Decades before Black Girl Magic became a phrase and a way for Black women and girls across the world to conjure our inner alchemy, in 1997 ABC aired Cinderella the musical starring two of the biggest acts in music at the time: R&B princess Brandy Norwood and the late great Whitney Houston.
Tonight, in celebration of the musical’s 25th anniversary, ABC is airing a reunion special featuring cast members Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg, Paolo Montalban, Victor Garber, Bernadette Peters, Jason Alexander, and Veanne Cox. (Natalie Desselle, who starred as Cinderella's step-sister Minerva, passed away from cancer in 2020.)
We’re all familiar with the story of Cinderella: a girl who is orphaned after her father passes away and is left in the custody of her cruel and wicked evil stepmother and step sisters. The story has been given countless reimaginings and retellings, but according to the film’s producers the 1997’s Roger and Hammerstein's version came to life after Whitney had expressed interest in doing a musical.
“We’d had a call from Nicole David, Whitney’s longtime agent at WME, who’d said, "Whitney watched ‘Gypsy’ and she wants to do one. What ideas do you have?" For whatever reason, I pitched her "Cinderella,” executive producer Neil Meron said in an interview with Shondaland.
Once she got on board with the film, Whitney knew she wanted Brandy to play the titular princess. “Brandy was definitely handpicked by me,” she says in an old behind the scenes interview. “I definitely wanted her to be Cinderella.”
Despite tepid reviews at the time, Cinderella’s legacy continues to grow stronger over time. From the colorblind casting to the lavish costumes and the music that could only be brought to life by the voices of Whitney, Brandy, and the other talented performers like Broadway legend Bernadette Peters, Cinderella was an event unlike anything that had been seen on broadcast television.
I couldn’t have been more than ten years old when I first came across a VHS tape of the film at a flea market years after the film’s original release. I had already long been enamored by Brandy thanks to the many reruns of her hit sitcom Moesha that I would watch over and over again to the point of near exhaustion. I would similarly exhaust my copy of Cinderella, with my incessant rewatches, singing along to the iconic song Brandy and Whitney sang together "Impossible," as the Fairy Godmother magically transformed Cinderella's rags into a beautiful gown and mice into horses and a pumpkin into a carriage.
As time goes on, my appreciation for Cinderella grows. At the height of her fame when she had the opportunity to take any role she wanted, Whitney decided she wanted to gift Black girls everywhere the chance to see themselves as magical princesses.
There’s something particularly beautiful about allowing a young Black woman to assume the role of one of the most iconic figures in fairy tales; to assume the role of a character that is lured by a loving maternal figure out her life of misery and abuse, into a life of love and extravagance, allowing little Black girls to see that we could not only be royalty but that there could also be a beautiful life on the other side of trauma.
Twenty five years after Cinderella’s release, there’s a reason why we believe that truly nothing is impossible.