The book writer for “Once Upon a One More Time,” the Britney Spears jukebox musical opening on Broadway Thursday night, often returns to a memory from five years ago, when Spears sat in a Manhattan theater a few rows in front of him and watched an early reading of the show.
“I was just watching her and it was like, ‘Is she going to like this?’” the writer, Jon Hartmere, said recently, recalling his relief whenever he saw Spears clap along or smile as one of her songs came on. “It was pure delight.”
A campy fairy-tale spoof that sidesteps the bio-musical formula to focus on a cast of disillusioned Disney princesses and storybook protagonists, “Once Upon a One More Time” is the latest in a long line of jukebox musicals that have plumbed the catalogs of acts including Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and the Temptations in pursuit of box office gold.
With a track list stacked with hits such as “Stronger,” “Toxic” and “Circus,” the show has the potential for boffo success, but it also faces unique challenges. Originally conceived when Spears was under a conservatorship that gave her father vast control over her life, the production has assured fans that the show was fully authorized by the pop star herself after she was freed from the arrangement. But it is unclear how much her fiercely loyal fan base — whose activism helped fuel the unraveling of the conservatorship — will embrace it. It would likely only take one spirited comment from Spears, a 41-year-old star with a reputation for unfiltered and unpredictable social media posts, to win or lose that audience.
Fans inside and outside the production have been keeping a close eye on Spears’s famously active Instagram account to see if she opines on the show (she hasn’t, yet). And cast and crew members have sought assurances internally that the production’s profits are benefiting Spears herself, rather than her former managers or her father, James P. Spears, who was named her conservator amid concerns about her mental health and went on to exercise control over her personal life and finances for more than a decade, even as she continued to perform.
“As artists, we just want her to be able to make her own decisions and to live her life the way she hoped to,” said Keone Madrid, who directed and choreographed the show with his creative partner and wife, Mari Madrid. “We all yearn to honor her work.”
Hunter Arnold, one of the show’s lead producers, said Spears signed the contract herself after the conservatorship was terminated and that no one else in Spears’s camp currently has a deal to receive profits.
A representative for Spears did not make her available for an interview but confirmed the timing of the most recent deal and added that the singer had provided notes in response to videos of the Madrids’s choreography.
The opening comes at a time when Spears’s life has continued to be the subject of gossip items. Since the legal arrangement was terminated, Spears has announced her marriage to Sam Asghari, something she had said she was not able to do under the conservatorship, and briefly returned to the music industry, releasing a track with Elton John. The legal battle over winding down the conservatorship has continued in Los Angeles, where her lawyers have lodged objections to some of the accounting during the conservatorship years.
Within the production, the desire to please Spears has sometimes meant seizing on the dribs and drabs of information that they get from representatives of a reclusive megastar.
Britney likes fairy tales? The show is based in a world where Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel are friends. Britney loves butterflies? The production made props of the insects and made the show’s branding into what looks like butterfly-shaped rainbow floodlights, which theatergoers can pose with outside the theater. (“That might be an example of where we had tried to lean in too hard,” Hartmere said of the show’s monthlong tryout in Washington D.C., noting that the show had gotten rid of a “butterfly vortex” for the Broadway production.)
“The spirit of it has always been serving her desires,” Arnold said.
Because of revelations around how Spears’s father and former management company benefited financially from the conservatorship, the musical’s financial structure has been a central point of scrutiny for some fans.
Initially, production papers from late 2019 listed a company called Shiloh Standing, Inc., which was started by Spears’s father shortly after the creation of the conservatorship, as being entitled to 7.5 percent of the production’s net profits, according to documents filed with New York State’s attorney general’s office. Larry Rudolph, Spears’s former manager, was also slated to receive funds, including a $30,000 executive producer fee, plus $1,500 per week.
But plans for a short run in Chicago in 2020, followed by a Broadway transfer, were scuttled by the pandemic, the show was put on hold and, in that time, Spears’s world was transformed. Leslie Papa, a spokeswoman for the show, said that Spears’s contract was negotiated and signed in 2022, after the termination of the conservatorship, and provides all compensation directly to her.
Arnold said Spears has a stake in the show’s royalties through music licensing proceeds, in addition to an underlying rights deal, which he said was carved out in recognition of her role in popularizing the music, even if other lyricists and music producers own much of the rights to the songs. He declined to specify the exact payment structure for Spears, and it is not included in government filings thus far.
According to a copy of a 2022 budget for the Broadway musical that was shared with The New York Times by someone who was not authorized to discuss the production, the advance payment for the underlying rights deal associated with the show was $80,000. Arnold noted that with successful Broadway shows, royalties often quickly outpace initial advances.
So far some of the biggest social media accounts associated with the movement to end the conservatorship, known as #FreeBritney, have said little about the musical, especially in contrast to the fan excitement around the Elton John collaboration.
But many of the ticket holders at previews at the Marquis Theater are quick to label themselves as devoted Britney fans, and they react with delight at the show’s many knowing references to the pop star, which include a snippet of the original choreography from “Oops! … I Did It Again” that tends to make the audience erupt. Because they spent their early teenage years internalizing Spears’s dancing on MTV, the Madrids, who are known for their narrative choreography and staccato isolations, consider themselves “natural extensions of her and her work.”
“Her music has always been around in my life in one way or another,” Mari Madrid said.
Those references are like a running inside joke that most of the audience seems to understand. The crowd doesn’t hear the word “Britney” through the entire show — it’s only at the end that the speakers blast the pop star’s most famous opening line: “It’s Britney, bitch.” None of the show’s official merchandise carries Spears’s image, but one fast-selling tote bag proclaims, “It’s Broadway, bitch.”
Nelson Saavedra Jr., the owner of the #FreeBritney page on Reddit, has opted to support the show and has attended two preview performances already, noting that any direct assessment from Spears would influence his own thinking on it.
“Britney signed the deal after she was free so let’s just move on and take that at face value,” Saavedra said. “Of course, that would change tomorrow if she said, ‘Please don’t go see this play.’”
Audience members can be forgiven for thinking that the musical’s central theme — a cohort of famed damsels in distress taking control of their own lives — is some grand metaphor for Spears’s release from the conservatorship, but Hartmere said the parallels are just coincidence.
“It’s this story about women learning what they can and should have out of life,” Hartmere said. “That’s always been the story from the get-go.”
For Hartmere, returning to that memory of Spears watching that early performance also engenders some anxiety: What if she ends up disappointed that some songs did not make the final cut? The show’s creators could not figure out how to make the risqué lyrics from her 2016 track “Clumsy” fit for children, so the song was removed.
Right now, the creators can only wait to see if Spears decides to attend a performance — which, they acknowledge, is anyone’s best guess.
Michael Paulson and Liz Day contributed reporting.