May 23, 2007

It's True, "Legally Blonde" Has More Fun

It's become commonplace for the theaterati to bemoan the fact that many musicals these days are based on popular movies. But hey, even in Broadway's Golden Age, musicals piggybacked on crowd-pleasing works from other art forms: Peter Pan and My Fair Lady started out as popular straight plays; South Pacific and Wonderful Town were taken from celebrated books; Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story have roots in two of Shakespeare's most produced plays; Li'l Abner was even adapted from a beloved comic strip. So what's wrong with having Broadway turn to popular movies? Or even to popular TV shows, like the recently announced musical based on "The Addams Family"? The so-called movie musicals have had the same success rate as any other musicals: sometimes they work (The Lion King, The Producers, Hairspray) and sometimes they don't (Nick & Nora, Urban Cowboy, High Fidelity).

You can see why producers would be attracted to the movie Legally Blonde. The 2001 comedy about Elle Woods, a pink-clad California sorority girl who follows her former boyfriend to Harvard Law School after he dumps her because he thinks she's not serious enough, grossed $140 million, provided a breakout role for Reese Witherspoon and almost single-handedly revived pink as a force to be reckoned with in fashion. Moreover, its girl power message that young women can be smart and wear cute outfits at the same time is perfectly calibrated for the teens, tweens and their parents who have turned Wicked into a cult hit and who Broadway producers are desperate to hold on to (click here to read Richard Zoglin’s smart take on the quest for girl shows on

The response to Legally Blonde has been mixed. The show is playing to 95% capacity and it has earned seven Tony nominations, although it was shut out of the Best Musical category. The New York Post columnist Michael Riedel speculates that the nominating committee feared the out-of-town promoters would vote for it over the more difficult-to-market but critical favorite Spring Awakening. And according to Variety, CBS, which is airing the awards show, made an unsuccessful attempt to get a number from Legally Blonde included in the telecast even though those spots have traditionally been reserved for the Best Musical nominees. Several critics did turn their noses up at Legally Blonde; “Legally Bland” has appeared in quite a few of their reviews. Most of the folks on my bloglist, all of whom I respect, chose less kind words than that. And as we left the theater, even my usually forgiving buddy Bill chided the show for trying too hard to please and failing to take enough artistic chances. But I had a good time.

Yes, Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin's music is generic Broadway pop but their lyrics are often witty, as is Heather Hach's book, although I wish she had avoided the stereotypical gay characters. Jerry Mitchell, the high-energy choreographer of Hairspray and The Full Monty, makes his directorial debut with appropriately exuberant staging and dancing (click here for a multimedia reflection on his career and the making of this musical he did for the New York Times). David Rockwell's sets and Gregg Barnes' costumes are amusingly entertaining all on their own. And the cast is delightful. Particularly Bundy. She may lack the distinctive sparkle that Witherspoon brought to the role but Witherspoon didn't have to maintain her smile while dancing in high heels and changing costumes virtually on stage.

After the show, Bill and I walked from the Palace Theater over to the restaurant Thalia on 8th Avenue. When Bill ordered a hamburger, the waiter told us burgers were only available in the restaurant’s lounge area and not in the formal dining section. There are a lot of tempting things on the Thalia menu but Bill and I got up and moved to the lounge. Sometimes, you don't want seared duck breast or even a steak with all the trimmings. You just want a juicy bacon cheeseburger, with some crispy fries on the side. And that sums up how I feel about Legally Blonde: you wouldn't want a steady diet of a show like this but it's OK to indulge every once in a while in some fun that goes down easily.