in Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical, Into the Woods. Countless movie adaptations have sprung forth over the years, including a live-action Disney remake and a star-studded made-for-TV film starring Whitney Houston as Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

Sergei Prokofiev’s 1945 score for the ballet wasn’t the first inspired by the story, but it is certainly the best-loved. Sir Frederick Ashton created the choreography you’ll see on stage in BOSTON BALLET’S PRODUCTION, but the score has also been used by choreographers including Rudolf Nureyev and Alexei Ratmansky.

Happily Ever After
If there’s one thing the history of Cinderella shows, it’s that there are several ways to get to happily ever after. Few stories have withstood the test of time like Cinderella, and its morals and ideas continue to resonate with audiences young and old. It’s hard to resist a world in which wishes are granted and courage is rewarded, and maybe—with a sprinkle of magic—all your dreams can come true.