Even in 1990 Pretty Woman proved divisive. Reviewing it in Time magazine, Richard Corliss somewhat sniffily suggested an equivalence between its protagonists – Vivian Ward, a Hollywood Boulevard sex worker, and Edward Lewis, a wealthy corporate scavenger who specialises in buying up and breaking apart ailing companies – and “a toxic-waste dumper falling for a terrorist hijacker”.
That’s an extreme take, but he wasn’t alone in his distaste. Pretty Woman, its critics said, rose-tints prostitution and suggests that there’s no problem in life that can’t be solved with a credit card. This did nothing to stop the film – Pygmalion rewritten as an urban fairytale – from going on to become one of the highest-grossing romcoms of all time and making a star out of the then 23-year-old Julia Roberts. Justifiably so, given the way her radiance and heart-melting laugh transcended the film’s iffy gender politics.
Famously, the original screenplay by JF Lawton – called 3,000 after the sum of money Edward offers Vivian to spend a week with him – was much grittier in tone and ended with Edward leaving her at the end and returning to his world, while she boarded a bus to Disneyland. It’s doubtful that version would have ended up being given the musical treatment almost three decades after its original release.
Yet it’s 2020 and here we have Pretty Woman: The Musical. With a book by Lawton (co-credited with the film’s director Garry Marshall, who died in 2016) supplemented with songs by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, it opened in Chicago in 2018, before transferring to Broadway later that year. The reviews were, shall we say, mixed.
Jerry Mitchell’s production opts for replication of the source material rather than re-imagination. It does not tinker, it does not deconstruct. It makes only a handful of concessions to the fact it’s been remade for the stage and these mostly involve dancing bellboys. Aimie Atkinson gives a game, sweetly gawky performance as Vivian, in her thigh-high PVC boots, thrusting her rear towards Danny Mac’s handsome but oddly presence-less Edward, but this isn’t a fight she can win.
The musical format does at least grant her some interior life and a bit of backstory – Vivian sings about her wish to get off the streets and sort her life out – whereas in the film her character was primarily there to be looked at: it’s right there in the title. It’s just that the songs are pedestrian at best and riddled with lyrical clichés, in some cases fading from the memory while still being performed.
Mitchell dutifully recreates the key scenes – the shopping sequence, the polo match, the other shopping sequence – but there are only a handful of moments in which he exploits the theatrical potential of the material. The strikingly staged and musically inventive scene in which Edward takes Vivian to the opera feels like something out of another production.
Given its subject matter, the film is surprisingly timid about sex. It cuts away whenever they’re about to get down to it. It spares the audience the juddering butt shots of Fatal Attraction, released three years earlier. While the stage show throws in an awkward nod to a blowjob, it never really works out how to address the question of sex, leading to a scene in which the couple lie semi-clothed on a piano as it is squeakily trundled off-stage.
The design also looks unexpectedly flimsy for something so hung up on money. It doesn’t even bother to conjure up Edward’s Lotus or the sumptuous interior of the Beverly Wilshire penthouse, instead offering up a few palm tree cut-outs, fire escapes and the backside of the Hollywood sign.
While Mac appears to have studied Richard Gere’s line readings, he can’t match his cocksure charisma, and though he sings “there’s something about her”, there’s little sense of connection between the pair. The production drops the scenes where he opens up to her about his daddy issues, while emphasising how much of a kick he seems to get out of testing her, be it at the polo match or the opera. His Edward comes across as the kind of guy who’d definitely have a red room full of ‘special’ toys at home.
As Vivian’s best friend Kit, Rachael Wooding has a belting voice and warmth to spare, but the production seems far more enamoured with Bob Harms, who doubles as both Barney, the paternal hotel manager, and an insufferably cheery street vendor-cum-narrator who is constantly banging on about chasing your dreams.
Obviously this was never going to be a radical production, that was a given, but there’s something depressing about its faithfulness. The one tiny adjustment it makes for the current moment is when Vivian fends off the unwanted advances of Edward’s sleazy lawyer herself, rather than waiting to be rescued by Edward.
What it offers is the hit of the familiar, the solace of the known. But its attempt to recreate the film’s most iconic moment – Roberts’ unforced laugh when Gere shuts a jewellery case on her hand, a scene that was improvised – inevitably falls flat. You can’t replicate that. The fact it even tries is telling.
It has been argued, though I’m not sure I buy it, that in the way it foregrounds the transactional nature of the characters’ relationship, there’s actually something covertly feminist about Pretty Woman; it’s certainly slick and it’s easy to grasp its appeal while still finding it deeply problematic, but that’s the film. It’s not a case one can make for the musical. Produced in 2020, created predominantly by men but marketed at women, this is nostalgia-by-numbers padded out with ballads, as cynical as it is icky.