It may be legal, but it challenges blondeness
Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell tells James Carney that it’s taken a while for one show to gather momentum – and attention.
WHEN it was announced Legally Blonde: The Musical was to open in the West End no one paid too much attention.
It was easy to see why. While no one doubted the show would be popular at the box office, the tale of the sorority girl Elle Wood turned Harvard legal eagle, which had won legions of fans thanks to the film starring Reese Witherspoon, didn’t appear to be one which would trouble the serious critics. However, shortly after it opened it became clear this was more than just another lightweight musical. Last year when Legally Blonde: The Musical and its star Sheridan Smith ran away with five Olivier awards, the show proved it could punch well above its weight.
The original West End cast has moved on – Faye Brookes taking over from Smith in the lead role and Liz McClarnon stepping into Jill Halfpenny’s shoes as her beautician friend Paulette for the tour – but the musical is much as it was when Tony award-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell first brought it to life.
“Elle Woods is a character everyone can cheer for – she’s an underdog,” says Mitchell, who was also responsible for Hairspray! “I loved the film and I wanted to make the musical because of her character – a larger than life lady can make a great musical.”
Both the film and musical are based on a novel by Amanda Brown and all three follow the same neat arc. Elle decides to pursue a career in law to win back a boyfriend who dumped her to find someone more serious, but when she finds herself defending an exercise guru falsely accused of murder her journey of discovery is complete and the exboyfriend is consigned to history. Positive messages aside, the musical is also packed full of big numbers.
“That’s the beauty of musicals,” says Mitchell. “The learning element can sneak up on you. To use a Mary Poppins line, ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’. Hairspray was all about integration in the 1960s and Legally Blonde shows us that men who treat women well get the girl.”
The key of course was finding the right leading actress, one who could, like Smith, not only sing and dance, but could capture the nuances of Elle.
“Most importantly of all Sheridan had vulnerability. People might think, ‘What does Elle have to be sorry for, she’s rich and beautiful’, but she has just been dumped by someone she loved, and Sheridan can play that vulnerability in comedy. Faye has the same vulnerable quality. It is always the first thing I look for in an actress.” And any faithful recreation of Legally Blonde would not be complete without Elle’s trademark chihuahua, Bruiser.
“There are three dogs who play the role in case one of them feels ill. I haven’t really hung out with them in their dressing room, but they do some surprising stuff in the show,” said Jerry. “There’s nothing like seeing live performances. Musicals, plays, concerts – nothing can compare to actually seeing theatre,” said Jerry.
The animal element of the cast wasn’t the only problem Mitchell and his team had to overcome.
“There are scenes in the film where Elle speaks to her sorority sisters over the phone. That doesn’t work on stage so we turned them into a Greek chorus. During one song I wanted them to rappel like storm troopers from the ceiling, but sadly we just couldn’t afford it.”
It’s still a big production, but with the show out on the road, as Mitchell himself says, “It’s just a case of, ‘The circus comes to town’, we stay for a couple of weeks and then we move on.”
Legally Blonde: The Musical runs at the Grand Opera House York from next Tuesday until August 20.
STRIKING A POSE: Faye Brookes as Elle and Liz McClarnon as Paulette.
FROM SCREEN TO STAGE: Legally Blonde: The Musical is on tour and at the Grand Opera House in York this month.