Whereas many theatre professionals and critics are bemoaning the glut of Broadway musicals based on hit movies of the past (Billy Elliot, 9 to 5, The Little Mermaid and Shrek are but a few current examples), Jerry Mitchell rejoices in it. The openly gay, Tony Award-winning choreographer has been a major creative force behind many of the most acclaimed film-to-stage adaptations of the past decade, including The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Hairspray.
Mitchell recently added the title “director” to his resume with the Broadway sensation Legally Blonde: The Musical. It is based on the 2001 motion picture that starred Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, a ditzy LA sorority girl who unexpectedly succeeds as a Harvard law school student. The musical will play August 12-September 6 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, followed by a run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center September 8-20.
The delightful Mitchell — whom I was privileged to meet at the recent world premiere of Minsky’s in LA — spoke with me from Seattle, where he is staging the dances for yet another Broadway-bound musical based on a movie, Catch Me If You Can.
CC: What drew you to Legally Blonde: The Musical as your Broadway directorial debut?
JM: Let’s see … pink, Chihuahuas, timpani and a story that I absolutely could relate to. I also liked that it had a leading character that was larger than life.
CC: How smooth or challenging was the process of adaptation?
JM: You always look at something and ask, “How am I going to make this work on stage?” This has a leading lady, a heroine, who come hell or high water gets what she wants. That’s the essence of every great musical character, so in that respect Legally Blonde is universal. Also, I wanted to draw out the supporting characters, like (Elle’s fellow student-turned-admirer) Emmett and Paulette (the salon owner memorably played in the film by Jennifer Coolidge). I wanted to help them get what they want, too.
CC: Have you been pleased with the results?
JM: Oh, yes! We just won three Touring Broadway Awards for this production, including Best Musical. The tour is going to pay off like gangbusters!
CC: Has Legally Blonde succeeded in drawing a younger audience and exposed them to musical theatre?
JM: That’s my hope and prayer. You come to your first musical and, if you like it, you want to see the next one. MTV exposure (the original Broadway production was broadcast by the music channel) also helped a lot in getting PR out about the show across the country, and it’s part of the reason the tour is doing so well.
CC: What do you think is good and perhaps not so good about the current trend of adapting popular movies for the stage?
JM: There’s nothing not good about it. I’ve heard many people complain about it, but it’s been my and my friends’ livelihood. I want to say, “People, wake up!” We live in a digital age. I’m sure fifty years ago, producers handed a composer a book and said, “Make this into a musical” because people were familiar with it. The same thing is going on today but with movies. We are so quick to judge in this world.
CC: What did you think of this year’s crop of Tony-nominated shows? Do you have a favorite show or two currently?
JM: I literally love everything! I can see Next to Normal (an award-winning musical about bi-polar disorder) one night and Shrek the next and love ‘em all. I haven’t kept up with the plays as well, but I am going to catch up when I get back to New York.
CC: When did you make your Broadway debut as a dancer?
JM: In a 1980 revival of Brigadoon, under Agnes DeMille.
CC: But you made your biggest splash as a nearly-naked Native American in 1990’s The Will Rogers Follies, correct?
JM: (Laughing) Well, that certainly caught a lot of people’s attention!
CC: How have you seen musical theatre and Broadway develop or change since you started out?
JM: When I walk into a show, a musical, what I take from it is the score. That’s what makes or breaks a show. Very few shows since I got to Broadway have musical appeal beyond the show, unlike prior to 1980 when many show tunes crossed over into mainstream popularity (perhaps most notably “Send in the Clowns” and “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”). That’s the biggest change I’ve seen.
CC: You have a new burlesque-inspired production, Peep Show, in Las Vegas. How is it doing?
JM: It’s stripping away, nipples to the wind! Holly Madison from TV’s The Girls Next Door just replaced Kelly Monaco in it, and my dear friend Shoshana Bean is replacing the Spice Girls’ Mel B. Shoshana played Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray for me.
CC: You are also the creator and director of New York’s super-successful, annual AIDS fundraising event, Broadway Bares. How is this year’s edition coming together?
JM: This year we have an Internet theme, “Click It!” We also have a new website, and we’ll have our first online strip-athon hosted by Broadwayworld.com. Everyone can donate and/or participate!
CC: On a more personal note, are you currently partnered, married or in a relationship?
JM: I’m deep in a relationship.
CC: Are children in your future?
JM: (Laughing, along with some of his Catch Me If You Can cast members who have gathered) I have 36 children right now in this dressing room! They are all unruly too, and need to be punished!
CC: What’s next for Jerry Mitchell as director and/or choreographer?
JM: Well, after Catch Me If You Can, director Jack O’Brien and I — we’re joined at the hip, having worked on several shows together — are off to London. We’ll be doing Love Never Dies, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera (with songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater), and I’ll be mounting Legally Blonde in the West End.
CC: Sounds fabulous!
For more information about Legally Blonde: The Musical in LA or to purchase tickets, click here.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.