Pop Culture

Like, omigod, MTV show seeks new Elle Woods

Autumn. Bailey. Lauren. Natalie. Rhiannon. The competition on "Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods" on MTV is getting really intense, and, omigod, one of you will soon be anointed a star.

After "Grease" and NBC's "You're the One That I Want" last summer, Broadway has again stepped into the world of reality television — this time to find a new leading lady to replace Laura Bell Bundy as the inexhaustibly perky, pink-loving heroine of the musical now in its second year at the Palace Theatre.

Reality TV has changed the way we find pop singers, ballroom dancers, fashion designers, hair stylists, chefs and more, so why not performers who can headline a Broadway show? The popular and financial success of "Grease" — despite critical brickbats for the production itself — re-enforced the idea. In England, reality shows have found leads for productions of "The Sound of Music," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and an upcoming "Oliver!" And Canada currently is doing its own "Sound of Music" search for a Maria to star in a production opening in Toronto this fall.

Not that television would work for every show or stage role — "Medea"? Probably not. Or for Mama Rose in "Gypsy," either. "It's not right for every show and casting directors know it," says "Legally Blonde" producer Hal Luftig. "When I hear people say, 'This is going to be a trend.' No, it's not."

"The Search for Elle Woods" began on MTV in June (Mondays 10 p.m ET) with the 10 finalists tearfully winnowed down in succeeding weeks. Goodbye pretty Lindsey, ambitious Cassie S., hip Celina and savvy Emma, among others. As Haylie Duff, the series' host, solemnly intones, "An actor's job is to face rejection."

‘I am the mother pheasant plucker’
The episodes to weed out the excess Elles involve people from the show putting the would-be stars through their paces. Among the various challenges seen so far:

--Associate director Marc Bruni judging verbal dexterity. (You try saying "I am the mother pheasant plucker" repeatedly — and real fast.)

--Vocal coach Seth Rudetsky testing stamina as the girls sing at the top of their lungs while pedaling on stationary exercise bikes.

--Animal trainer Bill Berloni looking at their compatibility with Teddy and Boo Boo, who understudy Elle Woods' beloved Chihuahua in the musical. Walk that dog correctly on a leash, girls.

--Associate choreographer Denis Jones having the girls wear Pepto-Bismol pink, 4-inch high heels and dance on a cobblestone street in Brooklyn.

The "Legally Blonde" journey to TV began with broadcasting the musical itself a half-dozen times on MTV last year — even while it continued to run on Broadway.

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Luftig explains: "Consider the young demographics of our audience. The more they see the show, the more they want to see it. It's not true of every show. It probably wouldn't work for productions that skewer older. But it certainly worked for 'Legally Blonde.' It was so successful for them (MTV) that they came to us and wanted to do something else."

Enter another "Blonde" producer, Amanda Lipitz, at 28 one of the youngest producers on Broadway. She felt would-be Harvard law school graduate Elle Woods (first played by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 MGM movie) would be a great character to be at the center of a TV reality show.

"The character of Elle Woods is told 'no' and she has to work harder and harder in order to achieve her dreams," Lipitz says. "I felt that is very similar to what happens to performers on Broadway. A lot of them are told 'no' and they work harder and harder to achieve their ultimate dream of being there."

Lipitz sat down with Bundy, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, songwriters Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and book writer Heather Hach to discuss the challenges of playing Elle Woods. The musical's casting director, Bernard Telsey, came aboard early, too.

Open calls were held in five cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn. — cities, Lipitz says that "have a large pool of actors and were near a lot colleges that have performing arts programs.

"I did want to get the unknowns — girls who had never been on a plane before or who had never seen a Broadway show," she says. "But I also wanted to see girls who had been on Broadway. I wanted it to be open to everybody."

In each city, a voice, acting and dance specialist from the Broadway company was on hand to view the talent and eliminate contenders. Episode 1 started with 50 girls, who were quickly cut to 15. Soon, only 10 were left.

Viewers voted to choose the leads in "Grease"; "Legally Blonde" did something different: It has three judges, all connected with the show: Telsey, Hach and Paul Canaan, a member of the musical's ensemble. And Mitchell comes in for the already taped last episode — to be broadcast July 21 — to help with the final decision.

One reason for judges to choose the winner, according to Luftig, was "comfort level. Who the audience would vote for may not have been great for the show. That was a big fear. I just didn't want to be in the position that America voted on somebody that had a heartbreaking story rather than someone who was best for the show.

"And I don't think Jerry Mitchell would have bought into it. He wanted to know that we had some modicum of control over the process."

Telsey, a veteran casting director of such hit musicals as "Rent," "Hairspray" and "Wicked," initially had a few qualms about the television format.

"I love helping actors more than I love judging them," he says. "It's a given that as a casting director we have to eventually make a judgment by rejecting someone and hiring someone else. But I didn't want to overemphasize that aspect of what we do every day in the audition room."

He also wanted the reality show to demonstrate what it takes to audition for a Broadway musical.

Lipitz concurs.

"I don't think America understands what actors go through to be on Broadway, what it means to do eight shows a week and how talented these people are. ... They can do anything — can learn harmony in five minutes or pick up a 48-count dance step in five minutes. Teach it to them once and they can do it. That's what we wanted to capture in this show," she says.

And create a new star at the same time.

Audience invested in ‘Grease’ castingConsider "Grease." Max Crumm as Danny and Laura Osnes as Sandy won their roles last summer on the NBC series, telecasts that helped boost the revival's advance before opening to $15 million.

"Max and Laura definitely have fans from the TV show, it's pretty clear," says Nick Scandalios, executive vice president of the Nederlander Organization, one of the producers of "Grease."

"They get entrance applause (at the beginning of each performance). People invested in Max and Laura because they voted for them. They felt like they contributed somehow to making 'Grease' happen. Here were two kids, first time in New York, and it wasn't part of their deal to have a car but we had to get them a car service from the theater because of the crowds at the stage door, and people would follow them."

When Crumm and Osnes leave the show in late July — Crumm to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film; Osnes to stay in New York to audition for more theater — who will replace them? Derek Keeling and Ashley Spencer, who were the runners-up in the TV competition.

"Many people voted for them, too," Scandalios explains. "And because the long process they went through, we knew they were capable of playing the parts." And it's helped the box office, too, with the show only a whisper away from recouping its $9 million-plus production costs.

For "Legally Blonde," box-office grosses have risen steadily in the last month, climbing to more than $786,000 last week, up from nearly $448,000 for the last week of May. Whether the increase is due to summer (and more tourists and kids in town), the MTV show or a combination of both, Luftig, for one, isn't sure.

"But we have seen an increase in our ticket sales, especially our cast album sales (now over 100,000), our Web traffic and our merchandise like hats, sweatshirts and pants," Lipitz adds. "Plus you can feel the energy coming out of the Palace Theatre (audience). And that's the best news of all — when the cast says, 'Oh, my god, they're screaming' (their approval)."

Bundy's last performance is Sunday July 20. Her replacement is announced the next evening on the TV show. And on Wednesday July 22, a new Elle Woods will take center stage at the Palace Theatre.

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