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Towards the beginning of the new Broadway musical Legally Blonde, the actress Annaleigh Ashford — playing Margot, a sorority sister of the protagonist Elle Woods — has a conversation with Bruiser, Elle's Chihuahua:
Margot: Bruiser, where's Elle?
Margot: She realized she doesn't have an engagement outfit?
Margot: She's totally freaking out?!
Margot: She's trapped in the old valley mill?!!
Margot: Oh sorry, the Old Valley Mall.
Chico, the Chihuahua who plays Bruiser, is trained by Bill Berloni, who has worked as a Broadway animal trainer since Annie in 1977. Though Berloni coached a dog to bark during a song in Annie Warbucks, he says the scene in Legally Blonde is the first time in his 30-year career that he's training "an animal having a conversation." So how does he do it?
"Dogs require a stimulus or a cue to perform a behavior," Berloni says. "Seeing as they don't speak English, it can be any sort of cue. It can be a hand signal. It can be a verbal cue." Berloni trained Chico to bark after the specific words at the end of Ashford's lines. If Chico gets all four barks correct, he gets a treat offstage.
Early in the show's San Francisco tryout, Chico was still getting used to performing in front of an audience and was startled by its reactions. Ashford had to use a hand signal — holding her palm down towards the dog — to tell him when to stop barking. "About the time that he was getting it perfectly, we closed," Berloni says. "He got accustomed to the rhythm of audience laughing at him."
Berloni continued to work with Chico during rehearsals before the New York run. Now that the show has begun again on Broadway, Ashford has had to bring back the hand signal. "He's looking around, it's a new house, a new audience," Berloni says. During the dress rehearsal earlier this week, Berloni says, the crowd was particularly supportive, and "the second he would come on stage they would, in admiration, go bananas. And he was like, 'What is that?' It frightened him pretty severely."
Berloni told Ashford that when Chico gets confused and barks towards the audience, she should simply turn his head towards hers and say the line again.
Since Chihuahuas are rather timid, Berloni says, "Our challenge was to find a Chihuahua who would run centerstage and would bark in front of 15 sorority girls and an orchestra and 1,500 people," he says. A Chihuahua named Teddy, who was originally picked to play Bruiser, wouldn't do the barking. Teddy still shows up each day so as not to upset the dynamic among the dogs, who include Chloe — who plays Elle's friend Paulette's bulldog — along with Booboo (Chico's standby) and ZZ (Chloe's standby).
Bulldogs are usually pretty sedate, but in the show Chloe has to act lively and play with a squeaky toy. "A Labrador retriever would have been a no-brainer, but that's not what they have in the film," Berloni says. Berloni finds special ways of keeping the bulldogs energized. In addition to staying well rested, they get fed at 8 AM and aren't fed again until 12 midnight so that they're hungry during the show. (At night, Berloni takes the Chihuahuas home, and his assistant Rob Cox takes the bulldogs).
All the dogs in the show are rescued from animal shelters. Berloni had to not only train the dogs but also create relationships between the dogs and the performers. "He goes out there because they're kind, they're gentle with him, they hug and kiss him, and he looks forward to being with them," Berloni says. "Not only do they have to be good trainers, they have to genuinely like him."
Berloni's career began when he was a 19-year-old apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House and the pre-Broadway tryout of Annie couldn't afford a professional dog trainer for Sandy, the stray mutt Annie adopts. "Everyone on paid staff threatened to quit" if they had to train the dog, Berloni says. So Berloni agreed to find and train a dog in exchange for an Equity card, since he originally wanted to be a performer. He recalls, "I went to the pound and paid seven dollars for a dog and trained it the best I knew how, and a year later Annie opened on Broadway." Berloni had found his calling.
"Interestingly enough," Berloni says, "the dogs — if they understand what's going on — will be more consistent than the human, because they don't have cognitive thought process. They're not thinking about their lovers. They're not thinking about their next gig. They're not mad at the director. They just want their treat."
Legally Blonde, based on the Amanda Brown novel and the 2001 MGM film starring Reese Witherspoon, began previews April 3 and opens April 29 at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Laura Bell Bundy stars in the Witherspoon role of Elle Woods. Jerry Mitchell is making his Broadway directorial debut and also serves as choreographer. The musical has music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin and a book by Heather Hach.
The Palace Theatre is located at 1564 Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets. For more information visit www.legallyblondethemusical.com.