As an esteemed composer in the mid-1800s, Pauline Viardot Garcia was a living oxymoron. Through the 19th century, the title "female composer" was about as common as "airplane pilot"—and on the rare occasion women were recognized for their work, it was under a male pseudonym á la Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn.
Viardot didn’t get the memo. She was as prolific and respected as the famous friends she mentored (Brahms and Chopin among them). But her work—including a radical take on Cinderella where the evil stepmother is a dopey stepdad—has been largely lost to history.
Chicago composer Andra Velis Simon aims to reverse that with Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes, an adaptation of Viardot's Cindrillon running through January 8 at the Hypocrites' Den Theatre. Inspired by Viardot, the revisionist musical (no handsome prince, no ridiculous footwear) toasts an artist who was breaking down barriers before society had even realized them.
Here, Simon riffs on gender, fairytales, and why the lowly tuber played such a prominent role in Viardot’s life.
First things first: What’s with the title, Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes?
Viardot was famous among artists for the salons she hosted. Everybody from Georges Sand to Ivan Turgenev would come to her flat in Paris to try out new work, perform operettas, and share stories. Admission was a potato, and Viardot served potato soup to everyone. If you didn’t have a potato, you could just go pick one from her garden.
So what does Cinderella have to do with it?
One of the operettas Viardot wrote, Cendrillon, was a riff on Cinderella. But there was none of the usual nonsense—no prince, no glass slippers, no ball. I was inspired by that operetta. In our version, Cinderella wants to be an opera singer. Instead of some fancy dance, she goes to auditions. Instead of a prince, there’s a composer who wants to collaborate.
Everyone has heard of Viardot’s peers—Beethovan, Liszt, Chopin. Why is she largely unknown?
There is no doubt in my mind she was forgotten because she was a woman. Nobody took female composers seriously, no matter how brilliant they were. The more I researched, the madder I got about it. Viardot was a mentor to male composers who became household names. Yet, I’ve studied classical music my entire life, and I’d never heard of her. It’s upsetting, that someone’s gender would make them lost to history.
This isn’t an angry show. It’s definitely subversive, but the tone is pure goofball. Did you aim for that?
I wanted it to be lighthearted and very playful. But lighthearted with substance.
Actors play their own instruments in the show. Did you write with specific artists in mind?
It’s all collaborative. I found out what instruments the actors played and went from there. We have a trombone, a toy piano, a banjo, a ukulele, a harmonica, a dulcimer. I try to write to the strengths of the people in the room.
Does one need a potato to get in?
No. But we do serve vegan potato soup afterward. It’s really good.
Go Through Jan. 8. Hypocrites at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee. $15–$36. the-hypocrites.com