Blonde’ Ambition

Steven Berger

By Steven BergerPLAY Writer

In the footsteps of The Wedding Singer and High Fidelity, Legally Blonde the Musical is the latest high-profile Broadway adaptation set to win over the masses when it premieres this February in San Francisco before it opens at the Palace Theatre in New York. But unlike many of its movie-turned-musical predecessors, Legally Blonde intends to succeed.

While the uplifting “you go girl” story of Elle Woods might scream “Broadway,” its name recognition among audiences doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll appreciate the stage version.

How, then, does name recognition contribute to the success of some shows and the failure of others?

“Everyone loves Mary Poppins, a lot of people like Tarzan, a smaller group of people really love The Wedding Singer and Adam Sandler, and High Fidelity is more of a cult movie. There isn’t the same amount of recognition,” says Katie Riegel, a writer for broadway.com.

Adrienne Onofri, a broadwayworld.com columnist, relates High Fidelity’s short run as partially a failure of recognition.

“It’s not something that’s been around forever that people have been watching for years and years on TV, or even a blockbuster,” Onofri, Medill ’85, says.

Both Riegel and Onofri speak to the potential of Legally Blonde as being one of the Great White Way’s next big shows.

They say Legally Blonde as a name is particularly strong, and many are familiar with it as a launching pad for Reese Witherspoon’s career. Without any cult stigma or divisive appeal, it has the potential to be Broadway’s next big show, so long as reviews are not too harsh and word of mouth is positive.

Hollywood and Broadway are certainly not strangers and for years have dabbled in adapting each other’s work for their own audiences, with differing degrees of success. Hollywood has succeeded recently with movie versions of Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago and Dreamgirls. Broadway, in turn, has produced successful versions of Mary Poppins, Tarzan and Spamalot, a Monty Python and the Holy Grail remake.

“The success of Chicago opened the door,” Riegel says. “Hollywood is opening up to it again.”

Some of the difficulty in the movie-to-musical translation is simply inherent. A large degree of a show’s success relies on its musical quality.

“Broadway is such a different market. It’s so much more involved because if you are turning a movie into a show you have to write an entire score for it,” Riegel says.

The Wedding Singer needed a lot of songwriting to reach musical status, as the movie featured only a few original songs. It closed Dec. 31 after a tepid eight-month run, with a total gross of almost $20 million.

High Fidelity confirmed that movies where music plays an integral role don’t necessarily translate into musicals. The list-based humor didn’t work out on Broadway, and the show closed last month after only 32 performances and a total gross of just over $1 million.

Disney’s Tarzan, which opened last March, grossed $27 million through the end of the year. October’s premiere of Mary Poppins proved another successful Disney venture, with a $13 million gross to date.

These shows, along with Disney’s long-running Broadway versions of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, will be joined by The Little Mermaid in 2008.

The fact that Disney’s Broadway productions were already musicals on film “gets them over one hump,” Onofri says. “It’s the Disney marketing and the family,” she says of the company’s Broadway success.

In Broadway a production can either rule for years or be overthrown just as it takes office. Though many have tried to predict whether or not a show will succeed, there’s no concrete formula – even for a show as well-known as Legally Blonde.

“It’s very hard to understand why certain musicals last,” Onofri explains, “even once they’re open.”

Then again, Elle Woods has never been afraid of a challenge.

Medill freshman Steven Berger is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]