Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Sunday Read: In defence of Legally Blonde

In defence of Legally Blonde and the contemporary musical
by Stuart Munro
Legally Blonde: The Musical is, I think, one of the most misunderstood musicals to have been written in the last decade or so. Its Broadway run was entirely too brief (roughly 18 months), and failed to win any awards. However, its London run did significantly better, running for over two years and even winning the Olivier (the West End’s equivalent to the Tony) for best new musical. It seems the British were able to understand what the Americans weren’t: Legally Blonde is a musical worth noting. Back in March I saw the Lower Ossington Theatre’s production of Legally BlondeMy review was unkind, and at one point the theatre actually asked the editors at CharPo to remove the names of some of the people whose work I had spoken so harshly about. Looking back, I think my tone may have been a bit mean, but it was an honest reaction to a complete disappointment. You see, Legally Blonde is one of my favourite shows and I had seen it butchered in front of my eyes. In the weeks that followed, I listened to the Broadway and London cast recordings a lot, and found myself wondering why I loved this show so much. Had it simply been that the production and the performances from the MTV broadcast had captivated me? Possibly, but I’d enjoyed the tour of the show when it made its way through Toronto in 2010 just as much, even with its brutally pared-down design. No. What I love about Legally Blonde is how strong the material actually is, how gleefully it gently mocks the fact it’s a musical, and yet how perfectly it uses the genre to tell its story.
For those unfamiliar with it, Legally Blonde follows Elle Woods, a Malibu sorority girl, as she ventures to Harvard Law School in order to reclaim Warner Huntington III, the man of her dreams. She has no interest in being a lawyer. Rather, she wants to prove to Warner that she’s “serious”—Warner’s excuse for the break-up being: “If I’m gonna be a Senator when I’m thirty, I’m gonna need somebody serious: less of a Marilyn, more of a Jackie.” At Harvard Law, Elle quickly finds that all her old tricks won’t work, and it’s only when she begins to make academic strides that her mood improves and she finally learns that her worth is not tied to a man.
It’s a simple, somewhat unbelievable story, but in the musical that story is told incredibly well, using every trick in the musical theatre handbook. Nowhere better is this found than in the song “What you Want” (YouTube clip, top), which tracks Elle’s progress from despair to Harvard Law. This song is everything I love about musical theatre: it’s engaging and entertaining, it’s well staged and choreographed, and it moves the story forward. Quickly and seamlessly, we’re whisked from Elle’s sorority home to a golf course, back to the sorority, and finally to Harvard Law, all with perfect clarity. It’s also a pretty catchy tune, and while I have more to say about the importance of a song’s “hummability,” let’s start with the music. (I’m not a music theorist and this analysis won’t be especially in depth, but I think I’ll make my point all the same). With any song, musical or otherwise, you’re usually looking at a fairly predictable format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge/interlude, a key change (if you’re lucky) and a final chorus. There’s nothing wrong with this formula; it’s satisfying, and some of my favourite Broadway tunes make good use of it (“Back to Before” from Ragtime comes to mind immediately. What a tour de force that is!). “What you Want” uses the elements of this formula but reorders them as demanded by the plot. 
Immediately before the song there is a short scene where Elle, still dealing with the break-up, comes out of her room for the first time in 12 days. After seeing Warner’s brother and his new wife in a magazine, Elle declares: “This is the kind of woman Warner wants! Someone serious. Someone lawerly. Someone who wears black when nobody’s dead!” The song launches into the first verse which is followed by the “What you want” theme. After this comes a short musical idea for Elle’s plan to get to Harvard (and marry Warner) that is never repeated. This is followed by my favourite part of the song, what I’ll call the “Love Chorus,” where Elle declares that her totally insane plan will succeed because, “with love on [her] side [she] can’t lose.” Strangely, what I love most about this section is the orchestration. There are fantastic blasts from the brass interspersed with some unexpected woodwind rhythms, and all tied together by a vaguely disco beat. It is the music of optimism, and optimistic is exactly what Elle is right now. Even with the next verse where her sorority sister explains that Elle has a lot to do to make this dream happen, Elle declares “Yes I know, even so . . . ” with the next use of the “What you want” theme. The next verse is with Elle’s parents as they try to explain the absurdity of her plan to her. It’s the same verse melody as before, but the orchestrations have changed to mirror her parents’ skepticism. The song skips the “What you want” theme to go immediately to the “Love Chorus,” which convinces Elle’s parents that her plan makes sense. The verse is then treated to a reggae variation which is eventually juxtaposed against a slower rendition of the “Love Chorus,” before everyone is transported to Harvard Law for the final verse and Elle’s unique answer to a personal essay (which includes a pretty killer dance break). The Dean of Admissions is not prepared to admit Elle to the school, until she sings one more (slow) rendition of the “Love chorus.” (It worked on her parents, why not here, right?) The song ends with the full company singing and dancing to the “What you want” theme. 
Is it silly? Of course. Over the top? Definitely. Do I believe every minute of it? Absolutely. In the span of one 10-minute song, Elle has gone from being completely distraught to being accepted to Harvard Law School. The genre of the musical has allowed the show’s creators to heighten the absurdity of an unrealistic situation, making fun of and gleefully reminding the audience that this is a musical. At the same time, the songwriters have used the musical form almost perfectly, taking what was almost a wordless montage in the film, and transforming it into a massive production number that takes the characters across the country, and leaves our protagonist in a different place from where she started, both physically and emotionally. It is everything a good song in a musical should be.

And Legally Blonde does it not once, but three times in the first act alone. Three times the show’s writers use a musical montage to condense a huge amount of information and/or time to under 10 minutes, and all three times it is done without confusion. 

Another of my favourite moments comes much later on in the show when Elle learns she received a coveted internship, not because she was talented, but because she was hot. Her confidence shattered, Elle decides to give everything up and return home. 

In a wonderful choice, the show’s title song appearing late in the evening, is the only serious ballad in the score, and the title “Legally Blonde” is used by Elle to denigrate herself. But this isn’t what I love most. In the midst of this emotional moment, the “Love Chorus” from earlier is reintroduced by Elle’s mentor, Emmett. “What about love?” he asks, “I never mentioned love. The timing’s bad, I know. But perhaps if I’d made it more clear that you belong right here you wouldn’t have to go, ‘cause you’d know that I’m so much in love.” Love is what brought Elle to Harvard in the first place, yet now, when it’s finally offered to her, it’s not enough. She’s learned that only she can define her own worth. Now that she’s tasted what it’s like to be admired for her mind instead of her hair, Elle needs more, and we want more for her.
Legally Blonde starts with strong material. No, it’s not perfect, but nothing is. In the original Broadway production (as seen in the videos), this is aided by concise and clear direction and design so that the multiple transitions make sense. Good performances of the material and clear direction were missing from The Lower Ossington Theatre production, and this will hamper any show. There are some out there who might suggest that good material, no matter how badly performed, will always carry a show, but this is sadly not the case. So much of how good a show ends up being depends on the people interpreting the material. I would much rather see someone incredibly talented read the phone book to me than endure what I sat through at the Lower Ossington Theatre that night. For the record, I mean no disrespect to the theatre as a company. I understand their production of Avenue Q was amazing. Sometimes the group of people brought together for a project just lack the chemistry to make magic on stage.
When I saw Legally Blonde on tour in 2010, my date (a composer) turned to me and said “The music isn’t that great.” I disagreed with him then, and I disagree with him now. My criteria for a good song were mentioned above, but I’ll reiterate them here. A song should be engaging, have a good tune, and should help move the story forward. (Aspects like its entertainment value and how it’s staged depend more on context.) Many of the songs in Legally Blonde meet this minimal criteria. I, of course, have subjectivity on my side, and what I may think is a good tune may leave someone else perfectly flat. Legally Blonde’s score is not Bach, but much of it is more complicated than a typical pop song, the audience of which Legally Blonde was most likely reaching out to. An article written last December by Pet Shop Boy, Neil Tennant, for the Spectator, decried the dearth of good music in contemporary musical theatre. He states that today’s audiences are “resigned to hearing the sort of songs you only hear in musicals.” What he doesn’t consider is that audiences of musicals might happen to like music written for musicals. This writer certainly does. Mr. Tennant’s primary complaint is that musicals of today don’t add anything to the pop culture catalogue of music like they did 50 years ago. Considering the state of today’s pop music catalogue, is that really such a bad thing? Yes, many songs from the earlier part of the twentieth century managed to cross-over to the radio, but I would argue that something shifted in the 1950s and 1960s in musical theatre that has made this more difficult to accomplish. As we have seen above, a good song must push the plot forward, but this was not always the case. The songs of the Gershwins, classic as they are, are so interchangeable that an entirely “new” musical, Crazy For You, was created from the Gershwin catalogue by simply lifting the songs out of their original contexts and writing a new story for them. Likewise, Cole Porter’s original score for Anything Goes is rarely used today. Companies, including the current Broadway revival, opt for later versions that had other Porter tunes inserted into them. This would be next to impossible for many of the songs in Legally Blonde, and most modern musicals, which limits their broader appeal.
As for hummability, nothing bothers me more than when someone expresses their dislike for a show by saying “I didn’t leave humming any of the songs.” Why is this our criteria? It seems at odds with Tennant’s statement that musical theatre music isn’t good enough to be pop music, since pop music depends on the hummable hook. To paraphrase a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, Stravinsky never really had a top 40 hit, yet his work is admired. Sondheim’s music, in fact, is typically revered by those who appreciate good musical theatre, but all too often Sondheim is accused of being “unhummable.” There is a clear disconnect here. The fact is, musical-style music has become a genre in its own right, and much as classical and jazz have moved away from the mainstream and into more niche markets, so too has the musical. This is not a bad thing, just a true thing. (I am aware that, in the UK, new songs from musicals still make it to radio, but often in radically altered forms. Just compare the show version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “No Matter What” to the Boyzone radio version.) When I’m watching a musical I’ve never seen before, I’m far more concerned about whether the song is right for the moment or not. If it’s moving or engaging or entertaining me in context then, quite frankly, it’s a good song. Do they always work out of context? No, but that’s OK. A song from a musical can’t be divorced from its source and be expected to have the same impact. The beauty of the cast recording means that I get to go home and re-listen to a score I enjoyed in performance and learn to appreciate it on its own merit.
Perhaps I’m too easy on mediocre material, or I don’t demand enough from the art form I love so much. Maybe I just have no taste. People have suggested as much to me, but I don’t believe any of it. Any time a group of people get on a stage to tell a story, I think they deserve our respect, and I am more than happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. Would I have been able to recognize the strength of the material in Legally Blonde if I’d only seen it at the Lower Ossington? Probably not. But part of what I love about theatre, musical or not, is how much a show can change from production to production. The possibilities are endless.
Legally Blonde is about to get a run in Calgary. For tickets, click here.

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