Most assume that it’s nothing more than a feel-good, happy-go-lucky, fun-filled musical comedy. That novelist Amanda Brown even played on the expression “legally blind” to come up with her title – LEGALLY BLONDE – would suggest that any musical adaptation would be more interested in fun than profundity.
And while the merriment was retained in screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith’s film – and is still there in the libretto by Heather Hach and the score by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin – LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL shows that it has heart and soul. Better still, it has messages that many kids and adults need to hear and heed.
This was reiterated at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska in June. The McKinney Boyd (Texas) High School students (who affectionately call themselves “Broadway Broncos”) did a full-length LEGALLY BLONDE that displayed what a genuinely moving show it is.
Granted, LEGALLY BLONDE doesn’t seem weighty from the outset. Elle Woods’ blonde hair covers what seems to be the top of a bobble-head doll that isn’t screwed on too tight. Her entire mission in life seems to be wearing match-matchy pink outfits and getting engaged to Warner Huntington III, who’s headed to Harvard Law School en route to a brilliant career. Elle is ready and all-too-willing to play the dutiful wife.
But she won’t. Warner makes clear that he thinks Elle is not good enough for someone who expects to be a senator by the time he’s 30. As so many graduates have done before they head off to new faraway-from-home schools, Warner unceremoniously dumps his devoted girlfriend.
We could criticize Elle for desperately wanting to do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to regain Warner’s love. Notice, however, that she plans to do it by getting into Harvard Law School – which is an early hint that she’s willing to do things the hard way. Get in she does, despite being woefully under-qualified.
Here’s where McKinney Boyd director Vicki Kirkley made a smart move. She had Chandler Hunt, her Professor Callahan, lustily observe Elle’s “application” – a video of her fashion achievements. He sounded quite carnivorous when he suggested that she be accepted into the university, as if he couldn’t wait to meet her. This paid off later, when Callahan sexually harassed Elle.
Such a plot twist may make some high school directors shy away from LEGALLY BLONDE (as well as the scene in which a closeted gay man infuriates his partner who’s out and proud). The script is also peppered with salty terms for breasts, one’s gluteus maximus and a sexually free woman. “Porn” is mentioned in both a line and a lyric.
But if the language is occasionally immoral, many morals of the story are life-affirming.
They may not seem so once Elle arrives at Harvard, where she’s a genuine pariah. Super-achiever Vivienne Kensington especially looks down at this student who isn’t nearly as serious as she. While Vivienne has a point that this parvenu shouldn’t have been accepted into one of the country’s top programs, she still doesn’t have license to be mean to Elle.
In the film, Vivienne purposely plans to make Elle look ridiculous by inviting her to a “costume party” when the gathering is nothing of the kind. As a result, Elle looks stupid when she walks in wearing a Playboy bunny outfit.
Here, McKinney Boyd costume designer Michelle Greene put Elle in something silly, but not the iconic Playboy outfit. Perhaps Greene feared that many people today don’t even know what a Playboy bunny is. She may have been right, for the once-ubiquitous image is now seldom seen. Costume designers who agree can surely come up with something equally atrocious to humiliate Elle.
Elle receives a terrible blow when she discovers that Warner and Vivienne are engaged. But just in the nick of time, here comes her Prince Charming in the guise of Emmett Forrest, although you’d never know it by the way he dresses. (Here’s where Elle can help him. That the creators named him Emmett was a deft move, too; it must be one of the world’s least sexy first names.)
Actor Grant Bower captured Emmett’s most important characteristic: he showed that he really believed that a stranger is a friend he hasn’t yet met. The recent Harvard Law grad is also special because he can see more in Elle than even she knows she has.
Emmett roots for the underdog, and Elle in turn will do the same when she finds that Paulette, her local beautician, has been victimized by her ex-lover. He’s even taken her dog, which Elle gets returned thanks to some legalese she’s learned in class. Knowledge is indeed power.
Now Elle has found her purpose at Harvard faster than Princeton in AVENUE Q could ever imagine. She’ll take on a case to help Brooke Wyndham, an exercise guru who’s been accused of killing her much-older husband. Brooke confides important information to Elle, who could win the case with ease if she’d only divulge it. But she promised Brooke she wouldn’t, and that is that.
Not to Warner. “So what that you promised to keep her secret? Who cares?” He’ll sell out anyone or anything to get ahead. Now Vivienne sees that she’s engaged to someone worthless and that Elle has surprising worth.
Here’s LEGALLY BLONDE’s best message: that one’s negative opinion of you can change over time if you behave appropriately and do the right things. Someone’s hating you needn’t be a lifetime sentence.
Or is LEGALLY BLONDE’s best message that standing up for what’s right can work in your favor? (Truth to tell, it may not always, but there are times when it can.) As Vivienne says at the Harvard Law graduation when introducing her best friend — valedictorian Elle Woods — “Being true to yourself never goes out of style.”
LEGALLY BLONDE teaches that you needn’t join the army to be all that you can be. Kids also love seeing Elle beat the seemingly insurmountable odds for that suggests that they can achieve what she’s achieved (or anything else) if they just put their minds and bodies to it — and if they have the right mentors. In this case, that means you directors and designers who produce plays in high schools and community theaters.
There’s another valuable message in LEGALLY BLONDE that kids need to hear: that the person you may think is your true love may not be the right one for you after all. Keep your eyes, ears and heart open to the possibility that that person who’s being so nice and kind to you is actually the right one. For that matter, aren’t there plenty of adults who need to learn that, too?
There are some brass-tacks necessities for LEGALLY BLONDE. One scene involves cheerleaders and another features exercise junkies. See if your school’s actual cheerleaders are free to do these routines; having them on hand might sell more tickets. If they won’t play ball (because they’re busy cheering some ball team), make certain you have kids who have already whipped themselves into shape; they’ll need to jump rope quite a bit during that exercise number.
Kirkley cast Dr. Jennifer Pierson and Rick McDaniel — genuine adults — as Elle’s parents. It was a good idea, but see if you can do Kirkley one better by casting your Elle’s real-life mom and dad to play her parents. (The family that does plays together stays together.) Dad, by the way, enters on a golf cart; find a dealership near you and have its proprietor loan you a vehicle in exchange for program credit or a free ad.
Anyone playing Elle, however, must be prepared to play second fiddle in one scene. As accomplished as Amanda Clark’s Elle was, she wasn’t the center of attention any time she brought on her pet dog Bruiser – because Clark was holding and caressing a genuine live dog. The audience awwwwed in approval, as it did later in the show when Elle helped Paulette retrieve her equally alive-and-well bulldog. If you have actresses who are dog-friendly (and dogs who are people-friendly), use both.
But no matter how many adorable dogs you have on that stage, you’ll find that the oh-so-important messages of LEGALLY BLONDE won’t be upstaged.
You may e-mail Peter at email@example.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.