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Paolo Montalbán looks back on 25 years of 'Cinderella'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Twenty-five years ago, a classic fairy tale became a very modern TV event.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA")

BRANDY NORWOOD: (As Cinderella, singing) Impossible.

SUMMERS: Disney produced an adaptation of "Rodgers And Hammerstein's Cinderella." It started Grammy winner Brandy in the title role...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA")

NORWOOD: (Singing) Impossible, impossible.

SUMMERS: ...The late, legendary Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother, alongside a notably diverse cast of Broadway recording and TV talent. That includes actor Paolo Montalban, who starred opposite Brandy as the charming Prince Christopher. He joined the rest of the cast for a 25th anniversary reunion special that's airing next week on ABC. I spoke with Paolo earlier this week about the history that he had a part in making as a Filipino prince courting a Black princess. And I asked him what went through his head when he first learned that he'd landed the role.

PAOLO MONTALBAN: Well, actually, not much was going through my head because I didn't really actually know what the scope of the production was going to be. I thought it was going to be for a small public access channel. And when I auditioned with Brandy, that's when I realized that it was probably going to be something bigger than that.

SUMMERS: And this was no small production, as we were saying. This was an iconic production. Now, when you were auditioning for this, was there a particular song from the musical that you had to sing?

MONTALBAN: Yes. So they had me sing "10 Minutes Ago" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" And we also did a couple of scenes. I believe the first scene was when I bump into Cinderella in the market square.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA")

MONTALBAN: (As Prince Christopher) Wait. What's your name?

NORWOOD: (As Cinderella) Cinderella.

MONTALBAN: (As Prince Christopher) Beg your pardon?

SUMMERS: Now, you and Brandy had chemistry not just as on-screen actors but also as singers. What was it like working together?

MONTALBAN: Well, it felt like working with one of your best friends even though we weren't actually close friends, you know, to begin with. But I guess that's what chemistry is about, right? You feel like you've known each other all your lives, and so it was incredibly easy. She made my job, if I even want to call it that, incredibly easy. What was really interesting about the singing aspect or the singing chemistry is that Brandy was coming from a pop artist background, and I was coming from a Broadway musical background. And our music director, Paul Bogaev, smartly had Brandy pretend like she was an opera singer, and he had me pretend like I was George Michael. So that's...

SUMMERS: No way.

MONTALBAN: ...Our - yeah. Yeah. So our singing styles became closer to each other's.

SUMMERS: You and the cast experienced something that happens a lot today, and that's criticism, if not outright outrage, over actors of color playing characters who had previously been portrayed as white. Do y'all discuss that at all in the reunion special?

MONTALBAN: Yes. At least I can say that from my end, I brought up how I actually thought the industry wasn't ready for our colorblind casting a version of "Cinderella" but how society was because the response to it was one of overwhelming acceptance and gratitude.

SUMMERS: I mean, the magic of something like this is the idea that it doesn't matter what color you are. You can be a prince. You can be a princess. You can be a fairy godmother. You mentioned that you thought that society was ready for that but that the industry wasn't. Twenty-five years later, has the industry caught up?

MONTALBAN: I would say 25 years later, the industry definitely has caught up. You can see examples of it in other period-type dramas that have nontraditional casting like "Bridgerton." Or you have people of color playing traditionally Caucasian characters in history in, say, "Hamilton," right? So I think that that proof of concept that we did back in 1997 has permeated throughout the industry in a very positive way.

SUMMERS: Now, there was not social media at the time, but there was some artistic criticism that happened during the premiere.

MONTALBAN: OK.

SUMMERS: A New York Times review had some praise, but it said - and I'm quoting here - "this is a cobbled-together 'Cinderella' for the moment, not the ages."

MONTALBAN: Wow.

SUMMERS: But we are still here. We are still talking about it...

MONTALBAN: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...Twenty-five years later. And on social media today, there has been so much buzz of people excited to see this reunion. Did The New York Times have it wrong?

MONTALBAN: I guess I could say maybe The New York Times got it wrong because I have people who say that this is their "Cinderella," and it's the only "Cinderella" that they'll acknowledge. And to me, that kind of ownership means that it's the "Cinderella" that spoke to them the most. And so it wasn't of the time. It was - it's the kind of story that they want to share with their children and watch it over and over and over again.

SUMMERS: What has it been like to revisit this movie and that moment in time? I know there's been a lot of positive, but you all have also lost two cast members in Whitney Houston and Natalie Desselle, who played one of the wicked stepsisters.

MONTALBAN: Yes. Losing our beloved Whitney Houston and Natalie Desselle Reid was - I don't know. I don't know how to say it. It was crushing because it was like - it really felt like losing family members. We worked together for 10 weeks total, and we put together a family that - that kind of loss - it just can't be replaced. But, you know, they live on in our hearts and in the art that they left behind.

SUMMERS: I'm hoping that you can tell us about a favorite memory of yours being on set during those 10 weeks.

MONTALBAN: I think my favorite moment that I had when I was on set was during the ball sequence. Because of the very nature of "Cinderella," the different characters aren't always under the same roof, right? But, you know, everyone kind of shows up for the ball. And it was just really nice to see Brandy, Whoopi, Jason, Victor, Bernadette, Veanne, Natalie all there and getting to see the fruits of our collective labor, not just the cast but the production design team. It was a really special moment. It really felt like a fairy tale, like a real-life fairy tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA")

NORWOOD: (As Cinderella) Everyone's staring at us.

MONTALBAN: (As Prince Christopher) Really? I'd forgotten there was anyone else here. (Singing) Ten minutes ago, I saw you.

This particular moment when we were waltzing the "10 Minutes Ago" and we have the cameraman also waltzing with us - I thought that was really, really - I thought it was really neat and innovative. And then when we saw it on-screen, it was just - it really felt like the prince and Cinderella were falling in love.

SUMMERS: What did you get out of this reunion special, and what are you hoping that audiences will take away from it?

MONTALBAN: Being able to reexamine the feelings and the memories from 25 years ago and also having those 25 years to process it and see the impact that it's had on the industry, on our society, on the way that boys and girls of all different colors and ethnicities - the way they see themselves and the way they see what's possible for them - it's a real gift.

SUMMERS: Paolo Montalban, one of the stars of "Rodgers And Hammerstein's Cinderella," which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. He's in the 2020 reunion special that airs August 23 on ABC and will later stream on Hulu. Thank you so much for talking with us.

MONTALBAN: Thank you so much, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Megan Lim
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.