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Musical magic returns to TV

She's a worldwide recording star, featured in her own TV series and nominated for everything from Grammy awards to Soul Train's Entertainer of the Year honors.

Still, when it came time to tackle the title role in ABC's $12-million production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, there was one challenge R&B star Brandy Norwood found waiting for her.

Ballroom dancing.

"To perfect it, it took a while," says Norwood, no stranger to Janet Jackson-style dance moves onstage since her self-titled debut record sold 4-million copies in 1994. "I have to learn to sing differently than the way I dance. The beats are so different . . . that was very, very hard for me to learn."

Just how hard was evident during one day of filming in July, when the singer and her Prince Charming, Paolo Montalban, stood surrounded by professional dancers in a faux fairy tale wonderland filling a 7,000-square-foot soundstage inside Sony's Hollywood studio complex.

Encircled by a rainbow of extras outfitted in brightly colored formalwear, Norwood and Montalban whirl through a complex scene in which the Prince tries to guess Cinderella's identity as they dance. Followed by a black-clad cameraman who exactly tracked their pirouettes, the pair glided through take after take, working to match their elegant movements to a recorded soundtrack.

With six days left in the eight-week shoot, everyone is tired but professional, eager to nail a pivotal scene in a production they know will make TV history.

"This is going to be one of the toughest shots to finish," notes producer/musical director Chris Montan, watching a playback of the pair's dancing while Norwood chats on an ever-present cell phone a few feet away. "I know it's Brandy up there, but when I see her at the top of the ballroom stairs, I still get goosebumps."

Certainly, the top brass at ABC are betting that more than a few viewers share Montan's reaction. They spent three or four times the typical TV-movie budget to draft a star-studded cast for Cinderella that includes pop singer Whitney Houston, Seinfeld co-star Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg and Bernadette Peters.

Producers were faced with a tough choice when they decided to update the 1957 version, which was telecast live with star Julie Andrews and was watched by 107-million viewers, according to Disney.

Do you bring the show totally into the '90s, with modern music and visual style, or do you stick with tradition and risk losing a youthful audience steeped in hip-hop rhythms and modern rock attitude?

A look at the final version shows producers struck an artful balance, allowing Brandy and Houston to showcase their considerably soulful vocal sounds while using most of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

It's an approach that just made sense to producer Houston and her partner, Debra Martin Chase, who banked on transcending genres in the way that Houston's career had crossed cultural boundaries.

"Whitney Houston . . . her music's not hip-hop or "traditional urban,' and she's a mega-star," says Chase, a graduate of Harvard Law School who now runs the singer's Houston Productions company. "If you do it well, people will come."

In fact, that ideal is what drew stars such as Peters, Alexander and Goldberg to the project, giving them the chance to expose a new generation to musical theater that doesn't feature a crowd of animated characters.

"I find it a sin that most of the people on this stage _ particularly Miss Peters, who has been part of the musical theater forever _ have very few pieces of film showing the thing he or she does best," says Alexander, who won a Tony award for his performance in Jerome Robbins' Broadway.

"There's very little film of a whole generation of performers . . . Tommy Tune, Gregory Hines . . . So, not only are we losing that generation, we're going to lose the next one, because they won't know how to learn how to do this stuff."

Indeed, it was another crossover hit, CBS' telecast of Gypsy in 1993, that prompted Houston to get the ball rolling on a new version of Cinderella. But by the time the financing and logistical hurdles were cleared, Houston had removed herself from consideration for the title role.

"She called us and said, "I can't really do this because I don't feel I'm young enough to play Cinderella. I've gone through life experiences that made it impossible for me to play the part,' " says co-producer Craig Zadan. In a recent TV Guide interview, Houston downplayed the age angle, saying "just the other day, Brandy told me I look 18." Still, visions of a thirtysomething Diana Ross stumbling through The Wiz as wide-eyed Dorothy must have been a factor in convincing producers that an actor closer to Norwood's age and experience might be more appropriate.

"She (Houston) called me . . . and I dropped the telephone," says the 18-year-old actor/singer, who eventually had to balance her time taping her own TV show, Moesha, recording a new album and working 10-hour days on the set of Cinderella. "It's fairy tale, really."

In addition to getting the teen star, producers knew their color-blind casting _ Asian actor Montalban plays the son of black actor Goldberg, and white actor Peters playing an evil stepmother with black and white children _ would help give their story a '90s flair.

"Both Whitney and I, as kids, watched these musicals on television," Chase says. "Only as we got older did we realize what the impact of having only white images in these fairy tales meant to us and other kids subliminally. We wanted this to be a fairy tale where everyone who watches can say, "That's my story.' "

As the movie unfolds, bright sets and costumes lend a fairy tale feel to the proceedings, allowing such things as race and ethnicity to remain suspended for a time. With sprawling musical numbers and liberal doses of special effects, Cinderella seems as sure a bet as any to draw young audiences into a venerated theatrical style.

And if it works well enough, producers hope to bring one musical a year to ABC's revived Wonderful World of Disney franchise.

"My best friends that are my age, they think I'm singing opera," says Norwood, laughing. "But they also think it's beautiful. Everybody here is so talented . . . you can't ignore talent when you see it."

At a galance

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella airs at 7 tonight on WFTS-Ch. 28. Grade: A-. Rating: TV-G.