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Brandy and Paolo Montalban in Cinderella

Cinderella’s Paolo Montalbán on The Importance of Its Diverse Cast

“I’m getting a little emotional,” said Paolo Montalbán, as he started tearing up, realizing how many impressionable young people will now get to see the 1997 made-for-TV movie musical of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, streaming on Disney+ starting today.

“I don’t think Whitney Houston would have expected it to have this kind of reach the way that it has and how many people it touched,” Montalbán noted of the late artist who played the Fairy Godmother and executive produced the movie.

Montalbán played Prince Christopher opposite Brandy in the title role who made history as the first Black Cinderella when it aired on ABC, Sunday, November 2nd, 1997. “This is the month of love; this is a month of Black history,” Brandy told Variety. “This is just the perfect time for this product to be shared with everyone.”

When Montalbán first auditioned, he had no idea how much star power was attached to the film. At first, he thought it would be for “public access television.” It wasn’t until after he booked the role did he learn Whitney Houston was attached. Victor Garber played his dad, the King; Whoopi Goldberg played his mom, the Queen; Jason Alexander was his valet, Lionel; and Bernadette Peters played Cinderella’s Stepmother. The movie, to this day, is recognized for its colorblind casting.

“It came during a time when we, as a country, were ready to see that kind of multicultural cast because it was really representing America at the time,” he said of the cast’s diversity.

Before Cinderella, he was an understudy in the Donna Murphy-led The King and I version on Broadway. Being Asian American and playing the lead price in his first TV role has forever defined Montalbán’s career. He couldn’t recall off the top of his head many other Asian American actors in leading roles back in the 90s aside from Lou Diamond Phillips, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee.

“It touched me because I’ve actually had Asian American male actor friends of mine tell me they went into the business because they saw an Asian prince. That also kind of spilled over into the Asian American community. How special is that?”

When asked whether he considered himself “one of the first” leading Asian American actors, Montalbán initially remained humble to it. “I don’t want to say that,” he started saying. “Because I didn’t consider myself as that. All you’re focusing on is getting your lines right, hitting your marks, and making sure that you don’t embarrass yourself in front of all these amazing actors, you know? Maybe it’s something I wasn’t ready to accept back then or to own. I am willing to accept that now.”

Since Disney+ premiered, so many fans of the 1997 version have been calling for it to be included on the subscription service. It took a bit of time because of some rights issues that had to get worked out, according to Disney. Perhaps one of the reasons for the recent resurfaces in its popularity, according to Montalbán, is because “usually we turn toward things that are nostalgic during challenging times.”

And Disney+ is banking on that nostalgia with a cast reunion party In celebration of Cinderella’s premiere. While everyone got a chance to catch up more than two decades later, Montalbán didn’t get a chance to tell Brandy something important.

“I’m sure she’s heard this a thousand times but there are so many young Black women who’ve told me that that it’s their favorite Cinderella. And it made them so happy to see a Black Cinderella — how it lifted the way they saw themselves. Every time I hear that I feel like Whitney is like looking down and smiling on all of us because that’s exactly what she wanted this version to be.”

“To have a Black Cinderella with a pretty face and braids is just something. I know it was important for Whitney to leave this legacy for her daughter,”  producer Debra Chase Martin told The Daily News in 1997.

The cast and crew rehearsed for three weeks in the Debbie Reynolds Studios in Studio City, California. As a novice on a big set, Montalban said he felt “cheated into the whole process” because it was just how a Broadway show would prepare for an opening of a show. In turn, he wasn’t nervous about which way to turn or angle himself. “Although Jason Alexander never hesitated to give me a hard time and say, how about the cameras over there?” he quipped of remembering some of his fondest memories from filming.

 

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Another memory Montalbán relishes is when Bernadette Peters tried to play his matchmaker after his recent breakup. (This was 20 years before she starred as matchmaker Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!) “Maybe it was an off-hand, casual thing but to me, it was a huge deal,” he recalled of the moment on set. “It was something stuck in my mind. She didn’t actually have anyone lined up for me. She didn’t give me names. But she was about to employ the help of her sister,” noting Peters’ generosity to always be thinking of other people and their happiness.

There was also the time he asked Victor Garber on set about his “most interesting job.” To which Garber replied, “Well, I did do a project in Mexico for months shooting in a giant water tank.” We all know what epic movie that turned out to be. (hint: Titanic)

 

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Montalbán hopes sharing these behind the scenes stories helps more parents to sit down with their kids and watch the movie together.

“Don’t just watch the movie. Watch how they watch the movie. To see that kind of diversity with real people on screen, at the same time, at such a young age — it’s an incredibly beautiful thing.”

Adding, “I think we have a lot to learn from the kids when they watch it.”