role call

Brandy Answers Every Question We Have About Cinderella

On singing with Whitney Houston, the fate of the movie’s soundtrack, and building up impossible hopes for Black girls everywhere. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Walt Disney Television

When Brandy Norwood was just a little girl, she was wishing on a star. Not a random cloud of gases dying somewhere lifetimes away. A real star named Whitney Houston. “Oh my God, I used to have dreams of her when I was a kid, like being at her house and hanging out with her,” said Brandy, now 41, fresh off her seventh album release. “I never thought that I would be on set with her hanging out in a pumpkin, in a dress, and she’s got a wand.” Disney’s 1997 adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was a dream come true for executive producer Whitney Houston (originally tapped to play Cindy herself) and for Black girls around the world. But it’s Brandy who experienced the Cinderella transformation firsthand, complete with fairy godmother. “I was so blown away by the fact that Whitney Houston called me to be the first Black Cinderella,” she told Vulture through the magic of Zoom. “I was like, ‘This is not real.’ It was mind-blowing.”

Almost 24 years later, the musical, co-starring Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, Bernadette Peters, Victor Garber, and Paolo Montalban as the charming Prince Christopher, is (finally) heading to Disney+. Ahead of this week’s Friday Night Movie Club Ball, we asked Brandy to do the impossible and take us back to 1997.

In so many ways, there’s no Cinderella like yours. In preparing for the role, what did you want to update or add your own touch to?
I wanted to just bring my own flavor to it. Of course, I worked with an amazing director, Rob Iscove, and I had a lot of work with Whitney Houston. We just worked on bringing who I am to it, in the singing. I wanted to sing in a musical theater way but have my own -isms to it. And that was supported by the powers that be.

At the time, “colorblind casting” wasn’t as prominent. What did it mean to you to be able to portray a Black Cinderella?
I couldn’t grasp it all because I was so young. I didn’t really understand how revolutionary this was going to be, how big of an impact it was going to be. I knew that it was special, but I didn’t really know how special. When I was able to see it all come together and see the finished product of it, I was like, Wow, this is different. This is something I had never seen. It inspired me. It was as if I wasn’t even watching me as Cinderella.

One of the things I love about your Cinderella is that she has her hair in braids throughout the movie. What went into that choice and what did it mean to you to be able to be an unapologetically Black princess?
You know, I had been wearing braids throughout my entire career when I was younger. So that was just my thing. I just absolutely love braids. You can still see they’re still in my hair today. That was what I felt would be so much cooler — if Cinderella also had braids, you know? Because, yes, there’s the first Black princess. That’s amazing. Unbelievable. But what if we just take it all the way back to the motherland. And just go head-on and put the braids right in. I actually wanted the braids all the way down to the middle of my back, but they were like, “It’s too long.” I love that they allowed me to have braids. It was so beautiful. It represents who I am, who Black women are. It speaks to our culture.

You’ve said before that getting the call from Whitney was like getting a call from your own fairy godmother. Can you share any of the wisdom she imparted while you guys were filming Cinderella?
Well, Whitney’s whole thing with me was to just be myself. She loved that I could be myself and she didn’t want that part of me to change. Her being a legend and having been through so much in life and experiences in this industry, she wanted me to stay on the path of being who I am and true to myself. That was what she preached all the time to me up until she passed away. So I keep that and I try to live by that every day. That’s what I teach my daughter as well.

What was it like seeing Whitney the executive producer on set? Did you get to see any boss lady moments?
Oh, she didn’t really act like a boss lady like that. She didn’t have that kind of energy. Her energy was very down to earth, loving. Her spirit was humble. And you know, I honestly think that even though she was executive producer and she had a vision, she kind of let her partner Debra Chase and Craig [Zadan] and Neil [Meron] and them have that kind of vibe. She was just Fairy Godmother doing her acting and singing with all of us. I’m pretty sure she was, of course, doing her thing behind the scenes. I just didn’t see it.

What do you remember about singing “Impossible,” that iconic duet with her?
Oh my God, the singing in the studio was unbelievable. Like, we just have so many beautiful moments and it’s actually captured. You can find it — our chemistry, us trying different melodies, trying different notes. We just were very open with each other and it was a collaborative effort. And then performing it in the actual film, like shooting with her — it was just so fun. I never could have believed that if you told me that when I was a kid.

What was it like on that big lot with those gorgeous setpieces?
This set is what blew my mind because, you know, I’m from Moesha. You go and you see a living room and then there’s an audience behind you so it’s not like a set set. This was a house that they built from scratch. It felt like it was a part of Disneyland. That’s the way it looked. And I could think in my mind, I’m like, Wow, and then when it’s over, they have to take it all down.

What was it like being around Whoopi Goldberg’s extravagant Harry Winston jewelry? Were there bodyguards watching her every move?
Oh, my God. [Laughs.] She might have had a few bodyguards, but I was so blown away by her jewelry. I was like “Your jewelry!” And she goes, “You know, it’s real,” I said, “It’s real?” “Yes, it’s real! Harry Winston.” And she said to me, “You know, that’s what you have to learn. You’re young. Get your relationships. And in your next few movies or your next few projects, Harry Winston may send you a couple of diamonds here and there. You might have to give them back, but …”

Do you know anything about the rumor that Whoopi and a few producers donated their remaining daily rate to help get the film finished?
I’ve never heard that. That happened? I wouldn’t know that. But if that’s the case, thank you, Whoopi! She’s a beautiful spirit.

The chemistry between you and Paolo, your prince charming, is the heart of the movie. Do you remember the moment where you guys first felt comfortable together, like you could create that magic?
When I first met him, we instantly connected, we instantly felt like, Oh my God, we’re gonna do this. And, you know, he told me “I got you.” I told him “I got you too, and we’re gonna make this happen.” We were just surrounded by such an experienced group of people that kind of helped us, you know, pull it together. I was the rookie in the whole thing. Everybody had such great musical-theater experience. I didn’t. So everybody just really embraced me. And Paolo was one of the ones that just made me feel so comfortable. When you feel comfortable, you try things and when you try things, you make something magical. I always felt like I was in a place where I could be creative and come up with something new, make it my own.

Do you remember a moment on set or creating the music with Whitney where you got to add your own influence?
Well, I was trying to be as straight as I could, because my music is kind of known for the riffs and the runs. Singers would know what I mean when I say that: I felt like I should sing the music straight. Just let it be about the melody. So that was my approach in this thing. And then Whitney, though, Whitney did the acrobatics. It was just a great balance of straight singing and then her singing just everywhere.

A soundtrack for the film was never officially released, but after 24 years, is that something that we can make a reality?
I know! I am working on that. I am definitely working on that. I keep hearing the talks about it.

Wow! Really? It’s like you’re our Fairy Godmother.
That is so sweet to say.

What is it like sharing the film with your daughter, Sy’rai?
She’s of course seen it here and there, but when I tried to show her, it was hard for her to see it because I was getting, you know, picked on for the first half of the movie. So before we could get to the good part, she’s like, “Mom, I can’t. I can’t take it.” She was very young. She couldn’t differentiate. So now that she’s older, and she’s 18, and this is happening, we’re going to watch it together for the first time all the way through. I’m excited.

Did you get to keep any of your beautiful props, like the tiara or glass slipper?
I didn’t get to keep any of that. I didn’t …

I … who do we need to call at Disney to make that happen?
Well, now that we’re on Disney+, I mean, maybe something can happen.

Yeah, the Queen needs her crown.
[Laughs.] Princess!

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The Cinderella creators always intended to produce the movie with a racially diverse cast. At the time, the strategy for casting was dubbed “colorblind.” Executive producer Whitney Houston was originally meant to play the part of Cinderella, but by the time the film was green-lit, Houston felt she was better suited for the Fairy Godmother role and personally offered the role to Brandy instead. The song will forever go down in history for prompting the great “Why are you down there?” Whitney Houston quote. With a reported production budget of $12 million, the 1997 Cinderella is one of the most expensive television films ever made. Whoopi Goldberg reportedly rejected the fake jewelry costume designers intended to use for the shoot and privately set up a deal with jeweler Harry Winston to provide her with millions of dollars’ worth of the real thing. Rumor has it that the production ran out of money toward the end of shoots, and that certain producers agreed to finance the rest of the project using their own money. Goldberg allegedly offered up the remainder of her daily pay to completing it, too. Paolo Montalban had been an understudy in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I on Broadway prior to being cast.
Brandy Answers Every Question We Have About Cinderella