1:28 PM (ET) 10/30

`Cinderella' Gets a New Twist

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Turns out that Cinderella can fit into something even more chic than glass footwear.

A spunky '90s attitude and ethnicity also suit the fairy tale heroine in a charming new version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella," airing 7 p.m. EST Sunday on ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney."

The original 1957 TV program starred Julie Andrews and aired live in black and white. The '90s edition is in gloriously rich color -- and that means the cast as well as the cartoon-bright sets and costumes.

Tossing together a confetti of black, white and Asian actors, "Cinderella" features Brandy in the title role, Bernadette Peters as her stepmother and Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother. Cinderella has one white and one black stepsister, equally silly.

The royal family is multicultural as well. The prince is played by newcomer Paolo Montalban, a native of the Philippines, with Whoopi Goldberg as his monarch mom and Victor Garber as ruling dad.

"It's a good thing," Goldberg decreed in an interview on the "Cinderella" set. "Children will be able to watch this and, no matter where they're from, see themselves represented in this kingdom. ... It's what the real world is now."

The movie's producers contend that making yet another version of "Cinderella" -- it was redone in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren -- only made sense if the look and the characters were substantially revised.

"We never felt like it was a gimmick. The idea of doing another white Cinderella -- why bother?" said co-executive producer Craig Zadan.

"In a fairy tale world where pumpkins can turn into carriages, why not a multiracial family?" offered his partner, Neil Meron. "From reactions we've gotten, kids don't find it startling. It's adults who find it startling."

The producers, who successfully brought "Gypsy" to television in 1994 with Bette Midler, are happy with their reinvented Cinderella.

"We didn't update the story, we updated the character," said Zadan. "In this, Cinderella's not a victim. At a certain point she decides she's going to leave (her stepmother's home), because she's not going to be mistreated."

Another change: Cinderella attracts the prince's eye because of her character as well as her beauty.

The project began four years ago with Houston, who shares an executive producer title and who intended to play Cinderella herself. When her other obligations delayed the TV movie, Houston felt her time to play the role had passed.

Zadan and Meron, faced with the prospect of their dream turning into a pumpkin, quickly suggested Brandy (of the TV comedy "Moesha") and Houston gave her approval to the young actress-singer.

The talented supporting cast fell neatly in place, including Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld") as the prince's harassed aide and Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle as the comically inept stepsisters.

Several, including Peters, Goldberg and Alexander, have Broadway stage experience, and it shows. Alexander makes the most of the comic number created for him, "The Prince is Giving a Ball," which the producers saw as a Danny Kaye-like showcase.

Peters rips loose with a memorable version of "Falling in Love with Love," a Rodgers-Lorenz Hart collaboration lifted from the musical "The Boys from Syracuse." Houston puts sass into her role and into songs including "There's Music in You."

Brandy, a sweetly doe-eyed Cinderella, swaps her R&B style for a more traditional approach on songs including "In My Own Little Corner" as well as the newly added duet "The Sweetest Sounds" from the Rodgers musical "No Strings."

The original score was expanded with the help and blessing of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which opened up its catalog. Fred Ebb ("Cabaret") contributed new lyrics for Alexander's number.

The songs reflect their musical theater roots, but with a twist, Zadan said.

"The new sound right now for this kind of arena are animated musicals, which use Broadway composers but orchestrate them with fresh, contemporary instrumentation so everything sounds today," he said.

Zadan and Meron are convinced both adults and children will get a kick out of their opulent-looking fantasy, which had a reported $12 million budget. If the ratings prove them right, they said, Disney will commit to a yearly musical.

Television isn't the producers' only outlet; they're working on motion picture versions of the Stephen Sondheim musicals "Into the Woods" and "Sweeney Todd." But the small screen has its advantages.

"There's something to be said for, on one night, having 40 million people watch `Gypsy,"' Zadan said. "It's thrilling."