Sunday, November 2, 1997

Cover Story
The Rainbow Reincarnation
By SUSAN KING, Times Staff Writer

     Perhaps the only thing more unusual than someone tackling a full-fledged musical for television these days is the way the producers of Disney's new production of "Cinderella" have cast it.
     The title character in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's adaptation of the famous fairy tale is pop singer Brandy, an African American. The prince with whom she dances until the clock strikes midnight is Paolo Montalban, a 24-year-old Filipino.
     His parents are played by Whoopi Goldberg, who is black, and Victor Garber, who is white. Cinderella's mean stepmother is Tony Award-winner Bernadette Peters, who is white; the stepsisters are Natalie Desselle (black) and Veanne Cox (white). African American superstar Whitney Houston plays the fairy godmother (and is also one of the executive producers).
     The principals involved believe the casting concept works beautifully in the movie, which airs Sunday on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney."
     "I didn't know what [the multiracial cast] was going to be like at first," says Brandy, who stars as a stellar high school student on UPN's popular teen comedy, "Moesha." "I never thought something like that would come about [on TV]. But when you watch the movie, you forget that everyone is a different race."
     "In the truest form of the word, it is truly a rainbow," says Montalban, 24, who was an understudy on Broadway in the current revival of "The King and I."
     "For instance, having a Filipino with a black mother and white father. But you don't realize it [when you're watching it]. That is the way it should be. Our society today is a melting pot, and the media that we watch should be a reflection of that, especially in mainstream stuff."
     Adds Montalban: "I get to play Prince Charming. How nice that is for every boy out there who wants to be Prince Charming, but the Prince Charmings they've always seen have been blond, blue-eyed Ken doll versions."
     "Cinderella" is the only musical Rodgers and Hammerstein ("Oklahoma!," "The Sound of Music") wrote for television. Forty years ago, Julie Andrews, then starring on Broadway in "My Fair Lady," was the plucky heroine in CBS' live version, which attracted an audience of 107 million viewers. Several songs from it, including "Ten Minutes Ago" and "In My Own Little Corner," became standards.
     Lesley Ann Warren starred in a 1965 CBS presentation, which is currently on video and repeats frequently on the Disney Channel.
     The ABC version boasts a new character: Prince Charming's befuddled steward Lionel, played by "Seinfeld"s Jason Alexander, who won a Tony in 1989 for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."
     Three songs also have been added: "The Sweetest Sounds," from Rodgers' "No Strings"; "Falling in Love With Love," from Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "The Boys From Syracuse"; and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "There's Music in You," originally written for the 1953 film, "Main Street to Broadway."
     Brandy, 18, says she feels a real kinship with Cinderella. "I do dream," she says. "I have dreams and goals I haven't accomplished yet. I haven't been around a long time. I haven't really experienced anything. I haven't really dated. I am similar to her except I don't have a mean family who makes me feel like I'm inferior to them."
     She believes that if Cinderella and Moesha met in high school, they would become friends.
     "Moesha knows what she wants to do, but Cinderella doesn't," Brandy says. "She doesn't know where to go in her life. All she does is dream, so a person like Moesha would help bring her out. The Prince brought out something Cinderella didn't know she had. She had beauty, she had charm, and she didn't know that. She needed someone to help her to that."
     This time around, Prince Charming is a man of the people. In the opening sequence, he is walking incognito among his subjects when he spots Cinderella on an errand with her stepmother and sisters.
     "He's wanting to be a responsible ruler by getting to know his people," Montalban explains. "At the same time, he also has a sad kind of a story because he has no one to talk to. He is the Prince. All he has is his steward. He really can't talk to his parents, especially when all they want is for him to produce an heir.
     "He goes out into the village searching for someone he can talk to," the actor recounts. "He is not even concerned about finding a wife. He wants to find a soul mate--a life partner he can share his dreams with."
     Both performers say they were overwhelmed with the lush, colorful sets and fanciful costumes of the $12-million undertaking.
     "You didn't need to make-believe," Montalban says. "When I first got on the set, I remember I said, 'I don't have to act with your sets; I feel like the Prince. You gave me a palace.' "
     "It was beautiful," Brandy agrees. "It was all a fairy tale--except when you were there at 12:30 or 1 in the morning [shooting], and then it became a reality."
     The only thing Brandy says she found difficult about singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein score was that "you had to really act out what you were singing. I felt like whatever I feel, that is what I should sing. I noticed the more straight you sing these songs, the more people can understand what you are saying and understand what you are doing."
     Brandy believes her young fans will enjoy "Cinderella."
     "I feel that even if it wasn't me, people would watch it because it has such a great cast and the music is not outdated," she says. "It's still new."
     "It's very appealing," Montalban adds. "The moral of the story is: Never stop wishing, because your dreams can come true."

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      "Cinderella" airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on "The Wonderful World of Disney" on ABC. "Moesha" airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on UPN.