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Idina Menzel And Kay Cannon On Their Modern Twist To The Cinderella Story

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's a new Cinderella for this age, one that's not just waiting for her prince to come. Ella, played by Camilla Cabello, is a motivated, ambitious businesswoman who refuses to give up on her dreams for a man, even if he is royalty. But as always, her crafty stepmother isn't exactly trying to make her life any easier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CINDERELLA")

IDINA MENZEL: (As Vivian) Cinderella, now that you're an orphan, it's important for you to remember that it's only my love for your father - rest his soul - that stands between you and a life on the street.

CAMILLA CABELLO: (As Cinderella) Yes, of course. And that's why I'm so thankful for...

MENZEL: (As Vivian) You could be so pretty if you took even a second to comb that hair of yours.

KAY CANNON: (Laughter) What a nice thing to start the interview on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, this modern take on the classic fairy tale from Amazon Studios comes complete with a soundtrack bursting with songs from Queen to Ed Sheeran. It's written and directed by Kay Cannon, who joins me now. Welcome to the program.

CANNON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And also, of course, the wonderful Idina Menzel, who plays that crafty stepmother. Welcome to you.

MENZEL: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a Cinderella that's trying to find a different kind of happy ending, one on her own terms. You wrote this. Tell me why you wanted to reimagine this story.

CANNON: Well, I really wanted to modernize it in a way that I felt was maybe a little bit more relatable to what girls and how girls and young women in particular are viewing themselves these days. And I would have never, ever thought about retelling the story had James Corden not come to me and said, what if we retold the story using contemporary songs? And then I said to him - I was like, wait, I could rewrite the story and take all the things that we love about it, but then give Cinderella a drive and make her active and vocal and going for something and pursuing her dreams within a society that isn't allowing her to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Cinderella's stepmother, Vivian, is, of course, such a driving part of the story. Idina, what was your reaction when you were offered this role?

MENZEL: I was relieved to know that we were going to explore this character with more complexity and giving the audience a bird's-eye view into this woman's pain and her experience in life and why she acts the way she does. So I just - I owe it all to Kay, really, because as an actress, she allowed me the opportunity to bring levels to the character and play her in a more realistic, organic way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you've played characters before that have been vastly misunderstood - the Wicked Witch of the West, of course, Elsa from "Frozen." Would you say Vivian also falls into that category?

MENZEL: Totally. I'm - I guess I gravitate to those kind of misunderstood characters. What I love about Vivian for me, is she's not singing let it go or defy gravity, everybody, just rise above it and fly. She's sort of the voice of the patriarchy to me. She's that voice saying, no, you can't do it. And she's their opportunity to kind of rise above that and rebel and give voice to their rage and their passion and their anger. Would you agree with that, Kay?

CANNON: I would absolutely agree with what you were just saying, Idina, is that, like, she represents the structure in which she has been growing up and her past experiences, represents why she is the way she is and why she mothers the way she mothers - with tough love - because she truly believes that the only way a woman improves her lot in life is to marry. And this Cinderella teaches her like, no, it can be different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I got to talk about the music, because you've got mashups of "Rhythm Nation" and "You Gotta Be." That opens the movie, and it takes off from there. Tell me how you chose, you know, the pop songs that you put in there. And it's all sort of seamlessly choreographed where it gives the characters a different kind of voice.

CANNON: Yeah, when I was writing it, I knew what I wanted each moment to feel like and each performance piece to feel like. And it all had to be dialogue on the page. Like, the songs had to make sense to the story and to move our story forward. And that was a whole, like, I mean, I - the only one I knew for sure, just because it's so literal, is - was "Somebody To Love." And the arrangement that we do with it moves our story along in a really great way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO LOVE")

NICHOLAS GALITZINE: (Singing) Can anybody find me somebody to love?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Idina, any favorites? I mean, you know, you have some really kind of powerful, powerful songs.

MENZEL: I get chills when "Rhythm Nation" starts and then she goes into "You Gotta Be." "You Gotta Be" from Des'ree used to be, like, my playlist song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM NATION / YOU GOTTA BE")

CINDERELLA ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE CAST: (Singing) You got to be cool and calm.

MENZEL: I really love the new arrangement, and so that's one of my favorite moments. Like, I get goosebumps with that. I love Billy's song, "Shining Stars." Just, you know, I've been a fan of Billy's ever, ever since back in the day in the Broadway community. We were both younger and plugging away. And so the whole world is sort of seeing what we as the Broadway community knew for many, many years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say you're talking about Billy Porter, who plays the fairy godmother. He is amazing.

CANNON: He plays the fabulous godmother.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Yeah. And this isn't just about the women. You know, I love that we finally get to meet the prince, who has always been absent in every single "Cinderella" story. He's always been a cipher. You never know what he wants or who he is or why she falls in love with him. And in this version, he has a storyline. He has a complex relationship with his dad.

CANNON: Thank you so much for pointing that out, because I wanted to show that Prince Robert is actually going through the same thing that Cinderella is going through. When they meet and they converge and get in each other's lives, that they actually help the other get out of those boxes and those, you know, societal constraints that they're in. At the end of the day, no matter who you are, shouldn't you be allowed to follow your dreams, have choice and agency over your lives?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Idina, it seems like there is a version of "Cinderella" for every generation. What do you think makes this story so timeless?

MENZEL: I knew you were going to ask me that, and I have a hard time with it because it's not so timeless, because we needed to recalibrate (laughter). So that's where I've been thinking a lot about it. Like, you know, these stories are quote, unquote, "timeless," and yet they don't always stand the test of time. We need to look at them as a society and change them. So what are the things that make us love them? I don't know. Is it the - obviously the romance. What are the main story tellers, Kay, that make something a timeless?

CANNON: Yeah, I mean, it's the classic underdog story. And, you know, like, who is more of an underdog than Cinderella? I'm excited for 10 years from now or whatever for another one to come out that kind of keeps going with this modernization or maybe some old ideas that we have about how we used to think are altered again and - as we keep evolving in this world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was writer and director Kay Cannon and actress Idina Menzel. Their new movie, "Cinderella," is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Thanks so much for being with us.

MENZEL: Thank you.

CANNON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM NATION / YOU GOTTA BE")

CINDERELLA ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE CAST: (Singing) You got to be hard. You got to be tough. You got to be stronger. You got to be cool. You got to be calm, got to keep it together. All I know, all I know, all I know, you got to be cool... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.