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Gay AND European
The Legacy of Legally Blonde the Musical
Now that the West-End production of Legally Blonde the Musical is due to close in April, it is time to reflect on what it’s legacy for the future might be. Is Legally Blonde just a frivolous waste of time, or is there more to the Bend and Snap technique than meets the eye? Clue: the latter.
Legally Blonde is a musical about image, both the image we projects to the outside world and the way we use images of others to construct our own, despite the fact that we know these images are false. To put that in buzzword terms, it is a musical that conducts post-colonial analysis on itself.
Elle Woods, the protagonist, begins the show as an air-headed blond living off daddy on the sun-soaked west coast. She is the epitome of the stereotype, and this serves her well until her boyfriend Warner breaks up with her in order to free himself to find someone more “serious” when he goes up to Harvard Law School. Devastated, she decides to attend Harvard herself in order to demonstrate to him that she is more than her stereotype and win him back.
In other words, Elle’s image turns against her and so she sets out to find a new one. Naturally, it’s not as easy as that, and she finds the road to legal stardom paved with people who won’t let her leave her stereotype behind her. The heroes of Legally Blonde use image to their own advantage, transcending the system by moving from one image to the other to manipulate it, rather than attempting to work outside of the system altogether. This idea is present throughout the novel and film franchise, but in the musical it is emphasised, right down to the numbers.
In this first example, “Ireland”, Orientalist stereotyping is embraced as a tool of aspiration despite the knowledge of its falseness. It is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” after Edward Said. Keep watching for the reprise.
The number’s use of the “Celtic Moods” tape gives the opportunity to extend the meaning of the lyrics into the musical accompaniment. The music played has only tangential relation to Irish folk music, but unlike a standard othering of a musical culture, the people involved here know perfectly well what they are doing. By flagging up the synthetic nature of its portrayal of Ireland, this number uses it as an other without allowing this use to reduce it culturally; rather the reduction is turned on its head and makes fun of itself.
During “Gay or European?”, Emmet, the man who cross-examines the witness, is shown transformed from a rather ignored young man into a legal demon. The change of image Elle’s shopping trip gives him, as well as their budding friendship, is what allows him to fulfill his potential as a barrister. Elle herself, meanwhile, has the brainwave that cracks the case because she is recalled to her previously pink persona (as embodied by Paulette the hairdresser) and this allows her to think outside of the box.
Both Elle and Emmet achieve success in the “Gay or European?” sequence, and indeed in the musical as a whole, by moving between culturally mediated roles that are useful for them at particular times. Seen with an open mind, the numbers and plot of Legally Blonde use superficiality as a tool to explore the continued role of othering and self-othering in postcolonial identity formation. Not bad for a blond airhead, and not bad for a mere musical either.
James T. Harding graduated in Music from Lincoln College in 2011, and is now a Newsdesk Editor at BroadwayWorld.com.