Paolo Montalban can’t wait for fans old and new to watch “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” when it makes its long-awaited debut on Disney+ on Friday.
The 1997 TV musical, which starred Brandy Norwood as the titular princess and Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother, was Montalban’s first major movie role, and it was a bonafide hit, with 60 million people watching it on ABC nearly 25 years ago. What made the film especially notable was the diversity of its leads — something the Filipino American actor is still proud of today.
“Ever since the announcement, I’ve been reading comments on Instagram and Twitter and I’ve been crying tears of grace every single day,” he told TheWrap’s Lawrence Yee just ahead of the film’s Disney+ premiere. “There’s always one or two posts that just hit to the core of what we as a cast and crew wanted. Whitney Houston’s vision was wanting everyone to be included in this production, especially kids of color, and how meaningful it was to us back then and how meaningful it will be to them now and in the future.”
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Montalban, who was an understudy on Broadway at the time, admitted he didn’t know how big the production was or who was involved.
“I thought it was going to be some rinky-dink cable station in New York,” he recalled with a laugh. “There was no mention of Whitney’s Houston involvement as a producer. There was no mention of her playing the fairy godmother. Of course, [the studio] knew this because they had originally developed it for her to play Cinderella five years prior and to be released on CBS. But five years later, she said, ‘I’m in a different place in my life, I’m a mother. But I have the perfect person for you: Brandy.’ And so when I got the call, I went in like it was any other musical theater audition.”
Montalban remembered being late for his Friday audition and being the last actor the casting directors saw out of 800 hopefuls. He was called back that Monday to do a reading with Brandy and the director, and the following Friday, he got a message that his agent wanted to reach him. But before his agent returned his call, a costume shop rang up asking for his measurements.
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“I thought it was for the Broadway show I was in. I thought they had my measurements already!” he recalled. “And after that, my agent called me and gave me the news. I was jumping and screaming. I auditioned on a Friday, got called back on a Monday, and got the part on a Friday. In one week, my life changed.”
After the breakout success of the “Cinderella” film, Montalban reprised his role onstage opposite Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Deborah Gibson. He also starred on the TV series “Mortal Kombat: Conquest” in 1998 and has been a working actor in the 20-plus years since.
Montalban reflected on being part of such a groundbreaking diverse production and how more shows are using non-traditional and colorblind casting, especially following last year’s racial reckoning in the U.S.
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“What it’s about is that diversity reflects what America looks like today. In many places around the world, diversity reflects what their societies look like as well,” he said. “And why is that when you do lean into the diversity and inclusion in your movies, or your plays or TV shows, why is it that those shows do the best? Why is it that those shows make you the most money — the ‘Hamiltons,’ the ‘Bridgertons,’ even the ‘Cobra Kais’ of the world… I finally think the powers that be are paying attention.”
He added, “What I am proud of is the effect it has had on young men, who are now older men, in the Asian community. There’s a masculinizing effect of having a leading man who looks like you on screen. Who doesn’t just end up with any girl; he ends up with the girl … I’m glad that my first foray into the public eye was as a romantic lead who was not punching and kicking his way into everybody’s hearts.”
Watch excerpts from Montalban’s interview above, and stream “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” on Disney+ now.