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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
There are a lot of versions of "Cinderella" - animated, live action, contemporary and period. But few are as beloved as Disney's production of "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" musical, which first aired on television in 1997.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
Starring Brandy and Whitney Houston as Cinderella and her fairy godmother. It reimagined the fairy tale and the people in it. And it became beloved by an audience that couldn't easily find it streaming. And now it's finally arrived on Disney+. I'm Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "Cinderella" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. Also with us from his home studio is NPR Music's Stephen Thompson.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hello, Linda.
HOLMES: And also here is Brittany Luse, who most recently hosted "The Nod With Brittany And Eric" on Quibi.
BRITTANY LUSE: Hey.
HOLMES: We are always so happy to have you with us, especially to talk about something as fun as "Cinderella." So the story of Cinderella is loosely related to folklore that goes back centuries in many countries and cultures. But as you probably know, there's this girl, and there's this prince and this shoe.
And here, as we mentioned, Cinderella is played by the singer and actress Brandy and her fairy godmother by Whitney Houston. The prince is played by Paolo Montalban and his parents by Victor Garber and Whoopi Goldberg, who turn out to be rather a match made in heaven. And of course, the wicked stepmother, who was very wicked indeed, is played by the great Bernadette Peters.
If you're not familiar with the musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein, who also wrote "The Sound Of Music" and "Oklahoma!" and a lot of other stuff, wrote this as a television original that first aired in 1957 and starred Julie Andrews, who was only 21 at the time, wouldn't play Mary Poppins for another seven years. Since then, it has been remade. It did eventually make it to the stage, but it is a television original, and this is probably the version that has the biggest kind of cultural footprint in contemporary times.
Aisha, tell me about your feelings about "Cinderella."
HARRIS: Well, I actually was familiar with the Lesley Ann Warren version first as a kid. It was one that my mother watched when she was a child. And I remember that our local library had it on VHS, and so we would rent it all the time. So I was already a fan by the time the 1997 version came along. And...
HOLMES: And that one is from the mid-1960s, Lesley Ann Warren and...
HOLMES: ...Stuart Damon, who, by the way, is Alan Quartermaine on "General Hospital."
HARRIS: And also Ginger Rogers playing the queen.
HOLMES: Yes, yes.
HARRIS: So when this came along, I remember it being just a huge deal because it's Whitney. It's Brandy. They're Black. What? (Laughter). And so I loved it. I remember we bought it on VHS. I remember watching it with my mom and my sister. And it's just one of those delightful relics of a different era because you can see how much money they put into this production. It is like a giant Broadway musical on screen. This doesn't look like a play so much as it looks like, you know, a movie, a cinema experience.
And so seeing all the giant choreography, the camera swirls, the beautiful costumes - I just love, first of all, how much they spent on this film because it really says to me that they were invested in this property that was going to be headlined by two Black women. Whitney Houston also was an executive producer. And I just think it works in many different ways.
I will say - I'm probably going to get some hate mail, so I'm going to preface this now - but I don't think Brandy's vocals are doing the most here. I think the orchestrations don't help. They kind of tried to make it a little bit more contemporary. And so they have like these backbeats that (laughter) I don't think really work when you when you have, like, sometimes a waltz or those types of things. Brandy did an interview recently with Vulture where she talked about how she's used to doing vocal runs and that sort of thing, and she was consciously pulling back. And you can kind of hear it. And I don't think it really works. This is her singing "In My Own Little Corner," which is one of the classic songs from "Cinderella."
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BRANDY: (As Cinderella, singing) I'm a huntress on an African safari. It's a dangerous type of sport, and yet it's fun. In the night, I sally forth to seek my quarry. And I find I forgot to bring my gun.
HARRIS: So I just wish that she had, you know, given it a bit more oomph because Whitney is wholly doing that. And Whitney is having so much fun, and I think that's one of the the joys of this for me, is seeing how much fun Whitney has. We talk about her all the time in sort of this tragic sense, but she clearly seemed to be enjoying herself.
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WHITNEY HOUSTON: (As Fairy Godmother, singing) Fal-de-ral and fiddle-dee-dee, fiddly-faddly-foddle - all the wishes in the world are poppycock and twaddle.
BRANDY: (As Cinderella) Who are you?
HOUSTON: (As Fairy Godmother) I'm your fairy godmother, honey.
BRANDY: (As Cinderella) You?
HOUSTON: (As Fairy Godmother) You got a problem with that?
HARRIS: And overall, it's just a fun production.
HOLMES: Yeah. I know what you're saying about the orchestrations. There's a little bit of a, like, going halfway. It's contemporary, but it's still an old song. And I think you sort of have to either commit or don't do it. And it's interesting 'cause when I was watching it again, I was realizing that some of the songs they did that, and some of them, they really left alone. So it's interesting to hear that.
Brittany, where are you on this movie?
LUSE: I absolutely love this movie. It came out right before my 10th birthday, so I taped it off of TV (laughter) and then watched it - rather, screened it at my slumber party for my 10-year-old birthday.
HOLMES: Perfect for that.
LUSE: It was literally perfect for that. And I remember all the buildup for it. Like, the Jet magazine had come out the Monday before with Brandy and Whitney on the cover. And it completely, obviously, lived up to my expectations then. And I will say that re-watching it as an adult, the quality of it is the thing that actually makes it have the longevity I think that it's had. And also, too, just the cast - like, the cast is unreal. Like - I mean, you have Whitney Houston, Brandy, Bernadette Peters. Like, in hindsight, now that I'm older, I'm like, you had Bernadette Peters and Whitney...
LUSE: And Victor Garber - like, this was - like, it was just so good. But like, great character actors - Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle, rest in peace.
I kind of agree about the vocals. But I think because the part of Cinderella is a classic, like, musical theater mezzo-soprano. And I think that Brandy has an incredible voice with incredible range. But I think that, like, the type of voice that she has is more airy and light and doesn't quite match up with, like, the heft of what the part requires. That said, I absolutely loved her in this role. And to me, I knew that Whitney Houston was really invested in that. Like, she was originally supposed to play Cinderella. But then the project got shelved for so long that she eventually was like, y'all, I'm not - like, I'm a mom now. I can't...
LUSE: No one's believing that. She thought it would be too much of a stretch for her to play that role. So, you know, Brandy sort of being her industry goddaughter, it made a lot of sense. But I would say that the - just the literal freshness of her in that role and the chemistry that she and Paolo Montalban had really sold the whole fairytale love story thing for me in a way that I obviously bought into as a child. But re-watching it again, I was like, oh, this is actually really sweet. But also, I think what made that whole thing really special was seeing Whitney and Brandy together...
LUSE: ...Just because their relationship was so storied. It really feels like a gift to all of us that that's been preserved on film.
HOLMES: Stephen, what did you think?
THOMPSON: I have a pretty fraught relationship with Cinderella, like the character and kind of the overall story of Cinderella going back to the 1950 Disney movie. To me, it is anti-stepmom propaganda built around ludicrous assumptions about facial recognition, love at first sight and footwear.
THOMPSON: So I sometimes get really frustrated watching "Cinderella" because of the actual story itself.
HOLMES: Stephen cracking his knuckles like, all right, I got to go in on the reality of "Cinderella."
HOLMES: Who wears a glass shoe, people? Who?
THOMPSON: That's the thing. When you're sitting there watching a production of "Cinderella" and you're like, that's so fake...
THOMPSON: But this is such a charming time capsule. And I'm so glad that it's available for streaming in the world for the first time in so long. Why was this not on streaming until 2021? I do not understand. I mean, it is - it feels very '90s to me. I agree that I had some issues with some of the vocals.
There's actually a really interesting oral history of this movie on Shondaland from 2017, kind of on the occasion of this movie's 20th anniversary. And they kind of talk about some of the techniques that went into it, where - the way Brandy approached it was she was kind of trying to sing opera. And then the way that Paolo Montalban was singing, he was trying to kind of de-stage-ify (ph) his voice 'cause his background was as a stage actor. And to me, that kind of made their chemistry feel a little bit more stilted because they're kind of on different planes vocally.
But I'm enormously pleased that this exists in the world. I'm really hopeful that the kind of success of this release on streaming and kind of the buzz around it is going to increase the likelihood that we'll finally get, like, an official soundtrack to this thing. They've never released a soundtrack to this enormously blockbuster, successful TV movie that sold a ton of copies on home video because of, like, weird label battles. One point from that oral history that I did not want to go through this conversation without having - there was an executive who didn't want Brandy to play Cinderella; he wanted Jewel.
HARRIS: I'm sorry. I love Jewel. But...
THOMPSON: I just - yeah. And this is not hating Jewel at all. But I just want you all - any fans of this movie, I want you to just imagine in your mind. Take the ethereal presence of Brandy out of this movie, and plop in Jewel, and enjoy.
HOLMES: Boy, oh, boy, oh, boy. That would have been quite different.
Yeah. You know, I think it's such an interesting thing about the songs 'cause I do think, ultimately, you got to remember these are, you know, written by some of the most storied songwriters in all of American musical theater. And there is a good reason for that. There are some very pretty songs. Because it originated on television and because it didn't sort of - you know, it didn't get widely done as a stage musical as much as, you know, "The Sound Of Music" and "Oklahoma!" and all that stuff, I think the songs are not as well-known. But I'm not sure that they are not just as good as a lot of the other stuff that they wrote for Broadway and for other musical pieces.
What I really liked about this, watching it again, is the way that Brandy and Paolo Montalban really just go ahead and play it very straight as a fairy tale in terms of there are these lines like when they first meet.
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PAOLO MONTALBAN: (As Prince Christopher) Tell me, Cinderella, what would a man have to do to find himself in your good graces?
BRANDY: (As Cinderella) Who wants to know?
MONTALBAN: (As Prince Christopher) Let's just say a charming stranger.
BRANDY: (As Cinderella) This charming stranger seems pretty sure of himself. But he'd have to get to know me a lot better than some girl he just met on the street.
MONTALBAN: (As Prince Christopher) Oh, but he'd like to very much.
HOLMES: You have to really commit to make those kinds of scenes work. As much as they sort of play with the orchestration a little bit to make it feel more contemporary, they don't try to transform it into a naturalistic kind of dialogue because you couldn't. It wouldn't work. It stays in this kind of very dreamlike place. And I appreciated that a lot.
I will say, I also just loved the fact that - on the occasion of the Lily James "Cinderella" from a few years ago, I wrote a very, very long piece for NPR where I looked at a gazillion different versions of "Cinderella." And what I took away from that was that it is a story that has been in many different cultures and over several many centuries. You know, it twists and shapes to different kind of realities and the world that it's in and the different approaches to it. And so I love the fact - it's a very natural thing for there to be this version that is very beloved, partly because, as Aisha said, it's Whitney and Brandy; they're Black. It's got, you know, Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber and Paolo Montalban as the royal family. It's a - it makes sense that there would be a version of "Cinderella" that represented kind of what that moment in musicals was.
This was part of a series of these that they did on "Wonderful World Of Disney." They did "The Music Man" and "Annie." And I wish they had kind of kept doing them 'cause I do really like these. And I agree with Stephen that it's a time capsule. I agree that it feels really of its moment.
Aisha, what are you thinking?
HARRIS: I mean, it's also just fascinating to me. There's one article that came up from - it was in Newsweek. Weirdly, there was no byline on it; maybe it's 'cause of the archives or whatever. But it was a big reported piece where - it started off saying, it's great to see a Black woman playing Cinderella. And then it goes into this question of like, well, the prince is not Black. So what does this mean? And so...
HARRIS: There's interviews. I think at one point bell hooks shows up within this piece. And it really speaks to how, at this moment in the mid-'90s, there was this kind of question about, like, are Black women desirable? Like, Black men are marrying more outside of their race than Black women. But then, what does it mean that there is a nonwhite prince here? And it kind of echoes the - a similar conversation that would happen, like, a little more than a decade later with "The Princess And The Frog."
And man, to think about what a cultural signifier this was and what a cultural moment this was and how it meant so much and how the conversations haven't really changed all that much over the last 20-plus years, it was just really interesting to see that this was a huge deal. It's easy to forget that, but it was a huge deal. And I'm just glad it exists. I'm glad we can re-watch it, and now a new generation can see it. And yeah, again, Brandy and Whitney - yes. Oh, and also Whoopi Goldberg...
HARRIS: ...She is doing such great work.
LUSE: So good. She's so good in (unintelligible). I love her.
HOLMES: The little squeaks are so funny. When she's going (squeaking). She's very, very funny.
THOMPSON: I also - from a cultural preservation standpoint, I do want to give a quick shout-out to the fact that this is airing on Disney+. It was originally shot for television, which means that it exists in a very square frame. And Disney+ has gotten roasted, justifiably so, for the way they have presented "The Simpsons" by, like, weirdly kind of blowing up the screen and then cropping out lots of visual gags. This, you are getting basically a kind of sideways letterbox where you have, you know, black bars on the sides. So you're getting the proper aspect ratio. And I will say, I appreciated that enormously, and I think this movie would have really suffered without it.
LUSE: A hundred percent agree.
HOLMES: I agree. Appreciate the aspect ratio.
All right. Well, we want to know what you think and what your memories are of the wonderful "Cinderella" with Brandy and Whitney. Find us at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much for being here, all of you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
LUSE: Thank you.
HOLMES: And one last thing before we go - we are going to be talking about the show "King Of The Hill," and we want your questions. You can send a voice memo with your question to email@example.com. Again, send a voice memo with your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about the new film "Minari." It's a good one.
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