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WOS Radio: Legally Blonde Team Face Questions

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Despite the cold, snow and myriad transport disruptions, theatregoers at our our sell-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to last night’s performance of Legally Blonde at the West End’s Savoy Theatre were in high new year spirits at our exclusive post-show Q&A, where we were joined by the musicals five principals – Sheridan Smith, Duncan James, Alex Gaumond, Peter Davison and Jill Halfpenny – as well as the show’s Broadway director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

The musical comedy, which premiered on Broadway in April 2007, is based on the 2001 Hollywood film in which Reese Witherspoon played California sorority girl Elle Woods who follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School in an attempt to win him back.

Sheridan Smith stars as Elle, with ex-Blue pop star Duncan James as Elle’s heartbreaker college sweetheart Warner and Alex Gaumond as her new love interest Emmett (See News, 21 Jul 2009). Peter Davison is Harvard professor Callahan and Jill Halfpenny is Paulette, the hairdresser who Elle befriends.

Legally Blonde marks the Broadway and West End directorial debut for Jerry Mitchell, a previous Whatsonstage.com Best Choreographer Award winner for Hairspray and The Full Monty. The musical has a book by Heather Hach and music and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe. Songs include “Ohmigod You Guys”, “Serious”, “The Harvard Variations”, “Whipped into Shape”, “Find My Way” and the title number.

The West End production, which has been previewing since 5 December, officially opens next week with a gala night on 13 January 2010, and is currently booking to 23 May 2010.

Last night’s Q&A was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. Click on the 'play' button above to listen to it in full – including discussion on Mitchell’s directorial debut and double duties, accent coaching, working with dogs, advice for aspiring performers and plans for a film version of the stage musical. Edited highlights follow …

On the route from screen to stage

Jerry Mitchell: I was walking through Times Square in New York city and Hal Luftig, the American producer, stopped me in the middle of Times Square and said, “I want to talk to you about a musical version of the movie Legally Blonde”. And I said, “Oh my God, I love that movie” .... Elle Woods is a larger-than-life character and musicals sing and dance when the characters are larger than life and so that is a big part of (its success as an adaptation) ... I listened to groups of songs from different composers and lyricists, and the minute I heard “Ohmigod You Guys” and the “Legally Blonde” ballad, I knew that they (husband and wife Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, who wrote the music and lyrics) were smart. They had the right tone and were funny.

On casting Sheridan Smith as Elle

Jerry Mitchell: I’d seen her sing at the Olivier Awards the year that Hairspray was nominated for all the awards. I didn’t really know her, but she was on stage singing “Suddenly, Seymour” (from her last musical, Little Shop of Horrors). There was a party after, everyone was having a couple of cocktails and I went up to her and said, “I’m doing Legally Blonde and you would be perfect for the show.” I saw her there and I thought at that moment, “that’s my Elle.”

Sheridan Smith: I wanted (the part) so badly. When I heard it was coming over, I called my agent and said “please please please get me seen for it”. I met Jerry first of all and I listened to the CD over and over again. At the second audition, there was a big panel - the composers, everyone, had come over from America - and I nearly lost my bottle. I remember Jerry going, “breathe Sheridan, get it together.” It is a dream role so I am over the moon.

On how & why the other principals got involved

Alex Gaumond: I was auditioning for another show at the time, We Will Rock You, and the casting director was the same person who was also doing Legally Blonde. She must have seen something and thought I might be right for Emmett so she said, “come and meet the Americans”. It was being there at the right time and place and being right for the part. I am very fortunate that way, very lucky.

Peter Davison: Truth is I wasn’t given any musicals until about six years ago. I used to go up for them when I left drama school but I really didn’t do it properly. I used to go along with my guitar actually - that’s not how to get a part in a musical. About 1999, I did Chicago and a couple of years ago Spamalot. But this is a different thing, this is the serious deal. They had the Broadway team over from America and that was a very scary proposition for all of us.

Jill Halfpenny: I was the last person to be cast so I had heard who else was in it. I thought it was a fantastic cast so that really appealed to me. And it was the character (of hairdresser Paulette) because in television I often play very grounded, dowdy and hard-done-by people. I loved the fact that someone wanted to see me for a character that was slightly out there and a bit ditsy. I thought that is great, what an opportunity.

On the appeal for UK audiences

Duncan James: I saw the Broadway version on DVD and I thought this musical would do so well in England. I thought it would really appeal to our audiences. As an English culture, we like to be entertained. Legally Blonde is a musical like Hairspray is where you sit down and you are entertained from the minute the curtain comes up until the curtain comes down at the very end. It’s fun, it’s pink, it’s sparkly, it’s got dogs and romance. It has got everything that you want to see in a show.

Jerry Mitchell: I do think it has a great story and a classic idea – ‘to thine own self be true’ - that the girl can be both beautiful and smart and the guy that respects her will end up with her. I think those are good messages today for young people.

Alex Gaumond: Something that I think appeals in this country is the underdog coming out on top. Elle doesn’t come across as the underdog, but when she arrives at Harvard, she doesn’t fit and for her to finish on top as valedictorian at graduation, that’s a journey that will appeal to everyone.

Peter Davison: The music is fantastic too.


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