Mon., Oct. 27, 1997   

An all-star cast of many colors remakes a classic. Will it charm a whole new generation?

B Y   M A R G Y   R O C H L I N

Clear the way, please, clear the way!" someone shouts as Whitney Houston emerges from a well-polished carriage shaped like a pumpkin and begins to travel across soundstage 26 on the Sony Pictures lot. Houston's coppery Fairy Godmother wig and thick theatrical makeup make her look a little bit like a refugee from "Cats." Still, with her eyes fixed mid-distance and that famous visage tilted toward the sky, she comports herself like a queen, trailed by a wedge-shaped entourage of publicists, helpers, friends, and a woman holding poufy armloads of a shiny train that would otherwise drag on the dirty concrete floor.

Outside the soundstage, a throng of studio laborers parts for this convoy -- get too close, and a gray-suited security guard demands identification. When Houston finally arrives at her trailer, she settles into a wicker chair that has been placed out front. A full five minutes have elapsed, and she has walked about 15 feet. Now this is glamour!

And so it should be. For the next five days, Houston will warble, fly (through the miracle of blue-screen special effects), and grant wishes in ABC's Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, costarring Brandy Norwood in the title role. Although it won't be the first televised staging of the classic (Julie Andrews headlined in 1957, and Lesley Ann Warren's version was broadcast in 1965), it definitely carries the largest sticker price.

Everywhere you look on this back lot today are the visible results of the reported $12 million budget, from the extras who hang out near the craft-services truck in breeches and frock coats dreamed up by famed costume designer Ellen Mirojnick ("Face/Off," "Basic Instinct") to the cartoonishly vivid sets meant to recall the Technicolor richness of Dorothy's first glimpse of Munchkinland (this soundstage is, in fact, where parts of "The Wizard of Oz" were shot).

And while it has been said that all the principals took a pay cut, it's impossible to think of a talent package that includes Houston, Norwood, Whoopi Goldberg as the Queen, Bernadette Peters as the Stepmother, and Jason Alexander as the freshly created character of the Prince's valet, Lionel, and not imagine that we're still talking about a fairly sizable piece of change.

The biggest obstacle this Cinderella faces, however, is not financial: The rags-to-riches story has already been told quite well and quite wonderfully. Houston hopes her version will be considered unique for its assemblage of a cast straight out of a Benetton ad, where the skin pigment of each actor is different and the sight is clearly meant to sell the message of social harmony.

Says Houston, who believes that Cinderella's plight is universal enough to speak to children of all colors: "It's the story of a young girl who is trying to get out of a bad situation and move up to a higher level. Know what I'm saying?"

Among those surely tuning in to see Houston's rainbow vision will be CBS executives. For four years, the network waited patiently for Houston's updated telling of this TV classic. Last fall, when she still hadn't found a free moment in her frenzied schedule, they gave Team Cinderella its walking papers. A new home was found in a single call to Charles Hirschhorn, president of Walt Disney Television (Disney also owns ABC). "We didn't even pause," says Hirschhorn, who knew not only that the 1957 broadcast had attracted 107 million viewers -- a record at the time -- but that his company could also mass-market this Cinderella as a home video. "We just said, 'Yeah.'"

And they had the perfect slot for it: ABC's newly revived Wonderful World of Disney. Not only had today's parents grown up with the legendary Sunday-night program, but many had watched the Lesley Ann Warren Cinderella more than once.

"It seemed to us that these parents would be interested in offering their children a piece of their childhood," says Hirschhorn, who confesses that the only debate Cinderella inspired within the corporate ranks was whether it should be Wonderful World of Disney's premiere offering or show up six Sundays down the line for the fall sweeps period, as ultimately decided.

Some changes have been made in this new version. It's a half hour longer, and a main character has been added, as have three extra songs -- including "There's Music in You," a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune borrowed from the 1953 film "Main Street to Broadway" and specially retrofitted so Houston can sing a ballad at the show's close.

The script has been modernized as well. This Cinderella isn't just an ash-smudged victim of her stepsisters' cruelty. She's a girl for the politically correct '90s whose self-worth remains intact enough to tell an incognito Prince what she expects from a relationship: A girl wants to be treated "like a person," she soberly informs him, "with kindness and respect."

It's hard to pinpoint who first thought of the R&B sensation and Moesha star for the TV-movie's title role, or when. What there is no disputing is that back in 1994, when Houston (and eventually partner Debra Martin Chase) teamed up with executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (the gifted duo behind Bette Midler's Gypsy), Houston was to play the lead. If we are to believe the reports, Houston finally relinquished the part because she thought she looked too old to play an adolescent.

Not true, Houston insists on this hot afternoon as she watches Norwood appear as if on cue. The young star is dressed in a pale blue ball gown, with her very own train wrangler -- Houston's 4-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina -- struggling in her wake to keep the frothy layers of tulle aloft. After this sweetly comic twosome passes Houston's trailer and disappears into the darkened soundstage, she picks up the thread of her conversation without missing a beat. "My husband [singer Bobby Brown] always says I look 21 without my makeup on," she says, fluttering her mascara'd eyelashes demurely. "Just the other day, Brandy told me that I look 18."

But after years of marriage and parenthood, Houston says she felt too far from the fairy-tale heroine's naive sparkle. "Who still has that wonder in her eyes?" she mused as she considered who could replace her as the first black actress to play Cinderella on television. The description most certainly fit that of Norwood, a sort of Houston protégé who has rarely left an interview without making worshipful declarations like, "Whitney Houston is my idol."

As the oft-repeated story goes, it fell to Houston to call Norwood at the gated Woodland Hills mansion where she lives with her parents, brother, and assorted relatives. "This is your fairy godmother," was how Houston broke the news to her.

Cinderella turned out to be something of a challenge for Norwood. "In the beginning I thought it was a big joke," she says, confessing that she'd never rehearsed intensively for anything -- even her albums -- and was amazed by the paces she was put through. "I thought, 'Oh, I'll just go there and act all weepy and innocent.'" But to pull off the role, she was required to put in 10-hour days for eight weeks, practicing scenes with each of the players and -- the task perhaps most formidable for the gangly ingenue -- trying to master the art of waltzing gracefully.

Despite all the work, Norwood never doubted that the role was right for her. "There's this one part in Cinderella where I'm at the top of the stairs and the whole ball stops because I walk in," says Norwood. "And at that moment I really felt that that wasn't written into the script. That no one wrote: BRANDY WALKS IN. STOP. STARE AT HER IN AWE. At that moment I felt like I was her. And there's a smile that comes on my face, and you can see exactly how I feel. I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God. I'm the baddest girl at this ball.'"

It's high spirits like these that reign on the set, the kind where everyone averages four hours of sleep a night and yet is fueled by the belief that he or she is doing something truly special. At certain junctures it seems that every other adult has a child or two by the hand, each slack-jawed as they stand in this living storybook.

It is Houston's daughter who has the best seat in the house: Enthroned on Norwood's satin-clad lap, Bobbi Kristina sits just beyond the cameras and in front of a television monitor, eating crackers, returning waves from her mother, and, in her high, peeping voice, unleashing intriguingly sophisticated questions. ("How are they making her fly?" she wants to know when the image of Houston soars through the air on-screen, while just a few feet to her right she saw Mommy hop aboard a dolly that was then tugged slowly past the portals of the pumpkin carriage.) And when the activities cease to engage her, she merely flips herself over, plants her face in Norwood's neck, and takes a quick snooze.

All it takes is this cozy familial snapshot -- of Norwood, Houston, and Bobbi Kristina together -- to easily contradict the tabloid item that had Whoopi Goldberg acting as mediator between a warring Norwood and Houston. As it happens, it was also a logistical impossibility. "What a hoot," says Houston's business partner, Debra Martin Chase. "We were like, 'Hello? Whoopi didn't even come out here until three weeks later.'"

Now, several weeks later, Goldberg is standing in the Cinderella set's royal palace, flashing a plum-size diamond ring. To help her get in grand character, she has borrowed $60 million worth of Harry Winston jewelry.

It's the final day of shooting, and the scene in which Cinderella and the Prince get married is almost in the can. For a long while, it's all stand-in work, with an actress dressed like Houston swaying and dipping and raising her arms high overhead.

Finally, Norwood is brought out with Paolo Montalban, the unknown who landed the coveted role of the Prince. Before he came into the picture, producers Zadan and Meron had exhausted all of their Los Angeles candidates. (At the time, Brandy had composed her own short wish list: "[Ralph Lauren underwear model] Tyson [Beckford]. Or Sean 'Puffy' Combs.")

When Montalban walked into the audition, he was working as a bit player in Broadway's "The King and I," holding a flaming torch every night while dressed in what he calls "oversized red diapers." If Montalban had no television experience, he brought something more crucial to the mix. "Ah, the chemistry," says Zadan about the noticeable change in room temperature when the newcomer sang "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" to Norwood for the first time. "We like to call it our Cinderella story within a Cinderella story," says Meron.

Meron continues to chat as he and Zadan head over to the nearby production office, where preparations are under way for the wrap party. As is the tradition, there will be cake to commemorate the experience. There are probably quite a few show-business types to whom the pair would like to serve a slice, all those people who had no faith that they would ever pull off this project -- especially now that the brass at Disney have promised to let the team produce a TV musical every year if Cinderella does well in the ratings.

"For years, very prominent industry people -- agents, colleagues, everyone -- said, 'Why are you wasting your time? It's never going to happen,'" says Zadan, standing amid a cluster of frantic employees and looking like he has always believed in happy endings. "And I'd tell them, 'Believe me, it's going to happen.'"

Margy Rochlin is a Los Angeles-based writer.


Just before the first time Brandy Norwood descends the gleaming staircase to the Prince's ball, she pauses beneath an arch, and for a brief moment, she looks exactly like one of those bride figurines on top of a wedding cake.

The idea for this portent-filled image came to production designer Randy Ser in a dream, as did much of the ornate scenery in Cinderella. "What I've learned over the years," says the Los Angeles-based Ser, who has worked as a production designer on such diverse films as "Darkman" and "The Mighty Ducks," "is that if I let my mind work on its own, a lot of the large concepts will be there when I wake up in the morning."

Good thing, too. Given only 11 weeks to make an entire fantasy world come to life, Ser (along with art director Ed Rubin) worked into the wee hours to come up with concepts for more than12 lavishly decorated sets. But it was the actual dressing of the sets that demanded constant ingenuity. "There's no Cinderella department at Home Depot," says Ser, who says he ended up employing more than 100 craftspeople to do things like lay the authentic cobblestones in the town square or sculpt out of foam blocks a 6-foot-tall faux marble statue of the stepmother and her two daughters doing a frolicsome May dance.

As for Cinderella's flashy ride, it was just an antique coach with a shot suspension when Ser discovered it rusting on the Warner Bros. back lot. By the time Norwood and Houston squeezed into its interior, it had been completely stripped, then refurbished with bulbous pumpkin ridges carved out of foam and real wisteria vines woven between the wheels' spokes. This hand-polished carriage, as well as several stained-glass windows and the May dance sculpture, are among the few pieces that Disney kept after the 28-day production finished filming. As for the rest? "It's landfill," says a philosophical Ser. "That's what happens when shows are over."
-- M.R.