Was there much new information in this week’s Cinderella: The Reunion (A Special Edition 20/20)? No. Did I have chills from the moment it started and tear up listening to Brandy talk about Paolo Montalban? Without a doubt. ABC aired the hour-long program on August 23 at 8:00 ET, celebrating the movie’s 25th Anniversary, followed by the first showing of Rodger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella since it was last broadcasted in 1999 (23 years ago).
Although marketing for the special teased never before seen footage of Whitney Houston and implied a physical reunion of sorts, the program instead featured interviews with the cast and a few celebrity fans. Based on my lifetime of fangirl research, there was no “never before seen” footage; however, I will never turn down the opportunity for primary insight into the creation of, in the words of Pajiba TV editor Kaleena Rivera, “the only Cinderella that matters.”
The Reunion Basics
The program was designed to make the argument: Disney has long believed anyone can be a princess. In forty-five minutes, they reintroduced the musical, hit the high points (and high notes), and got out. Was it heavy-handed at times? Of course. Still, I appreciated structuring the majority of the special around the movie’s chronological musical numbers—introducing notes about casting, costuming, and production unique to each song—-as it lent some order to what could have been a jumble of talking heads. However, the tight forty-five did not allow for the kind of insight super fans, such as myself, might have appreciated (i.e. progress update on the long-awaited cast album, how cast members dealt with internal/external criticism at the time, or a comparison between 1997 color-blind casting versus 2020 Bridgerton casting). At the very least I expected the program, billed as a reunion, to involve two or more cast members connecting (even via Zoom) and collectively reminiscing on the project, what it meant to them then, and what it means to them now. Although that was not the case last night, the program achieved the goal of anything presented by today’s “The Wonderful World of Disney”: It satisfied its fans with a dose of rose-colored-nostalgia-fueled broadcast television magic.
All living members of the main cast sat for interviews.
Cast members: Brandy (Cinderella), Paolo Montalban (Prince Chris), Jason Alexander (Lionel), Whoopi Goldberg (Queen Constantina), Victor Garber (King Maximillian), Bernadette Peters (Stepmother), and Veanne Cox (Calliope). Production team: Robert Iscove (Director), Debra Martin Chase (Executive Producer, Whitney Houston’s producing partner), Paul Bogaev (Music Supervisor and Conductor), Valorie Massalas (Casting Director), Ellen Mirojnick (Costume Designer). Additional interviews with: Billy Porter, Jade Jones, and Todrick Hall. Missing: Whitney Houston (Fairy God Mother and Executive Produce), Natalie Desselle Reid (Minerva).
For longtime fans of the 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Brandy and Whitney’s Version), the August 23rd reunion special began with a high: Brandy, in a sharp orange suit, reminisces that her “favorite moment was never in the movie. It was in the studio.” At some point a VHS/DVD release included behind the scenes footage of Brandy and Whitney Houston talking about each other and the movie, featuring, now iconic footage of the two in the recording studio. Every time I meet a fellow fan, we inevitably discuss said four-minute clip of the stars practicing ‘Impossible’ at the piano and recording it side by side in the booth. If the 2022 reunion special did anything, it was to confirm to fans that our favorite part is also Brandy’s. To Houston’s stern, “WHY are you down there?!” from the archival footage, Brandy, in 2022, lovingly replies, “Cause I can’t sing as high as you, girl!”
Briefly shifting focus to our beloved Prince Christopher, the reunion makes time for everyone in the cast to gush about Paolo Montalban. To his credit, Montalban, in 2022, still has the crush-worthy twinkle in his eye from ‘97. If anything, he has aged the way one imagines the down-to-earth, lovesick prince of a quirky kingdom might: with style and grace, never losing his boyish charm, casually pulling off an ascot. When asked about their ‘Ten Minutes Ago’ duet, Brandy shivered—-or maybe got the same chill I did—-sighing, “Oh Paolo!” Producers alongside director Robert Iscove cite Montalban’s angelic voice and the deep honesty he brought to the character as reasons he was selected over other possible candidates (including, to name a few, Antonio Sabato Jr., Marc Anthony, and Taye Diggs). The prince himself, “PC” (Prince Chris) as Brandy refers to him, recites lines and directions from the production as if the prince never left him. “It’s a really great lesson for kids of all ages,” says Montalban, “The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear are still inside my head. The kindest words I’ll ever know are waiting to be said.” (quoting ‘Ten Minutes Ago’).
Bernadette Peters discusses her version of Cinderella’s Stepmother and how she played the cruel, notably white, stepmother against the first Black Cinderella. She cites her sculpted angular costumes as one of the ways production helped snark up her character in an interesting way. Peters and Todrick Hall talk about how the stepmother is so nasty that in her big solo ‘Falling in Love With Love,’ she loops around to being “strangely heartwarming”. Whoopi Goldberg talks about how she wanted Queen Constantina to just be herself in a dress and about making the decision that her character would never finish a sentence. “She makes sounds,” said Goldberg. The Queen and Goldberg were one and the same in all ways except their jewelry boxes: Goldberg wanted her character to wear jewels fit for a queen and fit for a groundbreaking moment such as this production. She recalls calling the folks at Harry Winston who, in response, sent over “their most royal jewels.”
Other highlights include Vianne Cox (Calliope) attempting the step-sister’s infamous “infectious” laugh, Jason Alexander (Lionel) discussing his long Broadway/theater roots pre-Seinfeld, and Victor Garber gushing about how talented all the women in the cast are and how he still thinks of Goldberg as his queen.
I was born right around the release of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997) on VHS. The movie didn’t just “raise me,” it was the only Cinderella I knew. Long after I thought blonde Cinderella was too scary, I still wouldn’t have anything to do with the “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo”-Godmother. Why would anyone, when you could have “Fal-de-ral and fiddle-dee-dee, Fiddly-faddly-foodle, All the wishes in the world Are poppycock and twaddle”-Godmother? I wouldn’t know Brandy or Whitney Houston as icons outside of the movie for years but, I knew their Cinderella was my kind of girl (also, as previously stated, I had a huge crush on Paolo Montalban).
I remember understanding that movies are make-believe and anyone can be part of a make-believe story, but not much else. In other words, I understood the gist of color-blind casting back then. For a long time, Brandy and Cinderella were one and the same for me. However, I didn’t, and as a white woman, will never, understand what it must have meant to see a Black princess, and a Black Cinderella no less, for the first time. The cynic in me was initially annoyed at the heavy-handed corporate “everyone is a princess” theme throughout last night’s reunion but when I began writing about it two things became clear: One. Of course, I think “everyone is a princess” is heavy-handed. I’m a white woman who grew up with a media-diet of predominately white characters. For a long time every princess looked like me and we still have a long way to go! In the grand scheme of things, twenty-five years is not that long, so what if Disney’s celebration of a project that defied the norm was a little cheesy?! Two. ABC primetime is not a Criterion Collection anniversary documentary. I should not expect a detailed analysis of how production changed the music composition from Broadway for Brandy. This was a reunion special for families and hopefully provided any first-time viewers with a more than adequate understanding of the context of this unique Cinderella before actually watching the movie.
It is unlikely long-time Cinderella fans will come away from the special with any new trivia. However, they will get to spend about an hour reveling in the unprecedented magic of Brandy, Whitney Houston, and the cast of Cinderella, a gift in and of itself.
Cinderella: The Reunion (A Special Edition 20/20) is available to stream on Hulu. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997) with Brandy and Whitney Houston is available to stream on Disney+
Header Image Source: Walt Disney Studios