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Paolo Montalban on Memories of ‘Cinderella’ and the Making of a Filipino American Musical

The 1997 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella has been available to stream on Disney+ for two weeks already, and for Paolo Montalban, he is thrilled. The actor, who played Prince Christopher in the film, found out about its upcoming release on the streaming platform from his agent, about a week before it was officially announced to the public.

Jason Alexander (Lionel), Paolo Montalban (Prince Christopher), Brandy (Cinderella), Whitney Houston (Fairy Godmother), Bernadette Peters (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Natalie Desselle Reid (Minerva), and Veanne Cox (Calliope) in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Courtesy of Disney+.

“I bet you this is how I’m going to feel about it two years from now, and 20 years from now, is that it is able to be shared with the people who grew up with it and also to be shared with a new generation on a platform that has a certain sense of permanency moving forward into the future,” he stated, “and that those messages of diversity, inclusion, and representation will be carried on into the future.”

Montalban explained how the response to Cinderella when it initially came out was in two-fold. On one hand, he had random people on the street saying that they saw him on TV. “Now I’m looking back and that was like the original Facebook, right? Or like social media. I mean, literally people just shouting at you in the street. But beyond that, we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have social media. So, we weren’t getting the same kind of feedback loop, or direct feedback from the public, or the fans that we had back then.”

On the other hand, what was very apparent at the time was the mixed reception Cinderella received from critics. While Montalban, who had read some of these publications, said that while some of what was written did hurt, the public said otherwise.

“[The public] got what we were trying to accomplish because it has remained relevant to them over the years,” he said. “It had such a huge impact on them when they saw it. And that’s really the most important thing because we as artists, all artists across the different genres, are not doing it for the critics. We’re doing it for the public. We’re doing it for the people who are receiving our art.”

Cinderella’s availability on Disney+ comes within the year following both a turning point for the Black Lives Matter movement and the spike in xenophobic attacks against the Asian American community. While Montalban wasn’t as active on social media at the time of George Floyd’s murder, he felt the need to take a stand for the Black community by posting a photo of him as Prince Christopher, Brandy as Cinderella, Whoopi Goldberg as Queen Constantina, and Victor Garber as King Maximillian.

“I was not expecting it to get as much traction as it did, and it wasn’t my intent,” he explained. “But it did get traction because I think it spoke to people who had felt that that was such a big part of their lives growing up, and for maybe that brief moment, it was a salve of a reminder of how we could have been. How we can be.

“What is first and foremost is, at least for me, in the Asian American community right now, if you attack an Asian American on the street, you’re now attacking the Prince in this version of Cinderella,” he later added. “Now if your family has this movie in their hearts as a beloved classic to them, why would you want to destroy the people that are in it? And the same thing goes for the Black community. Why would you want to destroy a whole community of people who were such a big part of your lives growing up? Why can’t you treat them with kindness and respect?”

Montalban was performing in the ensemble in The King and I on Broadway when he received an audition through the agent he was freelancing under at the time. While he knew it was an audition for a movie musical, he didn’t know that Brandy was starring in it, that it was being produced by Whitney Houston, nor did he realize that it was for the relaunch of The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC.

He wound up running late for his audition due to an understudy rehearsal for The King and I going overtime and was both the last actor to audition for that day, as well as out of the pool of 800 other actors — all from a variety of racial backgrounds — going out for the role.

As executive producer Debra Martin Chase said in Kendra James’ oral history of Cinderella for Shondaland, “He opens his mouth and he sings like an angel. And we’re just like gasping, ‘We found him.’”

Paolo Montalban as Prince Christopher and Brandy as Cinderella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Courtesy of Disney+.

Montalban has so many fond memories from filming Cinderella; ranging from sharing McDonald’s with Brandy in their ballroom outfits by the fountain in the palace garden, to a take where Bernadette Peters, who played Cinderella’s stepmother, slid her foot into the glass slipper and it fit her perfectly, before proceeding to take his arm and walk out the door with him. The entire production crew was, in his words, “in pieces, absolute pieces” over the latter occurrence.

There were even days during the shoot where Montalban would come to set, even if he wasn’t filming that day, just to watch the process — as well as Houston as the Fairy Godmother — in action.

“It was literally like a masterclass every day, watching these people at the tops of their games working, working, working. And so good at what they do,” he said.

Cinderella was Montalban’s first movie musical. His second one, The Girl Who Left Home, is currently make its way in the film festival circuit. Written and directed by Mallorie Ortega, it follows a young woman who must put her dreams of performing on hold in order to help save her family’s restaurant from shutting down.

Paolo Montalban as Tony in The Girl Who Left Home. Courtesy of Mallorie Ortega.

Montalban, who plays the protagonist’s uncle, noted the differences of working on both musicals. While Cinderella took 28 days to film, The Girl Who Left Home was shot in half the amount of time and on an independent film budget. Three and a half weeks were given to rehearse all the numbers for Cinderella, whereas for The Girl Who Left Home, rehearsals were held the day of. Although the songs in Cinderella were pre-recorded and lip-synced to on set, there were scenes in The Girl Who Left Home where some of the songs were performed live.

Even though the latter is centered on a Filipino American family, Montalban hailed the universal themes the film has on family, pursuing dreams, and sometimes having to make a choice between which of the two to serve. At the same time, he also liked how the film still bears the Filipino American experience throughout.

“I mean, there’s a lot of inside Filipino jokes in there that will be appreciated,” he elaborated. “And also, it’s not just jokes, but it’s also the complexities of how Filipinos communicate with each other, how Filipino families communicate with each other. What is said and what is not said, right?”

Haven Everly (Christine), Emy Coligado (Mary) and Paolo Montalban (Tony) in The Girl Who Left Home. Courtesy of Mallorie Ortega.

The Girl Who Left Home will next be showing at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival. While that film continues to make its rounds, Montalban is using this time for self-improvement, as he works to figure out how he can contribute to improving the world, while continuing auditions.

“Booking a job as an actor during this time period, which has been very tricky for the industry for the past year, would be such a blessing,” he commented. “But in the meantime, I’m not waiting around for them either. I’m going to be taking action on my own and trying to make the world a better place the way that I can using my platform, my newfound platform.”

As for future streaming screenings of Cinderella, Montalban encourages viewers to watch it with a child and really look to see how they take it in. “They all have the same reaction, they’re transfixed,” he said, “and I think that them being transfixed, to me, is them accepting. They may be like, ‘Oh, this is weird’ or ‘This is something I’ve never seen before,’ ‘This is new to me,’ but they’re not walking away from it. And what I want us as a society is to not walk away from inclusion, diversity, and representation.”

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