How Rodgers & Hammerstein’s TV Adaptation of ‘Cinderella’ Broke Cultural Barriers
Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is the first official African-American princess created by Disney. But years prior, Brandy made her debut as an iconic replica of one of Disney’s most beloved characters.
In 1997, Brandy starred in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s television adaptation of Cinderella. The musical film featured an all-inclusive cast, making it the first to do so. The film became an audience favorite, with many young girls growing up with a version of a princess they could identify with.
Brandy stars as the first African-American Cinderella
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella was the third screen version of the musical. Whitney Houston’s management approached Disney to inquire whether the production company would be interested in a film starring the singer. They suggested Cinderella with Houston playing the princess.
But the project was delayed several times due to Houston’s busy touring and filming schedule. She ultimately decided she did not want to play the star character after getting married and becoming a mother, as she felt she aged out of the role.
Disney was still interested in the project with an African-American singer and actress as the lead. Houston agreed to stay on the project as a co-producer and play the more mature role of Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Growing up, Houston did not see a Disney princess she could relate to and wanted to change that for future generations.
Executive producer Debra Martin Chase explained the decision in a 1997 New York Daily News interview. “To have a black Cinderella … is just something,” she said. “I know it was important for Whitney to leave this legacy for her daughter.” Though some Disney executives were not on board, Houston and Chase’s wish would be granted.
Houston recommended singer Brandy for the role of Cinderella. Brandy was a lifelong fan of Houston and became her mentee early on in her career. Knowing Houston was playing her fairy godmother was all the persuading Brandy needed to take the part.
Brandy made history as the first person of color to portray the character on screen. Houston also was the first African-American to play her respective role.
‘Cinderella’ praised for its multicultural cast
Casting directors hoped including actors from all ethnic backgrounds would enhance the film’s universal appeal, and Disney promoted the inclusion in its marketing. Unlike most films, the cast was recruited from all entertainment pockets, including from Broadway musicals, television, film, and small theater companies.
The process was arduous, and producers found it hardest to cast the role of the wicked stepmother. Most of the actresses considered for the role were white, and executives felt audiences would negatively react to a white stepmother mistreating her African-American stepdaughter. Bette Midler declined the role because of this. Ultimately, theater guru Bernadette Peters was selected.
Casting the prince was also time-consuming. Several well-known actors auditioned for the role, including Wayne Brady, Antonio Sabato Jr., Marc Anthony, and Taye Diggs. The final actor who auditioned for the role, Paolo Montalban, was chosen to star opposite of Brandy.
Jason Alexander was cast as the prince’s valet Lionel, a character who was new to the story and created for comedic relief. Whoopi Goldberg accepted the role of Queen Constantina, the prince’s mother. Victor Garber, who was cast as King Maximillian, was excited for the interracial king and queen with an Asian son, as he felt it related to the current state of the world.
How did viewers and critics respond to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s TV adaptation of ‘Cinderella’?
When Houston was tapped for the project, she hoped for a theatrical release of the film. Instead, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella premiered on Nov. 2, 1997, during The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC. It happened to be the 40th anniversary of the original broadcast of the film.
It was a huge success and broke television records. Over 60 million viewers watched at least a portion of the film, making it the most-watched television musical in years. The broadcast attracted a high number of children and young adults and became the television season’s most popular family show.
ABC re-aired the film on Valentine’s Day 1999 and attracted 15 million viewers. And some television shows — including Brandy’s UPN sitcom Moesha and Sister Sister — aired Cinderella-themed episodes.
Audiences loved the film, but critics had mixed reviews. Playbill’s Rebecca Paller particularly loved the costume and set designs and knew younger people would enjoy the adaptation. But Caryn James of The New York Times felt the film’s feminist touches were a bit “clumsy.”
Cinderella remains one of Disney’s most popular characters. Keke Palmer starred in the Broadway musical a few years ago, and a 2021 revival is in the works.