Actor Adam Godley and his partner, writer Jon Hartmere, first met over a game of poker. Though poker is a game of keeping a straight face, the two were not bluffing about how much they were eyeing each other. “He was literally the worst poker player I've ever seen in my life,” exclaims Hartmere. “I could read his cards, both metaphorically and literally, because I could tell he was interested. And I could tell what cards he was holding for the hand that we were playing.”
Godley defends himself by simply saying, “I was transfixed by this gorgeous creature in front of me.”
That was in February. By September, Hartmere and Godley had bought a house together. “People thought it was crazy,” remarked Hartmere, with Godley adding, “We just knew.” You can say it was a whirlwind romance—and they’ve now been together for 16 years.
But with the new musical Once Upon a One More Time on Broadway, it marks the first time the couple is working together. Hartmere wrote the book to the Britney Spears jukebox musical, which opens June 22 at the Marquis Theatre (and features Spears’ hits such as “Circus,” “Lucky,” and “…Baby One More Time”). Godley gets to speak his partner’s lines for the first time, as he plays the Narrator in the show.
In Once Upon a One More Time, six fairytale princesses meet for a book club. When the Fairy Godmother drops a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique into the mix, the princesses begin to question the narratives they’ve been fed. Meanwhile, the Narrator is trying to keep the regressive stories going, but he also becomes inspired to break out of his own patriarchal box.
Once Upon a One More Time is the brainchild of theatre owner James T. Nederlander and producer Hunter Arnold. Hartmere was approached about being a part of the project in 2017. Hartmere had been working mostly as a screenwriter, though he did write the book for the musical Bare, which played Off-Broadway at New World Stages in 2012. Hartmere, as well as the producers, credit the idea of fairytale princesses to Spears herself.
“Britney loves fairies and fairy tales,” explains Hartmere, pointing out that Spears even has a song called “Cinderella.” From those fanciful beginnings, Hartmere went deeper: “The core of this idea is that there are these princesses in this world with a book club, but the only book that exists is their own fairy tale. So they just keep reinforcing, literally, their own narratives. And then a rogue Fairy Godmother comes in with this Feminine Mystique that blows their minds—that just came to me pretty quickly.” That was because in real life, the Feminine Mystique did inspire, in Hartmere’s words, “a sea change.”
Godley has been involved with the musical off-and-on in various workshops since 2017. He admits that he tends to get typecast in stoic, serious roles (his last Broadway show was the three-hour-long play The Lehman Trilogy, which earned him a Tony nomination and he is currently playing a very strict priest in the Hulu TV series The Great). He’s not just part of this musical because his partner is writing it; Once Upon a One More Time is an opportunity for Godley to stretch some lesser-use skills. In the show, he dances, cracks jokes, and even sings a Spears tune (we won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a delightful choice).
“I'm a Brit, and I always end up playing priests, like on The Great, and doing period dramas,” Godley says, before adding gleefully, “and here I am doing this Britney Spears-inspired musical, learning this amazing hip-hop-based choreography…It's just thrilling for me to be able to work and have that kind of variety.”
While Hartmere remembers dancing to Spears’ music, “during my club days,” Godley admits going into this project, he hadn’t listened to the Princess of Pop. His music preferences lean less towards pop divas and towards more classic fare. Hartmere is eager to give more details about his partner's music tastes: “Adam likes to collect old 78s. He brought a tiny record player that he's owned since he was nine years old with, like, Noël Coward 78s with titles like ‘Who Hid the Halibut on the Poop Deck.’ That's the soundtrack that he brought.”
Adds Godley, proudly, “On a wind-up gramophone, which is one of my prized possessions.”
Remarks Hartmere, “It's not an exaggeration. And I'd be like, ‘So her name is Madonna...’”
Says Godley to his partner, “You give me Madonna. I give you Noël Coward.”
When asked about Spears’ involvement in the show, Hartmere is honest in saying he has only met her once, during a reading in 2018. And he’s not even sure she is coming to the show itself; in recent years, Spears has not attended industry events—leading to worry from her fans about whether she’s in control of her own life. To assuage those fears, the musical's producers recently released a statement saying the show’s "license agreement with Britney Spears was negotiated, agreed to, and signed by Britney Spears in 2022, post-conservatorship.”
Hartmere says that Spears “was lovely” in the brief meeting he had with her years ago, and has played an “outsized” role in his life. “I would just love her to see it because I think it's such a celebration of all the things that people love about her,” he says. “While it's not a bio-musical at all, it does track with her life in many ways.” Like the princesses in the musical, Spears herself also had to break free of a cage (hers was a 13-year-long conservatorship that stripped her of her human rights). Adds Hartmere, “I just want her to see the joy that it's bringing people who have come to see it, and the smiles it puts on their faces. I really hope she comes.”
Once Upon a One More Time is being directed and choreographed by husband-and-wife pair, Keone and Mari Madrid, who have gone viral on YouTube for their dance videos. To the casual viewer, it might seem strange that in a musical where feminism is a prominent theme, the creative team is led mostly by men.
But for Godley, the story is broader than that. “It’s about continual growth, continual learning, being open to new ideas, and not being terrified of them,” he explains. “Men can evolve, and they can grow, too. And then everybody can grow together, and it benefits everybody to have your mind opened.” It’s also prescient now, during a time when there seems to be an ongoing legislative effort to reverse decades of social progress, says Godley: “A lot of those attitudes, which are rooted in fear of change, and fear of loss of power—you can let go of all of that. The journey of the Narrator provides an opportunity to see somebody going through that: an evolution, which is a beautiful thing.” He then adds, with his characteristic gravitas, “Screw the fear, embrace change.”
Though these partners have been together for 16 years, they're not tired of each other. The two frequently talk about Once Upon a One More Time after rehearsals; both of them have the same “healthy obsession” with work, as Godley puts it. When Playbill asked for a wedding photo for this article, they told us that they’re not married, because they’ve been together longer than gay marriage has been legal. Instead, in Hartmere’s words, they have “a sexy registered domestic partnership.”
For Godley, it’s been thrilling to get to speak his partner's words, especially when he’s the person who sees the first draft of everything Hartmere writes: “This was an idea in Jon's head a number of years ago. And now it's literally here. It physically exists. The title he thought of, the ideas he had, the characters he thought of, the humor—it's all suddenly become real. And there's something absolutely magical about that. And I get a real kick out of that.”
For Hartmere, Once Upon a One More Time has been an opportunity for him to see a new side to his long-time companion. “I'm constantly in awe of how many things he does well,” enthuses Hartmere. “I'll be reading the day's news, and I'll hear the song that he does in the show coming from the next room—it's like 10 o'clock at night. His attention to detail and his commitment to the craft, I knew it.” Then he adds with perfect comedic timing, “but maybe I'm just paying more attention because it's my show that he's doing so well.”