When people wondered how Tisch New Theatre could possibly “Rethink Pink” and rebrand “Legally Blonde,” TNT responded, in the words of Elle Woods: “What? Like it’s hard?” This weekend, the student-run theater club housed in Tisch School of the Arts, opened their production of “Legally Blonde” in the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
“Legally Blonde,” based on the novel and movie, follows Elle Woods, a UCLA sorority president, as she follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law in hopes of making herself into someone he wants. As the show progresses, Elle realizes that she is not the dumb blonde people have made her out to be. Elle realizes her own self-worth and intelligence through her work in law and comes into her own as a strong and independent lawyer.
When TNT announced in August that “Legally Blonde” would be their fall production, their tagline was “Rethink Pink.” As a “Legally Blonde” superfan, I could not imagine how the show could waver from the original’s intentions. The script is incredibly tight and the characters are defined in a seemingly limited way.
Beyond the fact that TNT’s Instagram was showcasing a baby pink theme instead of the hot pink conventionally associated with Elle Woods, I expected the show to be a well-executed production of the same musical I have loved watching many times before. Within the first two numbers of the show, however, I realized that this was an Elle Woods I had not met before, and I knew I was about to experience something revolutionary in the world of “Legally Blonde.”
I know every second of “Legally Blonde.” I’ve seen it a dozen times, and I’ve listened to the soundtrack hundreds. I am accustomed to Elle’s arc, turning from a ditzy, Malibu-born, boy-crazy college student into a strong, insightful, independent boss woman. In TNT’s production, however, Elle was the latter from the moment the house lights went down.
Not for one second did Elle, played by Tisch sophomore Giulia Marolda, come off as the “dumb blonde” she is usually made out to be. Elle came out strong and fierce and stayed that way for two hours. The difference really hit me during “Serious,” the song where Elle gets dumped. In this song, her boyfriend, Warner, breaks up with her for being too blonde, and everything that comes with it. He says he needs “less of a Marilyn, more of a Jackie.”
In the original cast recording and in every production I have seen since, this song prompts a blubbering and hysterical Elle to scream “shut up! Just shut up!” The song portrays Elle as someone entirely dependent on a man and lost without him. When this moment came in TNT’s production, Elle instead slammed her fist on the table and firmly said, “shut up.” Her departure was not filled with hysteria and helplessness; it was the walk of a woman who had realized she deserved better.
Later, Vivienne, Warner’s new girlfriend who sees Elle much the same way that Warner does, gets Elle kicked out of class. Again, Elle’s reaction in this scene is usually flustered and ends in her running off stage crying.
But again, Marolda held her head high, did not let her confidence waver and strutted coolly off stage. When Elle later confronts Vivienne and says “us girls need to stick together,” the line holds so much more weight than usual because it is not coming from a lost girl who needs help, but from a strong woman who demands respect.
Ironically, the show’s only fault also comes as a result of Elle being so revolutionized. Elle was so strong that I did not understand why she still cared for Warner at all. The integrity of the plot was weakened as the character was strengthened.
“Legally Blonde” has always been one of my favorite shows because of who Elle truly is. It is a story of overcoming internalized misogyny, demanding what is deserved and empowering women. What struck me about TNT’s production was director Micaela Brinsley’s crystal-clear vision to make the protagonist as strong as a real woman, not the caricature of one. Brinsley and Marolda brought to life the Elle Woods I have always been inspired by.
I left TNT’s production so grateful. “Legally Blonde” never fails to impart the message that women can achieve much more than people think they can. However, usually, this message is delivered by portraying Elle as a negative stereotype in order to ground the audience in a narrative paradigm that they are familiar with. Tisch New Theatre and Brinsley challenge their audience to leave that world behind and engage instead with a true plight in the modern world: women who have always known they are enough still being forced to prove it.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 print edition. Email Liv Rocklin at firstname.lastname@example.org.