Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The New Cinderella

Special Features   Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The New Cinderella
[This column was originally posted Oct. 19. - ed.]

[This column was originally posted Oct. 19. - ed.]

Everything in the new TV Cinderella (to be aired on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney"> series Nov. 2) has been expertly geared to appeal to the young audiences of today. While the original 1957 musical written for TV by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was a live production performed on simple studio sets, and the 1965 taped remake also had relatively simple designs, the new one is an elaborate, made-for-TV movie, with expensive-looking scenery and costumes, special effects, a huge movie-style production number for the new combination (additional lyrics by Fred Ebb) of "The Prince Is Giving A Ball" and "Your Majesties," and another for the "Ten Minutes Ago" ballroom sequence.

In place of the all-white worlds of the '57 and '65 versions, the casting here is extremely multi-racial and color-blind. The company is headed by twin pop divas, the cute-as-a-button Brandy in the title role, and impossibly gorgeous and very diva-ish Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother. Young hearts will flutter over Paolo Montalban, who was plucked from the ensemble of the Broadway revival of The King and I (he was second Lun Tha cover) and who may be even prettier than Brandy. Family audiences will be familiar with and enjoy the presences of Jason Alexander (in the newly fashioned role of royal valet-servant Lionel) and Whoopi Goldberg's Queen Constantina. And while the wonderful R&H songs are treated with respect and never violated, the arrangements for Brandy and Houston have been touched up for contemporary tastes.

The mostly new teleplay by Robert L. Freedman is also geared to today's young women, with a heroine who is sweet yet spunky and assertive, and who is advised by her Fairy Godmother that she has it within her to accomplish anything she sets out to do. In general, this is a nicely done but rather wholesome Cinderella, and while both Houston and Goldberg are given their share of funky moments, it's less witty and magical (and more message-laden) than the '57 original.

But one performance breaks through the general pleasantness, and as you might expect it's Bernadette Peters' mean Stepmother. Veering superbly from mad camp (the uproarious, up-tempo version of "Falling in Love With Love" as Peters gets her girls ready for the ball) to genuinely chilling, Peters supplies the sophistication lacking elsewhere and is the best reason to tune in. The interpolation of additional songs works well; in addition to "Falling in Love With Love," there's the opening sequence, introducing Cinderella, the Prince, stepmother and sisters and built around the No Strings number "The Sweetest Sounds," a great song well-used. And to close the show, Houston, who makes creamy, exciting sounds in "Impossible," is given a requisite diva spot with "There's Music In You," a little known number that Mary Martin sang briefly but divinely in the film Main Street To Broadway (the song is here mixed with a bit of Allegro's "One Foot, Other Foot").

In general, I found little to complain about, but remain convinced that the '57 version wins hands down in terms of wit, style, and casting. But it's likely that today's young people would have a harder time relating to the porcelain-princess Cinderella of Julie Andrews, the brittle, seen-it-all Fairy Godmother of Edie Adams, the stolid, Greek-profiled Prince of Jon Cypher, the grimly hilarious stepsisters of Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley (Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle do well in the new version but can't touch the originals) and just about everything else in the first version.

Above all, let's hope the new Cinderella is a ratings winner, because it will surely mean more TV musicals ahead (and I wouldn't be surprised to see Brandy and Whitney in a new made-for-TV movie of The Wiz, particularly as the film of that musical is among the least successful Broadway adaptations of recent times).

Recently in this space I lamented the fact that while the London bomb Which Witch was now available for purchase and posterity on video, so many other recent Broadway and West End musicals were not. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the video store comes the video release (on VCI/ PAL format) of Heathcliff, the Wuthering Heights musical vehicle for pop veteran Cliff Richard that recently toured England and hit Labatt's Apollo in the Hammersmith section of London (although it did not play the West End). A joke among the critics, Heathcliff cleaned up at the box office.

With a skeletal book co-authored by Richard and director Frank Dunlop, Heathcliff is mostly sung, with music by John Farrar, whose claim to fame is writing "You're The One That I Want" and "Hopelessly Devoted To You" for the Grease film. Those songs are high art compared to anything in Heathcliff, which features a deadly, completely inappropriate Euro-trash pop score that has virtually no connection to the period, plot, or characters. But what's really surprising here is that the lyrics are the work of Tim Rice, a talent who does not need to sink this low (for Rice, the stage version of The Lion King should wipe away any lingering disgrace from Heathcliff).

The aging but well-preserved Richard is from time to time seen to amusing effect in footage shot on the actual moors of Yorkshire or on the high seas and intercut with the stage presentation (which is performed without an audience). Richard's Cathy is Helen Hobson, who must have gotten through this by remembering that not long before she had sung a Sondheim score playing Clara in the London production of Passion.

The sequence depicting Heathcliff's self-imposed exile in India, China, and Africa must be seen to be believed, but then so must the whole thing, as tasteless and appalling as anything you're likely to encounter.

It has already been documented by Playbill On-Line that the Australian production of Jekyll & Hyde that had been scheduled to open at Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne on October 25 was cancelled when, a couple of weeks into rehearsal, a portion of the backing was withdrawn. Prior to rehearsals, the production's three leads were brought into a studio to record for Stetson Records a seven-track CD album of highlights from the score, and the resulting disc is now apparently something of a collectors' item. My Australian sources say that the CD was distributed to radio stations for advance airplay, and that some copies of it found their way into shops, but that it was halted even before the production shut down over a question of rights to the orchestral tracks.

The songs featured are "I Need To Know" (heard on the double-CD concept album but not in the current Broadway production), "This Is The Moment," "Someone Like You," "Once Upon A Dream," "In His Eyes," "It's A Dangerous Game," and "A New Life." Simon Burke (original Australian Marius in Les Miz and Whizzer in Falsettos) is a fine Jekyll, Terri Crouch a lovely Emma, but the most interesting work here is that of Delia Hannah, the first lady to record Lucy's songs after three Linda Eder versions. Hannah has starred in the Australian productions of Evita (the Stephanie Lawrence revival, where she was the alternate Eva), Aspects of Love, Blood Brothers (her Mrs. Johnstone is preserved on CD), and most recently the disastrous Melbourne revival of Chess, in which she played Svetlana to the Florence of original studio Svetlana and original Mrs. Johnstone Barbara Dickson. (Chess producers Stewart and Tricia Macpherson were also the producers of the Melbourne Jekyll, so it hasn't been a good year for them).

Hannah employs traces of Eder's style -- it's almost impossible to sing a Frank Wildhorn female ballad without doing so -- but has a more conventional musical theatre belt, and a bit more vulnerability, and would no doubt have been great in the part.

It's possible that this 27-minute disc (the cover sports the double-CD logo that was also used for the U.S. national tour) will resurface, but for now it's an original Australian cast album of a production that didn't happen.

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