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Richard Jordan: Will Pretty Woman musical suffer in the era of #TimesUp?

Samantha Barks and Steve Kazee in Pretty Woman: The Musical. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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A new musical staging of Pretty Woman arrives on Broadway in July.

The movie-to-musical format is not a new concept; works such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Nine and Singin’ in the Rain were crossing from silver screen to stage long before Legally Blonde, Mean Girls or Ghost ever found their way to Broadway and the West End.

Now, it’s the turn of 1990 movie Pretty Woman to make this transition with Bryan Adams composing the score.

In the US, the movie holds the record for the highest number of ticket sales for a romantic comedy. One would have thought this would set it up with good odds for success, especially as all those who grew up with the movie are now potential ticket buyers.

But I saw the production in a recent pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago and found the experience of revisiting this 1990 hit movie disappointing.

Garry Marshall’s movie marketed itself as an urban fairytale, telling the story of LA sex worker Vivian who, by chance, gets whisked away by Edward, a handsome workaholic business man lost on Sunset Boulevard who needed directions. He subsequently falls in love with her, having educated (or manipulated) her in a week to become his perfect pretty woman, taking her away to a new life from the tough, mean streets.

The film’s success was principally thanks to a stellar performance from Julia Roberts and if the musical is to similarly succeed it will be in no small part thanks to Samantha Barks in the title role.

But the big question is how today’s audiences will react to the story’s questionable and outdated morals – will they be repulsed by them?

Pretty Woman is a firmly-rooted 1980s period piece and the movies’ attitudes feel Jurassic. The morals of its lead character Edward appear predatory, dominating and manipulative rather than romantic, and together with its troubling representation of prostitution, the production feels crass and ill-judged.

I find it surprising that in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, and recent scandals in Hollywood, the creative team has not done more to adapt the musical for a modern audience. Maybe it would have passed unremarked a year ago, but not now.

I’m also unsure that millennials will fall for Pretty Woman in the way their parents did or even be that familiar with Bryan Adams’ music. Today, younger Broadway audiences make a significant dent in the market share and producers are acutely aware of this demographic who also have money to spend.

By contrast, the recent Mean Girls musical was able to update itself to a modern setting with plenty of current references added to the musical’s book by Tina Fey. Within these, she also cleverly confronted issues affecting young people today, including those of boys exploiting the images of girls on social media. In this way, the musical was able to play off the popularity of the original while feeling current. It also boasts a score that’s a cross between Glee and Taylor Swift. Together with its flashy high-tech staging, it strikes me as having a much stronger ability to appeal across all ages of a family audience.

Mean Girls review at August Wilson Theatre, New York – ‘slick, but soulless’

But, perhaps the passion for the original Pretty Woman will simply override these concerns and sell tickets. It’s hard to call which direction an audience will go with this story in 2018.

In any case, a past hit movie should certainly not be assumed as a Broadway cert.

This proved to be the case for another 1990 mainstream blockbuster movie – Ghost with a score by pop musician Dave Stewart. Arguably, it’s a better movie than Pretty Woman, but was a short-lived failure in 2012 as a musical on Broadway.

If Pretty Woman flops, it will raise questions around the accepted formula of transferring an old movie hit on to Broadway or the West End. While Pretty Woman’s popularity might be expected to drive sales, it is also creatively restricting, as it comes with in-built expectations.

Would a cult or less-familiar movie afford a greater artistic licence for expanding and updating its book? This certainly feels the case when looking at this year’s hotly-tipped musical Tony nominee, The Band’s Visit.

If Pretty Woman flops, then this could be a musical theatre game-changer, giving a stark warning to producers that audiences are both tired of the movie-to-musical concept and that the attitudes shown in Pretty Woman are dated and out-of-touch.

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