By Terrance Turner
Aug. 23, 2022
Tonight, in a televised special on ABC, the cast of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” came together to mark 25 years since the movie premiered. The film was a televised production of the famed Broadway production; adapting from Oscar Hammerstein II‘s book, writer Robert L. Freedman modernized the script to appeal to more contemporary audiences.
In 1997, ABC aired “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” with Brandy in the title role and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother. (The cast included Whoopi Goldberg, Victor Garber, and Bernadette Peters.) It was a massive, expensive production: the TV movie cost $12 million to make. But when it premiered, it drew 60 million viewers — the highest ratings in 10 years for ABC — and won a Primetime Emmy Award. More importantly, it featured a racially diverse cast, with Brandy becoming the first Black woman to play a Disney princess.
Tonight, the star-studded cast — including Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bernadette Peters — joined producers and directors and crew for a behind-the-scenes look at how the massive production came to life.
“The casting for this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done”, says executive producer Debra Martin Chase. The casting was also notably diverse. “We made the decision to do — not color-blind casting, but diverse casting,” says Chase. That decision was important, and presenting an interracial cast, with Brandy in the title role, was a progressive move that broke ground in the industry.
“The idea of having Cinderella be a young Black girl, at the time, was an extraordinary idea. But at the time, you have a Black woman as the Queen, a White man as the King, and an Asian man as the Prince!” notes Jason Alexander, who played Lionel in the film.
“Cinderella was never done that way before,” notes actress Bernadette Peters. “Which was saying, to young people who were watching: ‘This could be you.'”
“People didn’t want me to do this project,” remembers Whitney Houston in archival footage. But she was determined to finish the project. And doing it brought her into the studio with Brandy — who adored her.
“My favorite moment,” she says, “wasn’t in the movie. It was being in the studio with Whitney.” Indeed, footage of these sessions reveals the musical chemistry (and genuine warmth) that existed between Brandy and Whitney Houston. It also revealed the difference in their voices. Paul Bogaev, the musical director, notes that “Brandy had this husky breathiness that’s really appealing […] And Whitney had that strong, ready clear [gospel] belt.”
For Brandy, the experience of being cast as Cinderella offered her a chance to make own dreams come true. “It’s a real-life fairy tale, for me,” she said. Brandy noted a parallel: “My dream is also coming true, as Cinderella’s dreams are coming true.”
“My dream when I was a young girl was to be a singer, have my own band and meet Whitney Houston. That was it,” she said. “I had no idea that my destiny would take me to a role [like] Cinderella, [or] be the first woman of color to play her. And then for Whitney Houston to be my Fairy Godmother… you gotta be kidding me.”
Houston herself lobbied to get Brandy cast and helped produce the movie. Its success mattered to her. Chase said that Houston “loved Cinderella” and understood the impact the film would have.
“It was one of the things she was most proud of in her career,” Chase said while reflecting on Houston’s appreciation for the film. “She totally understood the value and the importance, the significance of having a Black Cinderella.”
Brandy spoke about the importance of her portrayal to audiences — particularly young Black girls, who had never seen themselves represented on the Disney screen. “I knew that this was so great for the world to see, especially Black people,” she said. “She represented a culture that is beautiful, and I just so appreciated that because that was so much a part of what I wanted to bring to Cinderella.”
Finding the Prince was the most difficult, says Chase. “We saw everybody and anybody who was widely in the age range — including Wayne Brady, Taye Diggs, Marc Anthony and Antonio Sabato, Jr. It literally was like Cinderella and about who the slipper fit, except in reverse.”
On the very last day of casting, the last person to walk in was Paolo Montalban. He was an understudy in the Broadway production of The King and I . He was late, remembers Chase, but “he opened his mouth and he sings like an angel, and we thought, ‘Oh, my God. How interesting to have a Filipino Prince with our African-American Brandy’.”
The director recalls thinking of Montalban. “It’s this tall, incredibly good-looking guy… but a little stiff, and we went, ‘How is this really going to work with Brandy?’ So we put them together and saw, in the rehearsal room, the chemistry was magic.”
“He’s just so sweet, so genuine and so talented,” Brandy recalls. “I just wanted to just match his energy. I wanted to sing as well as he was singing.”
“I just thought they were just a beautiful couple,” recalls Peters. “They were both so innocent, so loving and so sweet.”
In the climactic scene where Cinderella arrives at the ball, perches at the top of the stairs, the entire room stops. Brandy remembers that this was the first time she actually found like a princess; Montalban remembers that she took his breath away. “I look up, and — first, I can’t breathe, because she takes my breath away. But then — look closely — I’m breathing as if I’ve come home.”
Also breathtaking: Houston’s final number, “There Is Music in You.” Chase explains, “We needed just a sensational song,” to end the film. “It was so beautiful and floating,” remembers one crew member. “And it’s very empowering and inspiring — and that’s Whitney.”