Commentary: Critics ridiculed Brandy’s ‘Cinderella.’ Its lasting legacy is a lesson to Hollywood

Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in a promo shot for 1997's TV movie "Cinderella."
Brandy Norwood, left, and Whitney Houston are part of why “Cinderella” (1997) has withstood the test of time.

Just before “Cinderella” premiered in 1997, major outlets published their critics’ disenchanted reviews. “Cinderella’s glass slippers are far too big for Brandy to fill,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “To put it bluntly, the girl can’t act.” Variety described Whitney Houston’s Fairy Godmother as “a frightening caricature, one certain to send the kids scurrying into Mom’s lap.” And the New York Times called it “a cobbled-together ‘Cinderella’ for the moment, not the ages.”

More than two decades later, as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical makes its streaming debut Friday on Disney+, it’s clear that “Cinderella” — which attracted an estimated 60 million viewers in its initial airing, sold 1 million home entertainment units in its first week and was named the most profitable TV movie of its time — was both for its moment and for the ages. In fact, the creatives behind Hollywood’s current movie-musical boom could learn a thing or two from its clever spin on a classic text.

For the record:

10:07 a.m. Feb. 14, 2021This article misstates that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote “No Strings.” It was composed solely by Richard Rodgers.

Brandy Norwood stars in the multicultural fairy tale in a first for the centuries-old plot, with previous live-action treatments led by Mary Pickford in 1914, Julie Andrews in 1957 and Lesley Ann Warren in 1965. Just as “Carmen Jones” and “The Wiz” did with the opera “Carmen” and the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” respectively, “Cinderella” takes a well-known (and usually white) story and puts actors of color at the forefront, something only a few studio-released movie musicals — such as 2004’s “Bride and Prejudice,” 2014’s “Annie” and, arguably, 2019’s “Cats” — have attempted since.

Of this admittedly limited field, “Cinderella” remains the best example of colorblind casting of a screen musical to date, and the movie still offers a useful template for potential successors: Not only does the company, including background actors, collectively reflect our world, but the principals are carefully selected to suit their roles regardless of appearance. It doesn’t matter that Cinderella’s stepsisters look nothing alike; Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle Reid deliver the best broad humor of the movie, playing off each other as well as any seasoned comedic duo.

Beyond her groundbreaking status as Disney’s first Black princess, Norwood’s underrated performance is quietly spellbinding in its own right, with a subtle yet effervescent sweetness that captures the classic’s Inherently Good protagonist. Thanks to her nonchalant delivery of the more proactive lines in Robert Freedman’s new book, she underscores this version’s repositioning of the heroine from a young woman passively waiting to be rescued to one who takes charge of her fate. Plus, her chemistry with the handsome prince, played by Broadway actor Paolo Montalban, is downright magical.

Brandy Norwood became Disney's first Black princess in "Cinderella."
Brandy Norwood became Disney’s first Black princess in “Cinderella.”

The pairing of Norwood, a relative newcomer to the movie musical, with Montalban, a more experienced hand, points to another lesson to be learned from “Cinderella”: More productions should take chances on fresh faces instead of signing the same handful of Hollywood names — James Corden, Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick, for example — to yet another lead role. Instead, “Cinderella” centers on Norwood, with support from well-known actors with theater experience: Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber as the king and queen, Jason Alexander as the palace valet and Bernadette Peters as Cinderella’s stepmother. This supporting cast anchors the production in theatrical musicality, instead of pulling the viewer out of the narrative with famous people who can’t sing (a la Pierce Brosnan of “Mamma Mia!” and Alec Baldwin of “Rock of Ages”).

“Cinderella,” thanks to allowances by the composer’s estate, also features the sort of flexibility with the original text that no successful revamp can do without. As Shondaland’s oral history of the movie notes, for instance, “The Prince Is Giving a Ball” was expanded — by Fred Ebb, no less — to give Alexander, by that point a three-time Emmy nominee for “Seinfeld,” a slapstick spectacle. “Falling in Love With Love,” pulled from the lesser-known Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart show “The Boys From Syracuse,” fills out Peters’ villainous matriarch while showcasing her comedic sensibilities and Tony-winning vocals. And of course, superstar Houston gets a soaring solo in “There’s Music in You” to close out the show.

These songs — along with the hopeful opening number “The Sweetest Sounds,” reallocated from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “No Strings” — were added for the screen, a common practice of musical adaptations, but none feel extraneous; in fact, they’ve since become “Cinderella” canon. Yet the movie is still less than 90 minutes long, thanks to its lean and efficient script: The cruelty of Peters’ stepmother and the magnificence of Houston’s fairy godmother are communicated with just a scattering of lines, leaving plenty of time for Goldberg’s recurring wordless bit. More movie musicals could stand to trim skippable songs and unnecessary dialogue to channel the high-wire momentum of the stage, rather than try to replicate it exactly.

The diverse cast of "Cinderella."
The diverse cast of “Cinderella,” from left: Jason Alexander, Paolo Montalban, Brandy Norwood, Whitney Houston, Bernadette Peters, Natalie Desselle Reid and Veanne Cox.

Ultimately, by embracing its story, its cast, its genre and its medium — but never taking itself too seriously — “Cinderella,” helmed by director Robert Iscove, unleashes its real magic: its perfectly calibrated tone. At its core, the musical form calls for a suspension of disbelief for the audience to go along with the fantastical conceit of singing one’s feelings and dancing the same routine with a crowd. These moments can be mishandled in realism-obsessed movie musicals like 1985’s dance-centric “A Chorus Line,” with its footwork-free cinematography, and 2012’s “Les Misérables,” with its relentless closeups. If you don’t like musical storytelling, you’re better off watching another “Cinderella” adaptation — like 1998’s “Ever After,” 2004’s “A Cinderella Story” or 2015’s “Cinderella” — in the first place.

This version is for those who do enjoy the theatricality of a movie musical, the splendor of a fairy tale and the escapism of a romance and unapologetically revels in the fun of it all. There’s the humor of Rob Marshall’s choreography, as full of personality and narrative drive as any exchange of dialogue; the make-believe of Randy Ser’s heightened production design; and the vivid allure of Ellen Mirojnick’s costumes. This intention is most evocative during “10 Minutes Ago,” when the camera swirls nonstop around Cinderella and the Prince as they fall in love on the ballroom floor. (Altogether, it makes up for the film’s visual effects, the only element that is woefully of its moment.)

Hollywood’s renewed love for the movie musical — including Sony’s take on “Cinderella,” scheduled for release in July — has the potential to pay artistic and financial dividends for both the film and theater industries. And as “Cinderella” proves, the form thrives most on the belief that has made its legacy such a long one: that “impossible things,” as Norwood and Houston sing, “are happening every day.”