Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “Cinderella”

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Before KeKe Palmer made history as the first Black Cinderella on Broadway, there was Brandy, who portrayed the titular role alongside Whitney Houston, her fairy godmother. This 1997 television movie was an iconic and unforgettable moment and arguably one of…if not the best Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. We all remember the magic on screen, but check out the behind the scenes secrets of this film.

The numbers

Disney was putting their money behind this one. The company invested $12 million dollars. And even though we all know they “got it,” this much dough on a television movie was more than three times the usual budget for made-for-tv projects. And it paid off. According to the Miami Herald, the film attracted 60 million viewers and was the number one show that week. The 1997 remake, the third televised Cinderella story (after 1957 and 1965), was the highest rated TV musical in years.

Who’s going to be Cinderella?

Initially, the project came to Whitney Houston and she was supposed to play the lead role. But some time passed and life changed. So by the time the singer was 33-years-old, it wasn’t a role she really saw for herself. When she spoke to Jet, before the movie was released, Whitney said:

“Yes, I was supposed to be Cinderella. But after you get married and have a baby, it’s like, ‘I’m not feeling quite like Cinderella.’ Although I love the wonder and the innocence, I could’ve very well portrayed Cinderetlla, but it would’ve taken a lot of reaching. Instead, someone who’s 18 and full of that verve and that life. Brandy’s perfect…And our relationships comes off really well on-screen because it starts from real life.” 

On one condition

Brandy agreed to play Cinderella but only if Whitney agreed to play her fairy godmother. And as we all know, Whitney did that. The two of them on screen and vocally together for the soundtrack was incredible. Particularly when the they sang “Impossible.”

Whoopi’s got pipes

But it wasn’t just the professional singers who got a chance to exercise their vocal chords. Actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg also hit a few notes in the film. But it wasn’t exactly a comfortable feeling for her.

She told Jet, That was me singing. But it’s not my forte. It’s not my thing. It’s a fight, an internal fight. I’m a good comic. I’m a good drama actor. But I’m not known as a song-and-dance person. It was a very hard thing to do because I’m surrounded by singers. Whitney, Brandy, Jason Alexander are singers. Bernadette is a singer. Then there’s me.”

She held her own though and Whoopi’s voice is actually quite nice.

Blend it all together

It might come as no surprise that this was the first time the classic story featured an interracial cast. Historically, it had been all-White and rarely, all-Black. But for this version, there were Blacks, Whites and Prince Charming was Filipino-American Paolo Montalban. Whoopi Goldberg was particularly pleased with the casting, she told Jet: 

“This may be a first. It makes perfect sense because of who we are. Before, it was either all-Black or all-White. But never a normal mix of people. This integrated cast is how the real world is. This is more normal than being part of a cast that doesn’t have any color in it. This is perfectly fine. This is how I live.” 

The launch of Debra Martin Chase’s career

Debra Martin Chase and Whitney Houston were business partners. Martin-Chase served as the executive vice president of Whitney Houston Brown House Productions. The success of this tv movie gave Debra the foot in the door she need to pitch The Princess Diaries to Disney, which she produced along with Whitney Houston. From there, with her own production company, she worked on The Cheetah Girls: One World and The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants 2. Those two projects earned $43 million.

After that she went on to produce Just Wright and Sparkle, Whitney Houston’s last film.

Who is Prince Charming?

The role of the dashing Prince Charming went to Paolo Montalban. Accordng to People, Montalban was 24 at the time and had been working in the Broadway revival of The King and I for 15 months as a chorus singer. But he wanted something more and auditioned for the male lead. It a good thing he did because according to Debra Martin Chase, there weren’t a whole lot of contenders before Paolo showed up.

“We were desperate and slumped over but he sang the sweetest sounds, and everybody’s head shot up. We were like, ‘He’s it. The search is over.’ ” 

And everyone on set loved him too. His costars described him as handsome, gracious and graceful. Some even likening him to Cary-Grant, strong but tender. Jason Alexander said not even men were immune to Paolo’s charms.

Jason Alexander took a pay cut

At the time this version of Cinderella was released, Jason Alexander, was making big bank playing George Costanza on “Seinfield.” But according to The New York Times,  this project was so important to him, he accepted the role for a fraction of what he normally earns for just a single episode of “Seinfield.” This role was important not only because Alexander had aspirations of playing the lead role in the film version of Sweeney Todd, but also because he believed in musicals.

”We’ve spent endless hours talking about what a pathetic crime it is that this form is so rarely done in film these days, and more often than not, not done well. This is a big responsibility and a big opportunity. Because if ‘Cinderella’ doesn’t work, if it doesn’t get ratings and isn’t successful, it’s going to clamp the lid down on this kind of work pretty hard.”

The message

In speaking with Jet, along with the rest of the cast, executive producer Debra Martin Chase explained what she wanted to convey with this movie.

“My dream is that this Cinderella will touch every child and the child in every adult. I sincerely hope that it reinforces the art of dreaming- having a vision and understanding that everyone has the power within to make that vision come true”

A new song for Whitney

Of all the songs featured in this 1997 rendition, my favorite, by far, is the last number, “There’s Music in You.” The song was something like a new one, the first new Rodgers and Hammerstein song since The Sound of Music. The word “new” is used loosely here. It’s actually a composite of several songs.According to the New York Times, the producers wanted to find a song to end the movie off with a bang. But it proved to be a bit challenging. Ultimately they chose “There’s Music in You” from an obscure film called Main Street to Broadway. But the song needed a bridge to build up to a climax and showcase Whitney’s range and ability. So they took a snippet from a song called “One Foot, Other Foot” from Allegro, an underperforming Rodgers and Hammerstein movie, and put it in the middle. The song, as one producer noted, sounded very much like Rodgers and Hammerstein but also like a new Whitney Houston record. And of course it ended the movie perfectly, with a little bit of inspiration for us all.

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