Songs for the Struggling Artist


In which I Turn my Feminist Lens on Legally Blonde, the Musical

After referencing Legally Blonde the Musical in numerous posts, I will, finally, at my readers’ request, give you a full on Songs for the Struggling Artist review of my least favorite musical.

I will begin by saying that I loved the film of Legally Blonde. I didn’t expect to, but I did. The film is surprisingly feminist. I say surprising because the lead, Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) is not your typical feminist heroine. At the start, she’s the kind of woman most of us feminists steer clear of. She’s shallow and boy crazy and her main interest seems to be shopping. She’s an ultra femme icon. She goes to law school in order to win her boyfriend back, for crying out loud. But we love her and she grows and deepens and she’s one of the few heroines I’ve ever seen who wins by leaning into her femininity. Elle Woods doesn’t transform who she is or what she loves, she just comes to value herself and her substance more.

I’m interested in learning how something I love can become something I hate, so l re-watched both the film and the musical to see what possibly could have gone wrong.

The musical’s Elle Woods is similarly obsessed with pink, similarly ultra femme – though a lot less human. In the film, her break up truly breaks her up. She cries. Spends a week in bed. In the musical, her devastation is about 10 seconds long and is represented by the wearing of a bathrobe.

In the film, other characters reflect the way we, the audience, might feel about her. They think that she’s making terrible decisions. They think she’s shallow and superficial. This helps us root for Elle. She becomes an underdog in a climate of naysayers. In the musical, everyone is on Elle’s side. They all think she’s neat and that she always does the right thing. This helps make me think they’re all pretty dumb.

The music in the film is mostly empowering indie lady rock-pop of the era. The musical’s songs are bland bubble gummy musical. It’s like a tween wrote a “rock” musical in the 80s without any pop hooks. It has the pink without the depth or the irony.

Fundamentally, though, none of that made me hate the musical as much as I do until the scene where her colleague (and ultimately her new love interest) makes her throw away all of her pink stuff. He essentially comes in, kills the characters’ identity so she can buckle down and be the serious person he wants her to become. He sings a song about how she needs to change.

This is the crux of where the musical veers away from the film. The musical has Elle replace one man’s agenda (her ex boyfriend Warner) with another’s (Emmett.) She moves from being Warner’s ideal woman to following Emmett’s instructions. The film is about self-determination – about Elle becoming herself. The musical is about a lady who gets the guy by becoming a lawyer.

There is a moment early on in the film in which we see Elle fully understand that she was never going to be able to bend herself into the woman Warner wanted her to be. She gets it. She says so. (“I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?”) And then she decides to become a good lawyer for herself. It is step one to finding her self. Step two is when Elle gets the news that she’s gotten the prestigious internship. She sees her name on the list and the responds with the gloriously simple line, “Me!” The camera pulls in, the music swells.

 

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This is Elle getting a sense of herself, seizing it and enjoying it. The film’s story kicks into gear here. Elle builds on the moment by going up to Warner and his new girlfriend and saying, “Do you remember when we spent those four amazing hours in the hot tub after winter formal?” He stammers, “Yea…No.” and she replies with, “This is so much better than that!” That is, the excitement of succeeding in her new career has suddenly surpassed the thing that was driving her life before. She’s experiencing self-fulfillment in a brand new way.

Neither of these moments appears in the musical. There is no moment of “Me!”

In both the musical and the film, Elle goes with her friend, Paulette, to retrieve Paulette’s dog from her ex-boyfriend’s trailer. But in the musical, Elle brings Emmett along. And instead of Elle getting the idea to use her new lawyering skills herself, she gets a little helpful hint from Emmett. Which once again undercut’s Elle’s sense of self-agency and discovery.

It’s not as if the film version of Emmett doesn’t help Elle. He does. But he’s helpful in a very particular way. He mostly just reminds her of who she is. And he recommends channeling the “power of the blonde.” (Blonde here being a symbol of Elle’s Elle-ness, her pink-ness, her femininity.)

In the musical, after Emmett’s “Get Serious, Throw Away All This Pink Shit” number, he sings that “maybe some wise man told her” to do the things he’s proud of her for. What he’s proud of, by the way, is her doing what he told her to do. So his pride in her is essentially pride in himself. Gross.

The film walks the line with some stereotypes but the musical just steps right over the line and leans on in to them. On stage, we get rich princes from the Far East, a sassy black judge, Latin lovers and jokes about women going to the bathroom together. In the film, there is a women’s studies PhD student. She makes suggestions like changing the “semester” to “ovester” for feminist reasons. The character is a stereotype but she is amusing in her specificity. As a feminist, I recognize that I am the target of this joke and I think it’s funny. In the musical, this character just becomes a generic lesbian who is there to become the butt of many jokes. I do not find them funny. There is one joke I liked in the musical. (“Subtext” by Calvin Klein) That’s it. But you know. . .okay…stuff gets broader in a musical. Shit happens. I know.

But a major theme from the film that I really miss in the musical is Elle’s commitment to sisterhood. She’s a sorority sister, yes. But she’s committed to helping women in the broader sense. She’s explicit about honoring her bond with her fellow women. And Warner pushes her to abandon it. He says, “Who cares about the sisterhood? Think about yourself.” She doesn’t though. She stays committed to her community. In a story about self-determination, this development points to a way of thinking about the self that includes caring for others. I love that she eventually includes a woman in that sisterhood who has been nothing but mean to her throughout the movie. Those two women, who come from opposing corners and become allies, have a really compelling relationship. This development is not in the musical.

Also cut from the musical is the one female mentor that Elle has in the film. (Hmm, vanishing older women? Nothing sexist to see here, move along please!) The mentor (played by Holland Taylor) is a pivotal figure. She is the woman Elle fears at the beginning and is saved by at the end. There is no older woman to learn from in the musical. The sisterhood is reduced to a one joke idea of Elle’s “Greek Chorus” – a concept that seems to only exist for the fun of saying that they’re a Greek Chorus. Get it? They’re sorority sisters? So they’re Greek? Like Ancient Greek drama? Get it? Anyway.

I don’t want to imply that Legally Blonde, the Film is a beacon of feminist thought. It does include the cringe worthy “Bend and snap” moment. But the musical takes that uncomfortable minute of the film and milks it so as to induce a week’s worth of cringe.

I don’t imagine the creators of the musical set out to create an insufferable sexist mess. The women who made it must have felt they were being true to the source material; a lot of the dialogue in the musical comes straight out of the film. But something happened in that act of translation.

Partly, I think, it is the medium. It is very difficult to get the complex emotion of a film close-up in a musical. A musical encourages a broadness that can kill any sense of irony. But I also imagine that a lot of this happened on the way to the Broadway stage. I have heard enough stories about Broadway development  to be able to imagine producer meetings wherein, bit by bit, the heart of the original story got cut away. (“What about the male lead? What does he want? Let’s get a song where he gets involved! Give her some advice! Women love when men give them advice!”) With no one with a PhD in Women’s Studies to keep them honest, a fun feminist romp of a film about self-determination got turned into a sexist sitcom show with songs.

What I love about the movie is the way it makes me examine my own prejudices. It helps me see the depth in a character I would usually dismiss. The musical does the opposite. It takes people I think of as shallow and superficial and shows me how shallow superficial people become shallow superficial lawyers. Who also sing and dance. And while this may be realistic (there are shallow, superficial lawyers out there) it doesn’t really make for a meaningful night in the theatre. At least not for this Women’s Studies geek.

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