One single, definitive version of Cinderella is impossible to choose. Any two warrant a duel. But in any group of three or more similar things, a ranking is required. After all, only one girl gets to be princess.
Disney’s Cinderella, in both her animated and live-action reincarnations, is definitive for many, being the first version of the story they saw with their own eyes. Singing mice aside, it is important to remember that a far superior Cinderella exists. On separate occasions, three different productions Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella has appeared on network TV for the viewing pleasure of those who cared to tune in (or to buy and obsessively re-watch on VHS.)
Once I realized this, watching them in a cascade of glittering magic-dress montages seemed the only logical course of action.
Of these three, I have determined who gets to wear the glass slipper and who gets their eyes pecked out.
Our three would-be princesses:
In 1957, Julie Andrews appeared as the titular triumph of social mobility via beauty and patience.
In 1965, Leslie Ann Warren got to take a crack at the glass-slipper-cum-brass-ring of late feudal economics.
Finally, the 1997 version featured a young Brandy Norwood in the titular role, and a much more progressive set of themes. Viewing all three in succession, I was surprised to realize not one of these lead actresses is a blonde.
Cinderella: At 22, Julie Andrews’ voice lacks the richness and timbre that would characterize her more mature vocal work in “Mary Poppins” or “The Sound of Music,” and it carries no hint of the virtuosic technique she would bring to “Victor/Victoria.” However, she is lovely and youthful, with an airy purity and a poised charm. Andrews breaks the fourth wall early in “In My Own Little Corner” and the camera already loves her. The momentary break in the fourth wall is easy to overlook, and never occurs again.
The love story: Andrews is untouchably queenly on the palace stairs, but our first glance of her Prince, played by John Cypher, is a letdown. He is long-faced, not nearly as beautiful as she, sings through his nose and rushes the timing. Beside Andrews, he looks and sings like a 99 cent store knockoff. By the time Cinderella hits the dance floor, her youthful uncertainty has returned to her, but by then we have all pledged our devotion to her transient regal poise.
The ensemble: The jewel of this televised play is “Stepsister’s Lament.” It’s clownish and crass, using the mirror frame as the girls’ confessional. The king and queen are comic figures, and the stepmother is a true villain in this version, shown in open scheming with nothing to redeem her.
The glass slipper: In this version the shoe is a closed-toe low-heeled pump; the definition of demure design, despite the daring choice of a material that appears to be Lucite. We are treated to a long, fetishy sequence of nylon-clad feet thrusting bluntly into the transparent vessel. As in the animated Disney version, the godmother intervenes to see that Cinderella gets a shot at the foot-fucking of a lifetime.
The end: The denouement is less than satisfying in the interest of a morally unambiguous ‘50s resolution. The stepfamily become suddenly nice, rather than dying crushed under a rain of stones on their awful house, as the Grimms had it. The sisters even stand as bridesmaids at the royal wedding. I call bullshit. Nobody would want these scheming sociopaths in their wedding party. This is a huge letdown. The Cinderella story is much more fun when there’s revenge at the end.
Overall, this version is serviceable. Andrews’ star power goes a long way, but the principals aren’t believable. The oxen of love are unevenly yoked. Magic isn’t enough to make these two a #goals couple. Ho hum.
The 1965 televised event of Cinderella the part of these evaluations wherein my own bias comes into play. As a child of the ’80s, I had this version on VHS. I had no idea how old it was, but it was in costume and in color, and details beyond that are irrelevant to most 7 year old girls. However, it’s been 20 years easy since I watched this last, so I buckled in for hardcore nostalgia and the ever-present letdown of rediscovery. Nothing could be as good as I remembered this being.
Cinderella: Leslie Ann Warren is beautiful, looking like Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood had a baby in the backstage area of an off-Broadway theater. Tragically, her voice is pinched and ungenerous, nothing close to even Andrews’ undeveloped instrument. Her costumes are storybook perfection, all hoop skirts and ermine trim making the best of her swan-like neck. It’s a ballsy move to show up to a party thrown by actual royalty sporting a fashion crown around one’s bun, but nobody seems to mind when Cinderella does it.
Love story: There isn’t one. The couple in this production have about as much chemistry as my Barbies did when I furiously mashed their plastic genital-lumps together.
Ensemble: This version was not actually broadcast live, and gets a little more polish than the others because of this advantage. Cinderella meets a better-looking and more talented prince than Andrews did. This handsome baritone may be familiar to some viewers as Alan Quartermaine on General Hospital, played by Stuart Damon. The orchestra arranges a haunting solo for him on “The Loneliness of Evening,” a down-tempo introspective number liberated from the original book from R&H’s monster hit, “South Pacific.”Queen Ginger Rogers and King Walter Pidgeon are stately and not played for laughs this time. They put on a good show of being happily married folk who really know how to rock 12 yards of red velvet. “Do I Love You” is gorgeously arranged for the lovers, with Warren taking the low harmony in an unusual choice for male/female duets. “Stepsister’s Lament” is a knockout in this version, with skillful character singing and posturing by these two harpies while they look on in horror as Cinderella catches the prince using only what the gods and godmother gave her.
The glass slipper: A closed-toe pump with kitten heel. Sexless and nonthreatening to her prince. The dress, however, is a regal, ermine-trimmed, empire-waisted affair that flatters Warren’s figure.
The end: The stepmother is always evil, but Jo Van Fleet oscillates between sneer and glower as a truly waspish and memorable villain. She comes to her triumph when she cruelly denies Cinderella a crack at the shoe. No foot porn in this one, but there are big blubbery close-ups of Cinderella while she sheds her tears of near-victory. This version just leaves the stepbitches behind. Not ideal, but acceptable.
Settling in for the Brandy version, I’m surprised at the nostalgia I suddenly feel for 1997. The old Walt Disney Home Video midi intro catches me off-guard. But Godmother La Whitney sings us in gloriously. The glitter in her hair shimmers like a dream of winning the lottery, and everything (including the 380p quality of this download) just melts away. The setup is more like that of a feature film than a TV broadcast; the setting is sweeping and detailed, lit grandly and naturally as the day.
Cinderella: Brandy brings a beautiful ingénue presence to the broad honesty of the role as it is written in this iteration. Her voice (although lovely and suited to pop vocals) is a thin approximation of Andrews’ pipes or even Warren’s declamatory and earnest stage voice. Luckily, she’s matched against Paolo Montalbahn, whose tenor is warm and scarcely matured out of boyhood. Their opening counterpoint weaves them together; a strong cloth made of weaker threads.
The love story: In 1957’s Cinderella, the Queen makes the sane person’s argument to her son: you barely know this chick, you just like her because she’s hot and elusive. No version of Cinderella disproves this assertion. They’re all the story of one girl’s economic triumph in a time of zero class mobility, but the best versions are the ones that make us believe that’s not her only goal. Brandy and her prince seem to genuinely recognize something in each other that makes them think this will work. Big points there.
Ensemble: The immediately obvious difference in this production is the diversity of the cast; both leads are people of color. Cinderella, the luckiest of all princesses in the princess pantheon, is a black woman—a description that all-too-commonly confines a character to frustrated desires and unfulfilled potential. This diversity goes unremarked upon in-world*; interracial couples abound in the public square and in the royal bedchamber. The stepsisters are one black and one white. Butchers and milkmaids and all chorus members are always carefully shot to show beyond a doubt that this is not an all-white fantasy Europe. It is just a better world on that score.
This version’s biggest flaw is Jason Alexander, in the role of intrusive and unwanted narrator. The star, riding the wave of the late ‘90s popularity of Seinfeld, is gratingly ever-present, chirping terrible dialogue in an atrocious accent. I had to hold back from fast-forwarding through his every scene. Regrettably, the book was expanded to give him more singing lines.
There’s an inescapable Disney Channel gloss over it all. The stepfamily in this version was not cast for plainness or ugliness; they’re all beautiful yet unpleasant women. It’s a fundamental shift, in line with a slight change to the story.
Stepmother Bernadette Peters stutter-steps onto the scene with a grandeur that can scarcely be contained. Peters is a goddess, there’s no other way to say that. She goes from class to crass in the the blink of a russet eye, the toss of a copper coil. The first kidnapped number in this version is “Falling in Love with Love” from “The Boys from Syracuse,” and she slays it.
In fact, several songs were added to this production. “The Sweetest Sounds” from Rodgers’ “No Strings,” was added, sung by Cinderella and the Prince. “There’s Music in You,” written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1953 film “Main Street to Broadway,” is sung as the finale by the Fairy Godmother. Sadly, this “Stepsister’s Lament” is a monotone snoozefest that the director tries to fix up with slapstick.
This is the most liberated Cinderella, yet we still have to sit through a creepy prima nocta dance with the king. Despite the notable missteps in their romantic world, the lovers have real moments of connection and conversation that make up for most of them. Together, they mock the arrangement of royal breeding. Brandy takes the low harmony on “Do I Love You,” a sweet and suitable use of her contralto register.
Godmother Whitney floats along to reprise “Impossible/It’s Possible” on the way to the palace. Their harmonizing at the climax of the song is brassy and expansive, and easily Brandy’s finest moment vocally, as if collaboration with Houston caused her own talent to temporarily enlarge.
The glass slipper: The ’90s retread of the essential glass slipper is a weird long-tongued loafer, plain and unadorned, with a two-inch heel. Simple, elegant, even sensible. Boo, you bore.
The end: In this most recent third version, the stepfamily showing off and posturing for the benefit of poor downtrodden Cinderella is more pathetic than ever. Queen Whoopi trots out her husky sing-croak for a few meager lines, reminding me of that one time she sang to the pope. The royal wedding scene sees the scheming sisters left behind once again. I’ll always hope for a Brothers Grimm cut-foot ending, or the hilarious comeuppance in the royal laundry in the end of “Ever After.”**
1965 and 1957 must tie, because if there’s one thing that Cinderella proves, it’s that in a group of three women only one will get her wish and the other two end up bitter and forgotten. Was that the moral of the story? Or was it that bearing abuse without complaint entitles one to a spectacular revenge wedding? Despite a marathon of these films, I remain unable to pinpoint what Cinderella is supposed to mean. But Brandy’s Cinderella knows what she wants and why she wants it.
The 1997 version ultimately must be ranked #1, because it’s a believable love story—not just the infatuation of one good night when your dress is murder and your eyebrows are impeccable, but the love of character and one’s true nature. It’s still a whirlwind romance, but Brandy’s Cinderella whirls the wind with more than the batting of her lashes. Her godmother brings the magic, but she reminds Cinderella that her destiny is ultimately her own. The rumblings of girl-as-person were happening at Disney in 1997, and without them we would have no headstrong Merida, no enterprising Tiana, no romantic-subplot-free Moana.
But take heart, glass slipper hunters. Five hundred years of Perrault’s parable of virginity-as-currency might make it look like change in fairy tales is impossible. But take it from Whitney Houston (now available as an actual fairy godmother: wish hard, ladies) impossible things are happening every day.
*Brandy sings ‘Egyptian’ princess rather than ‘Norwegian,’ and imagines being a thief in Calcutta rather than a slave when she’s trying on fantasy lives in her own little corner. Minor changes, likely encouraged by the casting choice.
**“Ever After” is the best-ever non-musical film version of Cinderella. But that, children, is a story for another time.