We’re all stuck in the house, right? There’s never been a better time to dig into those retro movies that you’ve always wanted to watch, but never had the time for. Personally, I’m a bit of a retrophile and tend to watch more older flicks than newer ones. On Fangirlish, you can now look forward to a retro review from me each Wednesday in this column. I’ll be highlighting one throwback movie a week, offering a spoiler-free review of the film, any throwback thoughts from my childhood, and where you can watch the movie yourself. Sit back, relax, and enjoy #WayBackWednesday.
When I started this series for Black History Month, I made the observation that I hadn’t seen many black-led/black-directed films prior to 2000. This is one, however, that I watched every time it was on TV — Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston. Houston also served as an executive producer for the film. Did you catch this made-for-TV classic on The Wonderful World of Disney revival? Check out the trailer for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and we’ll get started with #WayBackWedneseday.
This 1997 made-for-TV remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella broke numerous records and raised the bar for made-for-TV movies. This is my all-time favorite version of Cinderella for many reasons. Here are a few of the reasons I watched this film whenever it was on TV.
This remake of Cinderella boasted an incredible multi-racial cast before it was considered “woke” to do so. I was twelve when this film was released and I never remember hearing anyone speaking negatively about the multi-racial cast. Brandy Norwood, in her first film role, is the first black person cast in the role of Cinderella. The Wicked Stepmother is played by Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters.
The Wicked Stepsisters, Calliope and Minerva, are played by Veanne Cox, and the late, great Natalie Desselle Reid. Tony Award winner and otherwise known as George Costanza on Seinfeld, Jason Alexander is Lionel, the Prince’s attendant. Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award winner, Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber star as Queen Constantina and King Maximillian. Prince Christopher is played by Paolo Montalban in his debut role, and the late, great Whitney Houston played the Fairy Godmother.
With such a cast, this film could have easily been a theatrical release. There are no weak actors in the cast, combining great humor with incredible dance and musical performances. This is a film worth watching just on the cast alone, but it’s much more than just a great cast.
Not only does this version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella have music from the original, but a few other songs from other musicals were also added in for dramatic emphasis. The additional songs are, “The Sweetest Sounds” (from Rodgers’ No Strings), “Falling in Love with Love” (from Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse), and “There’s Music in You” (written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the film, Main Street to Broadway).
While I have not listened to the soundtrack and score from the original musical, one thing I did notice about the arrangements for this version is that many of the songs have a solid underlying bass guitar line and the percussion is provided by a drum machine–both are prominent features in many pop/R&B songs of the time (notably “The Sweetest Sounds”).
The vocals in the film are fantastic, but Brandy’s vocals are what hit me the deepest. I have often made the joke that I want the next Disney princess to be an alto (so I can sing along too), but as it turns out, we did back in 1997. Brandy is a contralto, and according to IMDB, has a range that spans three octaves and five semitones. With her incredible range, Brandy might be the Disney princess with the strongest vocal prowess. If you love musicals with powerhouse vocal performances, definitely add this version of Cinderella to your watch list.
Dream Come True
One other thing I love the most about this film is that it has a dream-like quality to it. Not just the dream-like, fairytale aesthetic achieved by the sets and gorgeous costuming, but also that Brandy, who was only eighteen at the time, was cast by her hero, Whitney Houston. Houston was originally to play the title role, but felt that Brandy would be a better fit. Brandy only agreed to play the role if Houston played her Fairy Godmother.
When I learned that, I wanted to cry because of how deeply it moved me. If my hero, Gwendoline Christie, cast me in the lead role as Cinderella, I would want no other person to play my Fairy Godmother too. Having that kind of affirmation from your hero makes you feel like you can do anything. It’s a dream come true. If you love to watch films where dreams come true, then look no further than Cinderella.