Classical Rendition Meets Modern Ideals: Cinderella the 1997 Remake

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, remade in 1997, was a groundbreaking musical performance that intertwined a conversation about the progression of diversity in musicals with an all time classic Disney fairytale. The musical stars many prominent figures such as the late Whitney Houston as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, Whoopi Goldbeerg as the Queen, and Brandy Norwood as Cinderella. The 1997 remake based on Oscar Hammerstein’s book, and modernized by writed Robert Freedman took on a progressive approach to this fairytale. Alongside the casting team, producer and star Whitney Houston ensured that the cast would be more racially diverse than any previous Cinderella cast. The films importance derives from its ability to challenge racial boundaries previously set in the industry, while continuing to add to the legacy that is Cinderella

Pat Reilly is a freshman from Sea Girt, New Jersey. Pat is currently playing for our Commodore baseball team as a right handed pitcher. Pat looks to study Human Organizational Development during his time here at Vanderbilt. Fun fact Pat’s favorite musical Les Miserables

Sam Hliboki is a sophomore from Los Angeles, California. Sam is currently a pitcher for the Vanderbilt baseball team. Sam is currently working toward his HOD major with a Business Minor. Fun fact about Sam is that he has never been to a musical in person, but he looks forward to post Covid-19. 

As you see in the opening few scenes of the musical, it is a very diverse cast, including Cinderella’s sisters and the Royal Family. How does this opening scene set the stage for the musical, and what advantages and disadvantages do these choices conjure? 

This opening scene to me was very powerful. It was much more than your typical opening scene in the way it gives context to where the film will be going. Obviously, knowing the history of Cinderella and the plot to this story, I was able to focus on different details  while viewing the beginning of the film. You immediately notice the racial diversity in the cast, as Cinderella (Brandy) moves throughout the market place. You also observe a unique family dynamic of a white mom, a white sister, and two black sisters in the case of Cinderella’s family. Something that really stuck with me while watching this opening scene is how I, as a younger child, would watch this because it is a Disney production, which are typically aimed at younger audiences. I think that if I were to show my future children a version of Cinderella it would be this one because it would provide an opportunity to teach them how families can be unique and of different races. The original Cinderella story involves a completely white cast which enforces an all white community as a normality to children who view the production. I think this adaption of Cinderella successfully encapsulates the original plot, but more so includes a modern understanding of racial diversity. 

Although a part of the production that does not get as much attention, casting director Valerie Massalas plays an extremely important role in the total production. To what extent would you give her credit for being able to incorporate black female stars in this version of Cinderella?

Ms. Valeria Massalas as well as co-producer Whitney Houston receive a large amount of the credit for the diversity that is displayed throughout the entire cast. You notice how hard the casting team worked to incorporate more minority actors in the scenes that involve extras. For example, I noticed in the opening scene where Cinderella (Brandy Norwood) and Prince Christopher (Paolo Montalban) are singing through the marketplace, seemingly the entire town is in the background as our stars weave between them. One of my initial thoughts was how diverse the population was. Massalas did not just cast black actors as stars of the musical, but emphasized their roles throughout the play. Furthermore, I think Whitney Houston also deserves credit for the casting decision making as she is a black female, but more importantly a co-producer of the musical film that initially aired on television. It wouldn’t surprise me if Houston played a role in attracting other famous minorities like Whoopi Goldberg to this production. 

What are some of the strategies you noticed the director and production director made? How did these strategies improve Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella

Having watched bits and pieces of older Cinderella interpretations I found that the most useful and improving strategy the director, Robert Iscove, used was related to technology and trying to appeal to more modern audiences. You can tell the clear difference in quality of sound in the music, which I think is refreshing to an audience that is watching a decades old story. Furthermore, I think remaking this version of Cinderella as a musical film instead of an onstage musical gave the director much more freedom to utilize different camera angles and settings to capture a more complete picture for the audience. It also gave the cast and choreographer a larger “stage” to work with to enchant their viewers with not just beautiful voices but also mesmorizing choreography like when Lionel announces the prince is hosting a ball. 

What parallels do you see between this rendition of the musical number, “A Lovely Night,” compared to the number in the 1957 version of Cinderella? What are some differences you notice, specific to body language and choreography?

In Brandy’s rendition of “A Lovely Night,” we see how Cinderella starts out slow, but still in fascination with the prince she had met the night before at the ball. Her beautiful voice and her facial expressions, the smile, the glimmer in her eyes, as well as her stepsisters following her around as she sings, all show how important the previous night was to her. When Cinderella’s stepsisters begin to sing, they bump into each other, and in my opinion this just shows them trying to feel what Cinderella feels, without truly knowing what that feeling is. They keep the tone up, spinning around the room. I also notice a hint of jealousy that it is Cinderella and not them, who has gotten the attention of the prince, which brings me a weird feeling. When Cinderella and the stepsisters go back and forth with the lyrics, it really shows how beautiful Cinderella’s voice is compared to her stepsisters, as they almost screech and Cinderella displays what she feels with calmness and joy. The main difference in this version and the 1957 version is that the stepsisters do not sing along with Cinderella. Cinderella still portrays that same level of joy but her voice is not as soothing as Brandy’s and I don’t think it truly captures her feelings like Brandy’s Cinderella is able to do. 

We’ve talked about Brandy’s role as Cinderella, but how does casting a black woman in a traditionally white role of such a famous character impact the audience and overall industry? 

Much of what we have talked about as it pertains to race in our class can apply to this question. The musical industry, as we have learned, has traditionally been dominated by one race, white. I think that this diverse cast adds to the quality of this film. This film brings clarity to the fact that minority actors are more than talented enough to play these roles, they just needed an opportunity to do so. Brandy Norwood successfully starring as Cinderella, a role that has been dominated by white women, proves that no one role should be dominated by one race based on the history of the role or how the role was originally written. Norwood seamlessly fills this role as Cinderella and thrives in it. This production was groundbreaking for black actors to gain more opportunities in the musical industry because it not only showed audiences black actors can play traditionally white roles, but more importantly it showed the industry this possibility. It paved the way for a new generation of black actors in musicals and created more opportunities for the current generation at the time. 

How do you think the secondary characters represented race? Being that the secondary characters are all of different races, did anything noticeable stick out to you? 

When looking at these characters who are not your prototypical antagonist like Cinderella, they do incorporate race well. Most obviously is Queen Constantina and the Fairy Godmother, Prince Christopher is played by Paolo Montalban, a Filipino man. Whoopi Goldberg plays a powerful, in control woman much like that of Bette Midler’s Mama Rose in Gypsy. Queen Constantina however is also sassy and deceitful in order to get whatever she pleases. Also, when looking at  Whitney Houston’s Fairy Godmother, she captures what many think to be a stereotypical black woman, yet she does it with power and pure confidence. Because of the Fairy Godmother being portrayed as a powerful woman, Houston is able to put her own twist onto the character and really break out of the norm that the Fairy Godmother is typically a white woman. Finally, Paolo Montalban’s Prince Christopher showed a little less focus on race, but was really able to show the character as a young man who is looking for love, filled with hope. 

We’ve talked a lot about race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella up until this point, but is there a specific point in the film that speaks to you regarding femininity that is shown? 
To note first, most of the main characters in this film are played by women. Two of the most important are Cinderella and Queen Constantina, both which portray entirely different feminine roles. At the forefront of these female characters is most obviously Cinderella, who, specifically in this version of Cinderella, really separates herself from the prototypical feminine role of Cinderella. Brandy’s character is different in the way that she knows her worth more than previous Cinderella’s, she knows that she belongs and has her own amount of power, even though she does not show it to her stepsisters. She puts up more of a mental fight against her stepmother, knowing that she is a worthy woman in the kingdom, and even verbalizes this some times, before her stepmother berates her. Without taking it too overboard, this Cinderella is much more mentally strong, who does not believe everything bad said about her and knows her true value. Now when we look at the Fairy Godmother, we see an entirely different woman. This is a powerful woman. No doubt. Not only does she make a majority of the decisions, but we see a really powerful move in the way that she prioritizes her son and his dreams in her own life. And although these two women are totally different, they each represent equally important gender roles in this film.

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I agree that the diverse cast throughout Cinderella allowed minority actors to display their talents which have been denied for countless years. It gave them a chance to star in the main roles which were notably only given to white actors. I think the success of this musical definitely paved the way as you mentioned for many other non white actors to follow. During the time period of the musical’s release this was unheard of so it was fascinating to see how the success of this movie affected the way actors of color were perceived. It introduced industries to new possibilities in the world of acting and also in a way brought in a more diverse audience.

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  2. I really enjoy your analysis about the directors’ strategies and characters. Brandy’s role as Cinderella has great cultural significance because she is the first black actress to play Disney Princess in the film. Her exposure, along with other actors of color, refuted the view that fairy tales were only applicable to people who looked like the original characters. Brandy’s role proves that Cinderella has great potential to be retelled. Her interpretation of the traditional story paves the way for singers like Camilla to take on the role in a new and creative way, and Camilla will remake the film in 2021.

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