November 2, 1997

The Slipper Still Fits, Though the Style Is New

HOLLYWOOD -- On Sunday evening, March 31, 1957, 14 years to the day after they introduced Broadway to the pioneering inventions of "Oklahoma!," Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d, by then the reigning storytellers of American mass culture, tried something else new: a 90-minute musical fairy tale for television starring the toast of Broadway, a 22-year-old British ingénue named Julie Andrews, moonlighting on her night off from "My Fair Lady."

Broadcast just once, live on CBS, before the advent of videotape, "Cinderella" pre-empted "The Ed Sullivan Show" and drew the single largest audience for any television show up to that time: 107 million people, in a year when the population of the United States was just over 170 million. A remake starring Lesley Ann Warren, broadcast in 1965 and reshown annually into the early 70's, became a favorite of late-era baby boomers and has never been out of release on videocassette.

The third version of the musical 'Cinderella' makes its debut. This time it's multi-ethnic.

Tonight at 7, ABC and the Walt Disney Company are banking $12 million and a barrel of big-name talent in the November ratings sweepstakes that young voices will be singing out classics like "Impossible" and "In My Own Little Corner" in bathtubs across the country all over again. This newly written version for "The Wonderful World of Disney" features an all-star interracial cast including Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother and Brandy, the black teen-age singing sensation, in the title role, along with Whoopi Goldberg, Bernadette Peters and Jason Alexander. It also features sumptuous sets and costumes, digital special effects and new orchestrations from the team of top Broadway arrangers behind Disney's recent string of animated film musicals.

"We didn't want to turn this into 'The Wiz,' but we wanted something that is hip and fresh," said Craig Zadan, one of the executive producers, who with Neil Meron, his longtime partner, was responsible for Bette Midler's critically praised version of "Gypsy" for CBS in 1993.

"This is a Cinderella for the millennium," Mr. Meron added.

In pursuit of their vision, Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron persuaded the Rodgers and Hammerstein heirs to permit an unusual amount of tinkering.

Among other things, the producers interpolated two numbers from other Rodgers shows, consolidated two existing songs into one tongue-twisting production number (with supplemental lyrics by Fred Ebb) for Mr. Alexander and created the first "new" Rodgers and Hammerstein song since "The Sound of Music," for Ms. Houston to sing in the finale.

That was appropriate enough, since Ms. Houston has been the bankable star behind the project from its inception. The morning after "Gypsy" was broadcast in 1993, Ms. Houston's agent called Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron, asking what they might have for her, and they proposed "Cinderella," with Ms. Houston in the title role. But other projects intervened, CBS lost interest, and Ms. Houston herself got older.

"I got married and pregnant and stuff, and basically I didn't feel like Cinderella anymore," she said.

But Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron, by now at Disney, persisted. They suggested that Ms. Houston play the Fairy Godmother, not as the regal maternal figure cut by Celeste Holm in the 1965 version but as a sort of worldly-wise older sister.

Ms. Houston agreed, recommended her friend Brandy, just 18, for Cinderella, and with her producing partner, Debra Martin Chase, signed on as co-executive producer.

The result, in the words of Oscar Hammerstein's son James, a theatrical director and producer, is "this kingdom with a total scrambled gene pool, one of the nicest fantasies one can imagine." Ms. Goldberg, her rubber face the model of comic maternal concern, plays a black Queen to Victor Garber's white King, and their son is Paolo Montalban, a Philippine-born newcomer plucked from an understudy's role in the current Broadway version of "The King and I." Ms. Peters plays a wicked stepmother with one black daughter, Natalie Desselle, and one white one, Veanne Cox. As they cavort through sets painted in the rich palettes of Gustav Klimt and Maxfield Parrish, in costumes blending the funky velvets of a SoHo flea market with the purple satins of Liberace, the characters' races seem irrelevant.

"In 20 seconds, it's so colorful, the skin tones all blend down," said the director Robert Iscove, who noted that the project had been conceived as "multi-ethnic from the very beginning."

In 1957, Hammerstein told an interviewer that his "Cinderella" would be wholly traditional, "with absolutely no updating, no naturalistic or Freudian explanations." The new teleplay by Robert L. Freedman retains Hammerstein's cockeyed optimism, but its characters are post-modern models of Oprah-fied in-touchness. At one point, the Prince says he supposes Cinderella wants to be treated like a princess, and she replies, "No, like a person, with kindness and respect." When Cinderella worries that she could be of no use to a young man surrounded by servants, the Prince, who likes to wander among his subjects dressed in work clothes, reassures her: "Servants I've got. What I need is someone I can really talk to."

"He's a prince, and she's a common person," Ms. Houston said, "but he feels the same way she does. The feelings don't change, whether you have money or you don't. We're not that different. We have basically the same problems."

Prince Charles and Diana spring readily to mind, but so do struggling single-parent families.

"We decided initially we would contemporize the qualities of the characters, rather than the characters themselves," Mr. Zadan said. 

Accommodating the music to the rejiggered story proved trickier. To introduce Cinderella and the Prince's thoughts at their first meeting in the town square, the producers chose a twin-soliloquies version of "The Sweetest Sounds," from "No Strings," the 1962 Broadway show for which Rodgers wrote both music and lyrics after Hammerstein's death. To show the stepmother as not just an evil harridan but the product of bitter experience, the team proposed "Falling in Love With Love," which Rodgers wrote with his first partner, Lorenz Hart, for "The Boys From Syracuse" in 1938.

"We were pretty much against it until they cast it, and then we knew that Bernadette would be able to put a different kind of spin on it," said the composer's daughter, Mary Rodgers, herself the composer of "Once Upon a Mattress."

In the new show, Ms. Peters sings the song to her daughters, warning them not to confuse the emotional notion of love with the commercial concept of marriage. "She's been very, very disappointed with life, and she's very bitter and jealous of Cinderella, and I had fun with it," Ms. Peters said. "In a fairy tale, you don't draw with charcoal; you draw with Crayola."

Finding a promised big number for Ms. Houston presented a special challenge. In the end, the producers chose "There's Music in You," a little-known song sung by Mary Martin in an obscure 1953 film called "Main Street to Broadway." The song was selected for the godmother to sing as all ends happily ever after, but it lacked a middle section, or bridge, that built to Ms. Houston's trademark vocal climax, so a snippet of "One Foot, Other Foot," from "Allegro," a rare Rodgers and Hammerstein flop, was sandwiched in the middle. That made it, as Mr. Meron says, "a 100 percent Rodgers and Hammerstein song that sounds like a new Whitney Houston record."

Mr. Alexander agreed to play the cameo role of a long-suffering valet for a fraction of what he earns for a single episode of "Seinfeld," in part because he covets the title role in the film version of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," for which Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron own the rights, and in part, he says, because he wants musicals to have a future.

"We've spent endless hours talking about what a pathetic crime it is that this form is so rarely done in film these days, and more often than not, not done well," Mr. Alexander said. "This is a big responsibility and a big opportunity. Because if 'Cinderella' doesn't work, if it doesn't get ratings and isn't successful, it's going to clamp the lid down on this kind of work pretty hard."