Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Legally Blonde: Omigod, That Libretto!

Legally Blonde librettist Heather Hach has an almost annoying history. She was accepted into the Walt Disney Screenwriting Fellowship, parlayed that (courtesy of some sweat and talent, I’m sure) into nabbing the task of writing the Freaky Friday remake (which has the very rare distinction of matching the original movie in charm and humor), and somehow got the drool-worthy task of writing the libretto to a Broadway show.

Talk about stunt casting. Where’s her time at BMI? Her long history of longing to create the next Guys and Dolls? Her years of studying the art form? Her Stephen Sondheim CD collection? Does she even know the difference between Ethel Merman and Ethel Waters?

While I wouldn’t call Legally Blonde the next Hello, Dolly!, I would call it an immensely enjoyable show and a job well done for Hach. And you know what, a few droolers like me can even learn a few things from her work (as well as that of songwriters Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin).

The Romance
Hach herself has acknowledged that she pumped up the romantic quotient of the show. In the movie, Elle and Emmett fall in love perfunctorily. That is, they join together at the end of the movie because, as a romantic comedy, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Here, Emmett is not only a major character, his and Elle’s relationship is developed gradually and believable throughout the story. They do not set out to be in love—Emmett mocks Elle even though he is helping her. Elle drools over Warner, even into “So Much Better.” Yet, by the time they are abandoned in the prison, they have clearly spent much time together and are clearly good friends. They are so close, in fact, that Emmett’s pressuring Elle to give up Brooke’s alibi despite her promise is a sign of his stress. It’s a betrayal of his friendship with her; Elle’s surprise at it is our surprise.

Because of this relationship, “Take It Like a Man” is a truly romantic song. It’s such a beautiful moment (sold so beautifully on tour by Becky Gulsvig and D.B. Bonds). The song references love as a subtext for humor, but the characters are never singing about being in love. In it, Emmett is acknowledging that he is realizing his feelings for Elle; however, Elle’s actions only read love; she never expresses it directly (nor do I think she realizes it).

I love the lines in the song where Emmett says, “It’s just me,” and Elle responds, “That’s the best part / The inside is old / The outside is new / Now it reflects what’s already in you / Couldn’t change that if I wanted to. / And I do not.” It’s touching, and it’s romantic. I hope I someday get to be involved in a show with a moment like “Take It Like a Man.”

The Character Development
The romance in the musical works because of the changes Hach (and probably Laura Bell Bundy and Becky Gulsvig) makes to the character Elle Woods. In the movie, Elle is still pretty clueless by the end. She wins the trial only because of her knowledge about hair care, not because of her skills as a lawyer. The viewer never totally buys into the fact that Elle could have won the trial if the false testimony had been about baseball, reading Jane Austen, or power tools.

Hach, O’Keefe, and Benjamin are careful to create an intelligent Elle from the start. She’s has “a high IQ,” a 4.0 average (not an easy thing in any major, even if it is fashion merchandising), and the scholastic ability to get a 175 on the LSATs. Broadway Elle is just simply focused on Warner, fashion, and partying. Intelligent but focused on ditzy things. It’s not that she can’t read the law book and comprehend; it’s just that she doesn’t get that she’s supposed to.

As she studies and grows from her experiences at Harvard, Elle’s intelligent side takes over. Whereas Movie Elle maintains her ditzy air throughout the movie, Broadway Elle is never really ditzy, just mis-focused. By Act II, you not only believe that an intelligent, hard-working guy like Emmett could fall for Elle Woods but also that she could pull off winning the trial, even if the deciding evidence hadn’t been hair care. In an odd turn of events, Movie Elle is more cartoon-like, and Broadway Elle is more human.

Beauteous Moments
Throughout Legally Blonde, there are some really nice character moments. My favorite is probably the scene in the prison where the legal team is trying to follow Callahan’s instructions to “speak MTV” to get Brooke’s alibi. Each character responds exactly how they should—there’s clueless Emmett trying to pass off “anywho” as a relatable and hip word, Warner and Vivienne trying to reason with her without their brains (or their hearts), and Enid trying way too hard to be cool. Elle, being the intelligent one of the mix, is purposeful in earning Brooke’s trust and nabs the alibi. The ensuing scene, when Emmett tries to pressure Elle into giving up the information, is also beautifully handled, with Elle calling him on the real reason why he wants her to betray Brooke’s trust. It’s one of those moments where you watch and wish, wish you had the chance and the ability to write it.

the Broadway Mouth
June 3, 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. Everyone seems to slam LEGALLY BLONDE and I thought it was wonderful. Well at least on TV it was. I thought the show is well-developed. Some of the tunes sound the same, but they are so enjoyable that I forgive them. But I agree, the book is better than given credit for.