“I’m thrilled beyond belief that our film can live on and that it still has a life in the present day.”

By Michael P Coleman

robert iscoveMusical theatre fans have been in seventh heaven since the February debut of the 1997 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Disney Plus.

As I prepped to speak with Prince Christopher himself, Paolo Montalban, I checked out a virtual reunion of the surviving cast, including Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bernadette Peters.

As entertaining as it was, and as thrilled as I was to see them all together, I missed seeing and hearing from one major player in that production. He’s a guy we never got to see on film, but without whom the groundbreaking television movie may never have happened.

His name’s Robert Iscove, and he directed the masterpiece.

I was thrilled to share a few minutes by phone with Iscove recently — almost as thrilled as I was to watch Cinderella again!

“I was delighted that it was being rereleased, too,” Iscove said. “I actually thought that Disney would wait until the 25th anniversary, if they were going to do it, so I was pleased that they did it a year before.”

That’s right: it’s been almost a quarter of a century since Brandy warbled “Impossible” with Houston, and crooned “Ten Minutes Ago” with Montalban just before the clock struck midnight. From soup to nuts, their Cinderella was a flawless production.

After speaking with Iscove, I realized Cinderella’s success was almost a foregone conclusion: it wasn’t the director’s first time at that rodeo.

“I had done a series called Profit for Fox, and it was their highest rated show,” Iscove remembered. “After it was cancelled, I said I didn’t know how to do dramatic television better than that, [and] I was looking for something different.”

“I had the same agent as [Cinderella executive producers] Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who were looking for a director for Cinderella, and they knew I’d done musical theater. I was thrilled, and jumped at it.”

Iscove said the project’s grandeur wasn’t lost on him and the cast.

“We filmed it on the sound stages at Sony where they had filmed The Wizard Of Oz,” Iscove recalled. “I remember the first time they closed the set and brought the lights up. It felt that big, that rich, and that special.”

Although Brandy and Houston had already been cast when Iscove came onboard, the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization gave him and writer Robert Freedman plenty of freedom to write the book, including the liberty to add songs like “Falling In Love With Love” for Peters’ Stepmother and “There’s Music In You” for Houston’s Fairy Godmother.

After all, how could one have Houston in a musical like Cinderella and not give her a solo?

“She was the most brilliant lip syncher I’ve ever met,” Iscove said of Houston. “The fact that she could have her throat vibrate with no sound coming out of it, and make it look totally natural, astounded me.”

“We went to New York to do a looping version of ‘Impossible’ because we wanted a different high note at the end,” Iscove continued. “Whitney came in and I said ‘Do you want to do the run up to it at the end?’ She said ‘No, I’ll just hit the note.’ I don’t remember the note, but it’s impossibly high.”

“She opened her mouth and that one note came out of it, and it was that brilliant Whitney. I asked her how she did it, and she said ‘I don’t know. I’ve just always been able to open my mouth and sing.’ “

“Whitney was very involved with the production, and she loved encouraging Brandy. She loved teaching, and she was very, very warm. I think the fact that she loved being a mentor to Brandy and loved seeing talent come along is what made her so natural in those scenes. She was allowed to let her warmth come out, and her motherly instincts, as opposed to having to be the sex symbol that people wanted her to be.”

With an all-star cast like Iscove’s, I asked the veteran director whether there was a moment on set when even he was awestruck.

“Almost every single day,” Iscove laughed. “Especially in rehearsals. When I was staging the scene where they get the slipper, with Jason, Bernadette, Vianne [Cox], and Natalie [Desselle Reid], we put that together in 25 minutes or so. Craig came in and said ‘If you did that on stage, you’d get a standing ovation.’ No matter what you asked that cast to do, they all were so immensely talented that they brought so much to it, and they fed off of each other.”

“Everyone was just having the best time,” Iscove continued. “And the scene that they did when Bernadette is lacing up Natalie’s corset and she’s bending over? We had to literally put our fists in our mouths watching it, so that our laughter didn’t go into the soundtrack!”

It’s been widely reported that Montalban was the last of over 800 wannabe princes to audition for the highly coveted role of Prince Christopher. Iscove put that story into its proper context during our chat.

“Once you’ve found your Prince Charming, why would you continue to look,” Iscove asked.

“Not only was Paolo that tall and that good-looking, and charming, but he had that voice, and was a Broadway talent. He impressed all of us with his audition, and then we flew Brandy to New York to do a chemistry reading with him.”

“They were amazing together, and you could see them spar off of each other,” Iscove continued. “You could see the differences between them. Brandy was earthier, and more ‘pop-y’ and Paolo had a presence about him — you could believe that he was royalty.”

“The two of them were just wonderful together. The fact that Paolo held his own with all of those brilliant talents just shows you what a talent he is in his own right.”

“I’m just thrilled beyond belief that our Cinderella can live on,” Iscove said, “and that it still has a life in the present day.”

Mike Coleman headshotonly nologo 300

Michael P Coleman is a Sacramento based freelance writer who has his eye on the Pulitzer Prize.  Connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com or  follow his blog, his IG and his Twitter


Similar Posts