Last Tuesday (not this past one but the one before – so much for timeliness), Li’l Sis and I made the short commute over to Greenville, SC to catch opening night of Legally Blonde: The Musical.
It was a great show; the crowd was lively and young, the production was stellar, and the performances were top-notch. All of this was incredibly good news, because I had spent the entire day at work preparing to be disappointed, as I always turn out to be at these things.
Let me tell you a story.
Since I don’t live in New York, I’m not in the loop when it comes to the current musicals. I usually show up (late) to the party after the musical has been turned into a movie or won a Tony or something. The truth is there are so, so many musicals coming and going in New York, it’s probably impossible for even the most diehard musical fan living in New York to keep up. But because I am the way I am *ahem*, I do manage to find out about some of them, especially the ones that are critically acclaimed and/or awesome. And so it goes, I find out about an awesome new musical and run to the nearest store and buy the soundtrack of the original cast. I listen to it until I have the whole thing memorized and the voices of the original cast are firmly embedded into my ears and heart. That’s how it happened with Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera.
I remember very clearly attending performances of these two musicals on Broadway when I traveled to New York back in high school. I was so excited to see them in person – it felt like a consummation actually… and long overdue. Of course, I knew that the original cast would not be in the house on these particular nights, and I was prepared to hear different singers and different interpretations. But, unfortunately, the music and voices I had grown to love over countless hours with my headphones were so deeply recorded in my psyche that I had a hard time accepting these new… sounds. Ok honestly, I hated them. I’d go as far as to say that all of my pre-listening totally ruined the experience of seeing these plays live. And I hate that because they were brilliant performances – it wasn’t like I was seeing these musicals at the Backwater Community Dinner Theatre and Glee Club – this was frikkin’ Broadway. And yet, there I was… disappointed and feeling like a jackass for it. ‘Twas a sad day for Reeva Dubois.
After that, I promised myself I would NEVER get so involved with a soundtrack recording without having seen the play on stage first. Of course, I broke that promise to myself very soon after, thanks to Rent (and Chicago, and Dreamgirls, and Hairspray). In a way, I double broke my promise because not only did I cheat on the stage production, but I cheated on it with a MOVIE recording, which seems much, much worse.
The point of that story was to point out to you, if you hadn’t already picked up on it, that I am a fickle, judgmental, overly-critical little bitch, who only likes things one way – and that ONE way is usually the way it was the first time, which means anything anyone does afterwards is crap and there’s nothing they can do about it.
So keep all of that in mind as I proceed.
I usually scoff at the idea of popular movies adapted for the Broadway stage. I mean, it just seems so ludicrous, doesn’t it? Shows how much I know… most of the musicals based on movie scripts wind up doing quite well. Hello, The Lion King! But for every one that does well, there’s another that totally bombs (I’m thinking of The Lord of the Rings – wonder why that didn’t work?). And then there are productions like The Color Purple, which was a book, then a movie, then a musical (I’m sure the ballet is coming soon)*. So when I heard that Legally Blonde was headed to Broadway, I was dubious. First of all, I wasn’t sure a live stage musical could capture the effervescence of Reese Witherspoon, the subtle social commentary, or the sublime ridiculousness captured in the motion picture. Sure, musicals are often over-the-top, but the movie was over-the-top to begin with, so the musical would have to go over-the-top and back around to the bottom again. I just didn’t see it.
The show premiered in New York in the spring of 2007 and… it was pretty good. Good enough, in fact, to get a MTV reality show dedicated to recasting the role of Elle Woods, and a special presentation of the entire show starring the original cast. By chance, I happened to be home and in front of the TV when MTV aired it, and I was instantly smitten.
The musical is not a complete departure from the movie, but the ways in which it does deviate are all definite improvements. The biggest difference, I believe, is the treatment of Emmett. In the movie, Emmett, played by Luke/Owen (I really can’t tell the difference, I promise I’ll work on that) Wilson, is a charming law school TA that falls for Elle the second he sees her. In the course of the movie, he’s the only one that recognizes Elle’s potential, which she appreciates, obviously, and by the end of the film, they’re in love and it’s happy ever after and junk. That’s cute and all, but basically Emmett is a pointless and innocuous plot point rather than a flushed out romance. In the musical version, however, Emmett is a three-dimensional character – we even get a backstory. The musical’s Emmett is a kind-of-geeky-but-totally-dreamy TA who grew up rough and poor, so he’s busting his ass to make it through law school in order to turn his destiny around. It’s this chip on his shoulder that helps him relate to Elle. She has stuff to prove, to herself and everyone else, which is something they have in common. By the end of the musical, it’s not only believable that Elle and Emmett would end up together… it feels inevitable.
In the same way that the musical improves the Emmett character, so it improves most of the others, especially Paulette, Professor Callahan, Vivian, Enid, and Elle’s sorority sisters. Maybe it’s the very idea of a musical that helps flush out these characters and give them their moments in the spotlight that makes it all seem to work better than the movie – but I can’t help but think that the musical solves every problem the movie had, even the ones we didn’t know were there.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the movie. It’s a personal fave. Like I said before, Reese is absolutely perfect in the role of Elle, and who can’t appreciate Jennifer Coolidge (Paulette)? She’s a genius, truly. But the musical trumps the movie in pure story-telling, heart, and laugh-out-loud comedy.
Anyway – to bring it back to the beginning – I was nervous to see this show live, since I’d become so familiar with the original cast, and not just the music but the also the book. I think I’ve seen the MTV show a hundred times, and I know I’ve listened to the soundtrack at least twice as much. Would I wind up completely and miserably disappointed AGAIN?
Thankfully, no. And thank god. The traveling production was amazing. The singing was maybe even better than the original cast (and that almost never happens). Some of the jokes fell flat, but that might have been because it was opening night in a new city – who knows how they changed things for the new venue? It was so much fun watching Li’l Sis watch a show I’d grown to love, especially when she laughed hysterically at the parts that got me the first time I saw it.
I’m sorry that I don’t know any of their names, but this traveling cast is seriously talented. Paulette is always a crowd favorite, but the woman playing her on our night almost stole the entire show right out from under Elle’s pink petticoats. And I would put our Emmett next to the original one, and that’s saying a lot. I was only slightly disappointed in our Warner and our Sorority Girls – the singing was fabulous but they lacked a little in the comedic timing department (they missed a lot of the great one-liners). I’m sure they’ll improve with practice, although… haven’t they been on the road for months by now?
Strangely enough, I was sitting next to a young lady who I overheard telling her friends that she had seen the play in New York right before Laura Bell Bundy left the role of Elle. During intermission, I asked her how this cast was holding up to the original, and she was very enthusiastic. Gushing, in fact. Her reaction says a lot about this traveling cast, but it also says a lot about this musical: the great ones are great no matter who is on stage.
I hope Legally Blonde: The Musical continues to tour for years so as many people as possible get to see it. It’s become a personal fave, and I didn’t see that coming at all. SNAPS!
*Ed. Note – turns out Legally Blonde was a book before it was a movie before it was musical too.
Shhhh… there’s a special treat for you behind the cut…