Friday, October 31, 1997


Disney charmingly updates the screen musical with a nod to past and present

There has been much teeth-gnashing in recent decades over
the death of the screen musical, but as with any death, there
are reasons for it: The changes in musical tastes, which made it a
bad career move for a pop star to get a hit out of a show tune; the
collapse of the Hollywood studio system, which corraled the
necessary talent and ponied up the dough; and the rise of the music video, which is
pretty much where the screen musical has landed.

Part of the beauty of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, a
breathtakingly new version of the 1957 TV original with Julie Andrews and
the '60s remake with Lesley Ann Warren, is that it has found ways to surmount all
three obstacles: It has cast pop stars in dramatic roles and shaped classical songs
to fit them; it got $12 million out of Disney to do it right; and it hired a director,
a writer and musical arrangers to give it a more contemporary look and feel.

Airing in most of the civilized world at 7 Sunday night on ABC's The
Wonderful World of Disney - but bumped to 2 p.m. Sunday on Detroit's
Channel 7 because of a Lions game - Cinderella leaves you lightheaded with
delight, like Gene Kelly pirouetting along the Seine or Fred extending his hand to

Unlike the recent, slavishly faithful Gypsy, which Bette Midler mangled
badly, Cinderella makes changes in the text, adds new songs and finds
visual correlatives to the material without losing one bit of Rodgers and
Hammerstein's lilting, spinetingling romanticism.

Starring Brandy - whose gawky sweetness reminded
me of the young Audrey Hepburn, especially in Funny
Face - Cinderella starts off on a dizzying note and doesn't
let up. Its director, Robert Iscove, discovers fresh meanings
in the Steadicam, a remarkably mobile unit that can swoop
and caress without getting jittery. On ER, the use of the
Steadicam is an affectation, a means of diverting your
attention from the soap suds. In Cinderella, the
camerawork enhances the themes: the search for love and
identity and an escape from cruelty.

In cinema, musical or otherwise, there has always
been a schism between "mise-en-scene" (the
arrangement of everything within the frame) and "montage"
(cutting from one thing to another). Iscove scores with both:
He shoots the ball scene, where Cinderella dances with the
Prince (Paolo Montalban), with an intensity that makes you
woozy, but when the Prince strokes Cinderella's cheek, and
she closes her eyes in rapture, it makes you swoon in a
different way.

It can't be easy writing for Whitney Houston, but
Cinderella's text-tinkerer, Robert L. Friedman, has
come up with the perfect entrance line for her: "I'm your fairy
godmother, honey." Houston, who co-produced this
production, had wanted to play the lead herself years ago, but she's much more
convincing as a bossy babe who gets things done, especially when she glides
alongside Cinderella's carriage in a trail of fairy dust or when her awesome lung
power is matched by Iscove's closing panning shots that dart through the kingdom
like orgasmic eagles.

The rest of the cast could not be improved upon - I can't recall a group of
actors so ready to just do it: Bernadette Peters' Stepmother, alternately
farcical and chillingly psychotic; Jason Alexander's steward, a fool who's nobody's
fool; Whoopi Goldberg's Queen Constantina, who yelps like a Chihuahua
whenever she's upset; Victor Garber's King Maximilian, wary and witty; and
Natalie Desselle and Veanne Cox's Stepsisters, a Laverne and Shirley for the '90s.

Everything about this Cinderella, in fact, seems up-to-date, even though it's
traditional and fit for the whole family. And even though the score,
reorchestrated by record producer Arif Mardin and music director Paul Bogaev, is
minor, it feels major because everybody involved decided to respect the screen
musical without living in the past.

In modern terms: Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella rocks.