It was the news that united theater fans across the world: Disney Plus would begin streaming the 1997 Wonderful World of Disney production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on Friday, February 12. The movie was a cultural touchstone, with an equitable and diverse cast led by Brandy in the title role, Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother, Whoopi Goldberg as the Queen, Bernadette Peters as the Evil Stepmother, and a young Broadway vet named Paolo Montalbán as Prince Christopher.
Montalbán was in The King and I with Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips at the time he auditioned for the project, which was so secretive that they didn't even tell him what it was at first. When it first aired, he would regularly get noticed by his fellow New Yorkers on the street, but he never imagined that the impact Cinderella would continue to have over the next 24 years. For many youngsters, his portrayal of Prince Christopher was the first time that they had ever seen a fellow Filipino person who looks like them onscreen. And now, he's ready to help inspire a whole new generation.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This movie is so hard to find. When did you last watch it?
The entire movie? Or clips of it?
When did you last sit down to watch it all the way through?
Oh, my god. All the way through? [laughs]
No, not 1997! I want to say 2009, I think. Wait, that's not true. It was sooner than that. I just have to look up the show that I was doing. I was doing a show and the cast asked if I would watch it with them, so I did. And I told them stories — it was like a live viewing kind of thing. 2013. I was doing The King and I at the Olney Theatre in Maryland. I was glad to have done it.
I assume you'll be watching it again soon now that it'll be widely available on Disney Plus?
I'm gonna watch it again because it'll hopefully be in a lot better quality than it was on YouTube! Or even than it was on DVD.
What do you remember about your audition process?
It was a quicker and shorter audition process than most stage things that I've gone in for. I only had two auditions for it. I went in on a Friday. I had understudy rehearsal that day, so I actually had to change my mid-afternoon appointment to after understudy rehearsal, and it ended up getting out late. It was one of those things where…the stage manager wasn't gonna let you out for an audition. And I didn't realize how important this audition would end up being.
What do you mean?
I didn't have all the information about it. I didn't realize it was going to be an ABC/Disney production starring Whitney Houston and Brandy. They just said "Made for TV musical of Cinderella." I thought it was for like public access cable. In the years leading up to 1997, there weren't that many musicals on regular TV. So I went in on a Friday, I was running late because of understudy rehearsal, I got there, and I was the last person there. I had missed the appointment I was supposed to have, and I went in and they asked me if I could come back on Monday to read with Brandy. That was the closest thing we had to a chemistry test. When we filmed it, it wasn't like a regular TV show; we had a proper three-week rehearsal process at the Debbie Reynolds Studios, and it was like a full Broadway musical from beginning to end. That was really helpful for people like me who had no TV experience whatsoever. It put me in a comfortable place that I was familiar with.
Was Whitney cool?
She was super cool. We had her for a limited amount of time, so we had to squeeze in all of her shooting in two and a half out of the four weeks that we had. Listen, you know that feeling you get when you're around a star. We'd been around Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber and Jason Alexander and Whoopi. Whitney Houston was like a supernova. Even if she didn't have the name "Whitney Houston," you would have felt that heat, that presence, just being around her. And she couldn't have been more down-to-earth when you're standing there one-on-one with her. It's different, the public vs. private persona. When you're Whitney Houston, you have to monitor and protect yourself from the chaos and energy that's being thrown at you. I understood how she had to carry herself when she was around a lot of people. But in person, she was just fun and friendly and…There's nothing like being asked personal questions by Whitney Houston. You think, "Am I actually talking to Whitney Houston here?"
When did you realize that this production had gone from popular TV movie to something in the cultural zeitgeist?
It happened as the kids who watched it live — the ones who were 7 to 10 at the time — started growing up. They would come up to me and tell me how much the movie had an effect on their lives. The most touching moments for me were when BIPOC…And not just people of color, but when Caucasian people would come up to me and say it changed their lives. How a Caucasian girl said, "My first boyfriend was Asian because of you." Or hearing some of my colleagues who are huge Broadway and TV stars now tell me that it was because of that production that they felt the license and courage to pursue this career, because it gave them hope that they were represented on TV.
I don't think I realized, as a kid when I was watching it, just how important and ahead of its time Cinderella is in terms of equity, diversity, and representation.
The way I look at it, it wasn't ahead of its time for America, because that's what America looked like then, and at that time, that's mostly how Americans treated each other. There were always underlying or overt currents of racism or white supremacy, but we also didn't have a vocabulary for that back then. Television and films and Hollywood have a greater impact on our cultural awareness of what can be accepted than they think. So for Neil Meron and Craig Zadan and Whitney Houston and Debra Martin Chase to take this huge chance, and for ABC and Disney to put their weight of their network behind it, was a huge thing. It was great training wheels for the industry in terms of representation.
What was it like to play Brandy's prince?
I have so many feelings about it. Brandy was 18 and I was 23 when we started working on it. Brandy had either just finished shooting or was about to start shooting her TV series Moesha again. She was also in high-gear with her music career — her songs were playing on the radio all the time. She was one of the busiest 18-year-olds I've ever met in my entire life, still to this day. And it never phased her. She was always so much fun in the room. I think if I was in her position, I wouldn't have been able to handle all that pressure, and she handled it with aplomb and grace. It was like hanging out with an old friend. We just got along so great. We laughed so much. She was so sweet and friendly, and it was like no acting required. It was so easy to fall in love with her, because she was such a pure soul. She truly had the essence of Cinderella.