'Cinderella' Director Kay Cannon's Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Jukebox Musical (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Doing Cinderella as a jukebox musical was James Corden's idea. The Tony winner turned talk show host turned carpool karaokier and star of crosswalk musicals then reached out to Pitch Perfect writer and Blockers director Kay Cannon to see if she would be interested in making it a reality, no bippity boppity boo required.
"I'm not a Cinderella person. I'm not a fairy-tale person," Cannon admits. "I was like, 'Nothing's going to come out of this, but I really am a fan of James Corden so let me take the meeting.' What was pitched to me was that we could retell the Cinderella story using contemporary songs."
Corden even had the movie's first song picked out: Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," sung by Cinderella as she tumbles out of bed to endure another day of all taking and no giving. "And I thought, 'Well, we won't do '9 to 5,' because that's an Oscar-nominated song from a very famous movie,'" she says. "But the idea of using contemporary songs really modernizes it in a way that's super cool."
Putting a new, modern spin on the old story of a would-be princess, her glass slipper and the man who rescues her was what was ultimately most important to Cannon. So, she turned the tale on its head, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to the tropes of the original that would hopefully feel more relatable to girls today. Cannon's Cinderella (as played by Camila Cabello) dreams of starting her own business, not getting married. The glass slipper is as uncomfortable as you'd imagine a high heel made of glass to be. And the only one who saves a damsel from her distress is the damsel herself.
Which just left the daunting task of picking which popular songs to use for the movie's many musical numbers. Over Zoom, Cannon walks ET through the soundtrack track by track, opening up about her creative process, sharing behind-the-song secrets and revealing the Beyoncé song that didn't make the movie.
"Rhythm Nation" / "You Gotta Be"
The movie's first number sees the townspeople going about their day to day via a flash dance to Janet Jackson's 1989 hit, mashed up with Cabello's rendition of Des'ree's R&B classic from '94. ("You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta stronger...")
I was in a Barry's Bootcamp class when "Rhythm Nation" came on, and I was like, "Ahh! That's my opening!" And I knew that I wanted Cinderella to sing something different than the town and the stepmother and stepsisters. I'm aging myself, but with "You Gotta Be," I have such an emotional connection to that song. Growing up, I felt like that's your great underdog song. Like, every morning when she wakes up, she gives herself this pep talk so that she doesn't quit.
"Million to One"
This original song serves as Cinderella's theme song throughout the movie: "If it's a million to one / I'm gonna be that onе." Cabello co-wrote the track with Scott Harris, who is responsible for her latest single, "Don't Go Yet," and most of Shawn Mendes' biggest hits.
As soon as [I heard] her name, I was like, "Yes." Then I couldn't think of anybody else to do it. And I did all sorts of research on her and really felt like she was the perfect person to play the part. And then the original stuff came to be when I got Camila. I always intended for Cinderella to have an original song, because I was retelling her character's story and I was like, "The best way to do that is to have an original song."
There was an original song in Pitch Perfect 2, and what I would do in the script is I would write fake lyrics being like, "This song should be about this and how she's going through this and it should have this vibe." I'm very specific about what the song should feel like. And I gave Camila and Scott very strict parameters. And because I reprise it, she needs to sing the same thing but now she's upset and she's crying and she's at an all-time low, and then it's her anthem. So, it's a lot of talking and a lot of conversation, and then they went off and they wrote "Million to One," and I loved it. I thought they really hit it out of the park.
"Somebody to Love"
Queen's 1976 chart topper was the first song Cannon selected for the movie, a gospel choir-backed take on "Somebody to Love" sung by Nicholas Galitzine's Prince Robert after his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan), proclaims that a ball will be thrown to find Robert a bride.
First, off, it's such an amazing song. I understand why it's in so many movies. It's just an amazing song. But the king literally says, "You will find somebody. You will find someone to love," and I felt like I could do it in a new way. I felt like, "I can take this classic, amazing song and show it in a new way. And hopefully people won't be too mad about that, because it's been used in so many other films." After that, it was pretty hard. I did a lot of demos. I'd fall in love with a song and then we'd do the demo, and it wouldn't work as well.
"Am I Wrong"
One of the deepest cuts in the movie is this 2014 track from the Norwegian musical duo Nico & Vinz, performed by the ensemble as Cinderella, her stepmother and stepsisters, the prince and the royal family psyche themselves up for the ball.
"Am I Wrong" was really hard to come by. And I love it so much, because I think it might be surprising to people, for that to be in the movie. It just feels like it works so well with every character in our story singing that song as they prepare for the ball. It's all about having doubt and, "Am I wrong to believe that this can be a thing?" So, it works on many levels. And I really love how [music director] Keith Harrison arranged that vocally and musically.
Cinderella's fairy godmother is reimagined as Fab G, played by bona fide Broadway legend and Tony and GRAMMY winner Billy Porter. For this big magical makeover number, Cannon opted for Earth, Wind & Fire's No. 1 hit -- though it wasn't what she'd originally scripted for the scene.
Because I wasn't sure who was going to be cast in it, I put the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" in there as a placeholder. Even though I had written it for Billy and I was like, "I want Billy to do it," you just never know. And he liked it even with "Sweet Dreams" in there. I was like, "At least if I hire a comedian or something like that, at least that song, vocally, is not as taxing." And then as soon as Billy was cast, I was at Sony with the music team and it was just like, "We gotta do 'Shining Star.'" Once Billy was there and I knew for sure he was doing it, "Shining Star" felt like a no-brainer. It was already on my list of songs. And thematically, it's you're a shining star, we're all shining stars.
I will tell you, he hits that last note, right? He's got that big last note. So in pre-records, he came in and it was early in the morning and he goes, "I don't know if I can get this note." I gotta tell you, he walked in and on first take, he was like, STAAAAaaaAAAAR! I'm, like, eating an omelet, next to all the buttons, and I was just like, [Jaw drops] "What?" It was so incredible.
"Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)"
This is one you won't see in the movie, because Beyoncé was cut from the final soundtrack. (You can glimpse a bit of the scrapped number in the trailer.) It was meant to be the preamble to the ball, featuring Cinderella's evil stepsisters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer).
I shot the stepsisters and about a hundred-plus single ladies from the town doing "Single Ladies." We shot that for two nights. It's amazing. It's very funny. I loved it so much. And it was right before "Whatta Man" and "Seven Nation Army," and it just felt like it was hurting "Whatta Man." It was hurting that performance, because it was another group of women singing, right?
We had a rap leading up to it and it was arranged in, I thought, this really cool way. It was one of the first things I had to cut from the movie, and we all creatively agreed that it should be cut, but it was huge. It was massive in scope. So, I didn't end up using it. [It probably won't be released as a deleted scene because] that song is so expensive. [Laughs] Just play it at home and then you see them dancing to it.
"Whatta Man" / "Seven Nation Army”
The most confounding pairing upon seeing the tracklisting is the mashup of Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue's seminal 1993 single and the White Stripes' garage rock track from 2003. It's performed during the ball, the former performed by a group of seductive female suitors and the latter sung in response by Prince Robert.
I think it is an unexpected combo. You know, this is a PG movie and it's a multi-generational story, so I wanted jokes in there that adults would like and then jokes that also kids would like. I tried to treat it like an animated movie in that way. And "Whatta Man" / "Seven Nation Army" is really a cool factor. I was like, "In a Moulin Rouge kind of way, what can still feel for our teenagers like a more PG-13, crazy party feel?" So, "Whatta Man" just worked really well. I like the idea of "Whatta Man" with princesses who are more distinguished singing those lyrics. And then "Seven Nation Army," because the prince is rock and roll. That was the genre that I put him in. Like, "I'm gonna fight 'em off," it just felt like so right. And then those two just go really well together.
This being a musical, Cinderella and Prince Robert's encounter at the ball is a song and dance, with Cabello and Galitzine dueting to Ed Sheeran's smash, "Perfect." Cannon was careful in selecting which pop songs she used, with one caveat: Using Cabello's own songs would be too meta.
It breaks my brain. It's like, I also wouldn't have used a Shawn Mendes song. I think people would get nosebleeds and their heads would crack and just be like, "Wait, what?! What's happening?" And Camila was really protective, too. Very smartly, she was always pushing to use a classic song that 10 years from now, you could watch the movie and it not feel dated. And so that was our North Star, to try to find things that we would really enjoy later and not be, like, flash in the pans.
The movie's second original song goes to Idina Menzel's evil -- or is she? -- stepmother, a cynical rock opera number penned by Menzel and songwriter Laura Veltz and sung by all the ladies in the cast. (Check out an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at "Dream Girl" music video above.)
When Idina was cast, I had had a Dixie Chicks song in there. I didn't have an original song. And then because I was changing her character so much -- meaning that you've got backstory and you understood why she was the way that she was -- and having Idina, it was like, "We should have an original song there, too." And then I wrote this comedic song for Pierce to sing to Minnie [Driver], that's nonsense. [Laughs] So, that's why it became a hybrid, really.
"Let's Get Loud"
Jennifer Lopez's turn-of-the-century bop serves as the big finale, a number kicked off by none other than Minnie Driver. (Why not?!) Naturally, the movie emotionally climaxes with Cabello and Menzel singing a slowed-down version of J.Lo at each another.
The finale had to do a lot of stuff. And I'm really proud that we're using it -- Gloria Estefan wrote it, J.Lo made it super famous, and Camila is Cuban-Mexican. There's a lot there in representation. But I wanted the end to be a big dance party, and "Let's Get Loud" gives you that. And then it also allowed us to slow down in that way. But I gotta tell you, in filming it and then being in post, in my dreams, I just would hear, Let's get loud, let's get loooouuuud! And often it was Pierce going, "Let's! Get! LOUD!" [Laughs]
Cinderella is streaming exclusively on Prime Video on Sept. 3.