“Impossible things are happening every day.”
The words are the inspiring lyrics to “It’s Possible,” one of the many charming tunes in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” the 1965 television film special, which starred a then 18-year-old Lesley Ann Warren as the fairy tale’s title character.
The beloved production is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and has just been released in a special remastered edition DVD by Shout! Factory. The cast also includes Ginger Rogers, Jo Van Fleet, Barbara Ruick, Stuart Damon, Celeste Holm, Walter Pidgeon and Pat Carroll, and a score that boasts “Ten Minutes Ago,” “In My Own Little Corner” and “Stepsisters’ Lament” (Why Would a Fellow Want a Girl Like Her?)” among others.
For Warren, landing the starring role encompassed those “impossible” lyrics on so many levels, when a less-than-stellar audition almost put the role out of reach for the aspiring actress.
“I was on Broadway doing ‘110 Degrees in the Shade’ and the director of ‘Cinderella’ [Charles S. Dubin] had seen me in the show and recommended me to Richard Rodgers for an audition,” Warren recalled during a recent phone conversation.
“I was just so intimidated because I was auditioning in front of THE Richard Rodgers, and I ended up being just terrible. Just paralyzed with fear and it went so badly. Rodgers just said, no she’s not right, she’s not really ready. So I though that was it. I blew it. But Charles was very insistent and asked Mr. Rodgers for a second chance. So they brought me to Mr. Rodgers’ apartment and the only people there were the two of us and the choreographer and director.
“All of a sudden Mr. Rodgers clears the room of everyone but me and him. He sat me down next to him on the piano bench an he played ‘My Funny Valentine,’ and had me sing that. And based on that I got the part.”
A year earlier, at 17, Warren had become the youngest actor ever to be accepted into New York’s Actors Studio, studying under Lee Strasberg at the iconic theater school. Her career would ultimately flourish on both TV and in feature films (she also performed on stage in Chicago in the mid-1970s in “Vanities” at the now-defunct Drury Lane Water Tower Theatre), including a stint on the hit series “Mission: Impossible” in the 1970s, a recurring role on “Will & Grace” in the early 2000s, and an Academy Award-nominated turn as a ditzy gangster’s moll in the musical comedy feature film “Victor Victoria, opposite James Garner and Julie Andrews in 1982. Coincidentally, Andrews had starred in the first TV incarnation of “Cinderella” in 1957.
“I love, LOVE her,” the 68-year-old Warren said of Andrews, who was married to “Victor Victoria” director Blake Edwards. “She is so much fun to work with, and boy has she got a bawdy sense of humor!”
To create what would be the quintessential Cinderella for generations of fans of the TV film, Warren said she found inspiration from within.
“For my own personal reasons, I had a lot of understanding intuitively of her plight and her feelings, her longings and desires, her hopes and wishes,” Warren said. “And because I was 18, that all radiated through me to the portrayal of her. I believed what she was feeling. When I was singing ‘In My Own Little Corner’ for the first time the director came up and said ‘Sweetheart we can’t understand the words because you’re crying so hard’.” That’s how much I loved the character.”
As for the gorgeous gown Cinderella wore to the ball, Warren said: The dress was incredibly heavy, I mean really REALLY heavy, so much so that my shoulders and neck would hurt at times. It took a lot of energy to wear that dress. But to dance in it when we were waltzing, it just looked so breathtakingly beautiful. It really took everyone’s breath away.”
Warren, who also was a professional dancer by trade, said the chance to share the screen with legendary hoofer Ginger Rogers was also a dream come true. “I had studied all kinds of dance by the time I did ‘Cinderella,'” Warren said. “Of course I’d seen all the Astaire-Rogers films, so the chance to be in my first movie, with Ginger Rogers, was beyond perfect and those emotions helped me with the character because Cinderella is so humbled when she meets the Prince, as I was so very, very humbled when I met Ginger Rogers.”
Her Prince was played by Stuart Damon, who Warren said was totally supportive and giving as an actor and incredibly funny. (He replaced Jack Jones who was originally slated to star.). “He had this hysterical sense of humor, which helped a lot especially when we were shooting 17-hour days.”
Warren said the story of Cinderella is especially relevant these days, because so many children are bullied or treated like outcasts.
“I think young girls and boys then and now could relate to what Cinderella was going through, ” Warren said. “I think it’s because most young people at one point or another feel a sense of alienation or loneliness and a sense of feeling lost and not knowing who they really are. I think those feeings and emotions are universal.”
So did she keep a memento from the movie, say, a pair of those iconic glass slippers, perhaps?
“I did not keep a pair of the shoes,” Warren said. “I have no idea what became of them. They were actually a very high-end plastic shoe. But, my husband [Ronald Taft] was intent on finding me the crown I wore to the ball. He was on the Internet one day and found a posting by some woman who said she had the original crown, given to her by the costume designer, and had kept it displayed for 35 years in her antique store in Virginia. She was very ill and her post said she wanted the crown to find its original home. So, without telling me this, my husband got in contact with her, and acquired the crown and he gave it to me on my birthday. He made this beautiful glass dome for it and that’s where it’s kept to this day.”
As for the impact “Cinderella” had on children and her career, Warren summed it up: “To become this iconic character, it’s more than I can put into words. It feels so incredible to have been given the gift of this film and to be loved for it for so many years now is a blessing.”
NOTE: Chicagoans can get a live look at the treasured musical when the hit Broadway stage version, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella comes to Chicago, Dec. 16, 2014 through Jan. 4, 2015, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. Individual tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Oct. 17 at broadwayinchicago.com.