June 25, 2008

A Little Reality Check for "Legally Blonde"


The first time I saw an audition for a New York show was right after college when I went to lend support to my actor friend Ellie as she tried out for a part in a showcase production at Equity Library Theater when it was in the basement of an apartment building on Riverside Drive. Now, it seems that anytime I want to see an audition, all I have to do is turn on my TV.

Last year, the producers of Grease used the reality TV show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” to find the leads for the revival of the musical currently playing on Broadway. Now the Legally Blonde producers are trying to find a replacement for their star Laura Belle Bundy with “Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods” currently running on MTV. And starting on July 20, the Disney folks will air “High School Musical: Get in the Picture” on ABC; its winner will get a spot in a music video that will be shown in the end credits for “High School Musical 3” and a recording contract for two singles with Walt Disney Records.

I tuned out “You’re the One That I Want” after the first episode but when I saw Grease last fall, it was obvious that whatever one may feel about its leads, the TV show had done its job of drawing a fresh audience to Broadway. The cheers that greeted just the entrance of the contest's winners and Broadway rookies Max Crumm as Danny Zuko and Laura Osnes as Sandy Dumbrowski were almost as loud as those that Patti LuPone received for her showstopping turn as Gypsy’s Mama Rose on the Tonys a couple of weeks ago. So, I set my Tivo to record all eight scheduled episodes of Legally Blonde and now that the show is halfway through its run, I thought I’d catch you up on it in case you haven’t been watching.

While ‘You’re the One That I Want” followed the “American Idol” and “Dancing With The Stars” model, allowing viewers to phone in and vote for their favorites, “The Search for Elle Woods” is taking the “Project Runway” approach with a panel of experts who have total say over which contestants get to stay and which one gets sent home each week. The judges are veteran casting director Bernard Telsey, Legally Blonde’s book writer Heather Hach and cast member Paul Canaan. Legally Blonde director Jerry Mitchell made an appearance on the first episode and is supposed to show up again at the end of the run. That first episode started with a casting call of 50 girls but quickly whittled them down to 10 in less than two hours.

The finalists are a high-energy and appropriately bubbly bunch, ranging in age from 18 to 28 and primarily blonde, be it natural or from a bottle. Following the conventions of reality TV, they live together--here they share a big suite in the Empire Hotel--and the camera follows them as the judges put them through their paces during the day and the girls alternately support and bitch about one another at night.

Unlike “Project Runway” where you can watch the fashion designers create different outfits on the same theme, or “Top Chef” where they whip up different meals using similar ingredients, “The Search for Elle Woods” contestants all perform the exact same scene or musical number and the repetition can get a little monotonous even though the girls are all fairly talented. The producers are smart enough to know this and so they whirl through a montage of the actual auditions and slow down for quarrels between the girls, interviews with cast members from the Broadway show who are called in to help coach the contestants, and filmed excerpts from the musical itself, which is, in effect, a commercial within a commercial.

There are moments when the judges look as though they can’t believe they’ve gotten themselves into this situation and there’s no one they want. But then they rally, find encouraging things to say about the most-likely-to-succeed and cut one contender--or in this week’s case, two. Their choices seem honest; this week, the two who were axed were also the ones providing the most dramatic tension.

Is this any way to cast a Broadway show? Well, maybe. Andrew Lloyd Webber clearly thinks so. He’s already chosen a Maria for The Sound of Music, through the reality television show “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” which ran on the BBC in 2006, a lead for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on “One's Any Dream Will Do!” in 2007 and recently found a Nancy for an upcoming West End production of Oliver! on “I'd Do Anything.”

Lloyd Webber has appeared as a judge on these shows and everyone involved seems to win. The performers--even those who don’t get the part--get a chance to show what they can do in front of the man himself, and in front of any other producer who just tunes in to watch. (“I wasn't interested at all in a reality TV show, but I gave it a second thought," Celina Carvajal, one of “The Search for Elle Woods” contestants told the Daily News. "In terms of my career, reality TV is basically going to take over musical theater at some point anyhow, so I might as well jump on now while it's still new.”) The networks get relatively low-cost shows to fill their airtime. People who don’t usually think about live theater get exposed to, and are given a rooting interest in, it. And, shows get a chance to run longer than they might have, keeping lots of show folks employed. Last week, Grease played to a healthy 87% capacity.

Still, this approach only works for a certain kind of show. And so one--or at least this one theater lover--hopes that the on-air audition shows won’t keep producers from trying out other kinds of shows as well. In the meantime, although my cheering her on didn't do Ellie any good back at the Equity Library, I'm rooting for Lauren.

1 comment:

dylan said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Jan. You've made me curious enough to Tivo the rest of the episodes. It sounds like a fun show.