In the grand universe of Rodgers-and-Hammerstein musicals, “Cinderella” might be a minor player.
It’s no “Sound of Music” – or “Oklahoma” or “South Pacific” or …
But in the TV world, it’s been big. Now it’s back, taking up all of ABC’s prime time on Tuesday (Aug. 23), with a 25th-anniversary retrospective hour at 8 p.m. and the 1997 production at 9.
What viewers will see is mostly a pleasure. It has splendid sets, zestful Rob Marshall choreography and a cast that’s best in supporting roles – especially Whitney Houston as fairy godmother. Other elements – the songs, the younger actors (including Brandy Norwood, shown here with Houston, in the title role) are pleasant enough.
They’ll also see a color-blind cast, which the retrospective will focus on. In a post-”Hamilton” era, we might take it for granted; in ‘97, it only happened because of Houston’s starpower.
This is the one musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote for TV, not the stage. It debuted in 1957 on CBS, starring a 21-year-old Julie Andrews, and drew 107 million viewers. A ‘65 version, with Lesley Ann Warren, was also a hit.
Then Houston proposed that she star in a new version. CBS dithered, as networks do. Four years later, there was a breakthrough: ABC wanted something big to re-launch “World of Disney,” which would strictly have two-hour movies; this would be an event.
By then Houston was 34 and felt she was too old to play a young maiden. She retreated to being the godmother – now beefed up with the opening song, the closing song and a big number in the middle.
But her color-blind casting persisted. Norwood – then 18 and already with three top-10 hits and a TV comedy – became the first Black Cinderella. There was a white stepmother (Bernadette Peters) and stepsisters. Also, there was a white king (Victor Garber), a Black queen (Whoopi Goldberg) and a Filipino prince (Paolo Montalban, no relation to Ricardo).
The original composers would have loved that, their descendants said. For the 1949 “South Pacific,” Oscar Hammerstein wrote this about prejudice:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to b e drummed in your dear little ear —
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
This “Cinderella” worked hard to boost the slender music score. It grabbed three Rodgers songs from other shows, using them for Peters’ only number, for the young lovers’ duet and for Houston’s big wedding song. It added a comic character for Jason Alexander. And it asked Fred Ebb to add more lyrics to “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” which could then explode with Marshall’s choreography.
All of that was a sign of things to come:
— Five years later, Marshall would direct the movie version “Chicago,” the musical Ebb created with John Kander and Bob Fosse. It won six Oscars including best picture.
— Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, producers of the ‘97 “Cinderella” and “Chicago,” revived the notion of live musicals on TV. They scored with Carrie Underwood in “Sound of Music” (2013), stumbled with “Peter Pan” (2014), recovered with “The Wiz” (2015) had produced a superb “Hairspray” (2016). A concert version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was in 2018l after Zadan’s death, “Annie” was in 2021.
— Norwood returned to a steady pop-music and acting career … Montalban focused on the stage (especially new productions of “Cinderella” and “The King and I”) … “World of Disney” retreated to too-rare specials … and networks dithered about more musicals, as usual.
— And color-blind romance (including Houston in “Bodyguard”) and casting (led by “Hamilton”) thrived. That’s enough reason for ABC to pause and celebrate.