OMG, MTV!

Special Features   OMG, MTV! An inside look at the unlikely partnership of MTV and Legally Blonde for the reality casting series "The Search for Elle Woods."

New Blonde Bailey Hanks
New Blonde Bailey Hanks Photo by Andrew Walker

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One of the tasks of nearly every reality television series is keeping the end result of the program a secret from the public before the final show airs. Kristin Caskey, an executive at Fox Theatricals, which is one of the lead producers of the Broadway musical Legally Blonde, knew this would be part of the bargain when she and her fellow producers entered into a partnership with MTV to create "Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods." But she didn't know how long she'd have to keep the winner under wraps.

"Whenever you shoot a television show, you're never quite sure when it's going to air," said Caskey on July 21, the day Bailey Hanks was revealed to the world as the unknown who would fill Laura Bell Bundy's shoes in the lead role of unlikely Ivy Leaguer, Elle. "We had always assumed that the winner would be announced prior to when she would be required to begin rehearsal. As with every network, things changed in their schedule and they had to move things around. All of a sudden we realized we were in this position of having to start rehearsals, and we thought 'How are we going to do that?' Because a lot of people are involved. How do you keep it a secret?"

As it turned out, they did it a comically old-fashioned way, by putting Hanks in dark glasses and wigs and sneaking her through side doors into the rehearsal hall. They hired Shetler Studios on West 54th Street, an unusual choice for a Broadway musical. But the space served their purposes; it had a room upstairs, away from the studio's main activity centers, and accessible through a private entrance. Furthermore, the producers had everyone involved in the breaking-in of Hanks sign a confidentiality agreement. It worked: Hanks' name did not leak out before the show's final episode.

"The Search for Elle Woods" was actually the second joint venture between the Legally Blonde musical and MTV. The first was just as unorthodox: a fall 2007 broadcast of the musical, while the Broadway run was still going on. George McTeague, an executive at MTV, got the idea after seeing the show at the Palace Theatre. He called up the producers and told them he wanted to film the production. "We were responsive," said Caskey, "but we had to go through that thought process that any producer goes through. 'OK, if I show this musical on the network, will I cannibalize the audience?'" There have been examples in the history of Broadway — Joseph Papp's decision to televise his 1972 Broadway staging of Much Ado About Nothing being one — where a televised performance, meant to spur a rush at the box office, has actually led to the quick evaporation of future audiences. Why pay money for a show you just saw on television for free?

In the end, the producers decided to green-light MTV's proposal, mainly due to the special character of Legally Blonde's core audience. "The more they can get of the show, the better," Caskey said of the musical's fans. "They want to interact with the show, they want to see it multiple times. We knew this telecast would reach a national audience and put Legally Blonde on the radar for a young audience that, if they saw it on television, it would actually increase their interest in the show."

MTV filmed the show over a couple performances. They employed eight to ten cameras, and the director of the film worked closely with the musical's director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell. Lead producer Hal Luftig was impressed with the MTV crew's professionalism, and relieved that the hierarchy he had experienced in early meetings with the network was not in evidence during filming.

 

Bailey Hanks after winning.
photo by Todd Pitt/courtesy of MTV

"We in theatre, God love us, don't really deal with corporations for the most part," said Luftig. "I've never had a producing partner that's a corporation. They [MTV] have a chain of command. They have to run something up the ladder to make a decision. In my world, usually the director or the producer is making the decision." The shoot, however, eliminated the middlemen and went smoothly.

Legally Blonde first aired on Oct. 13, 2007, and then was shown five more times. The first airing was on a Saturday afternoon, an odd time that made Luftig and Caskey a bit nervous. "MTV said, 'Trust us on this,'" recalled Caskey. The program ended up winning its time slot. By the final two airings, the network was putting the lyrics to the show's songs at the bottom of the screen so viewers could sing along.

The success of the broadcasts led, in part, to the reality series. Amanda Lipitz, one of the Broadway show's producers, had a relationship with Reveille, an L.A.-based producer of reality shows. Conversations began between the various parties, and MTV expressed a keenness for the project.

"Search for Elle Woods" host Haylie Duff and winner Bailey Hanks.
photo by Todd Pitt/courtesy of MTV

The Legally Blonde producers stressed that they wanted a casting process that approximated the steps of how a show is actually cast, so Legally Blonde creators were put front and center in the series.

People intimately involved with the stage show were made judges, including a mostly off-camera Mitchell, and an on-camera panel of casting director Bernie Telsey, librettist Heather Hach and ebullient ensemble member Paul Canaan. Many of the contestants' on-air challenges involved members of the show's cast or creative team; performers Orfeh, Andy Karl, Nikki Snelson, Kate Shindle and Richard H. Blake offered wisdom or served a scene partners, while associate director Marc Bruni and associate choreographer Denis Jones helped stretch muscles.

Moreover, the winner would be selected by the judges, not (as is the case with some reality TV contests) the viewing public.

Caskey admitted that there was some worry among the producers and creative staff that they would end up with a performer who wasn't up to the task. Anchoring a Broadway musical is not child's play. "There was definitely that concern when we were initially discussing the reality show," she said. "But when our creatives understood that at the end of the day it would be a decision made by them, especially Jerry Mitchell, and not a voting audience, there was some comfort level in that. Our hope going into it was that it would be that diamond in the rough. Some girl would show up who would surprise us and delight us."

Luftig, too, was excited about the idea of finding a complete unknown that also had the necessary talent. "We thought, wouldn't it be a hoot if we could find somebody who could really do this role, but had never been on a plane, had never been to New York, had never seen a Broadway show. Remember when Michael Bennett found Jennifer Holliday? She basically was working at the phone company. She had sung in her local choir. She had never been to New York." Luftig made an appearance at the studio about once a day, but largely he left the series up to the television professionals. "This is why I don't do film or television," he said. "There is a lot of sitting around. That drives me crazy. The only time we sit around in theatre is during tech rehearsal. And even then, you don't sit around for huge stretches of time."

Both Luftig and Casky voiced satisfaction with the choice of Hanks, an Anderson, SC, native and musical theatre student at Coastal Carolina University, who gave her first performance on July 23.

So, is that the end of the Legally Blonde-MTV marriage? Well, maybe not. Luftig said he has floated the idea of doing a movie of the musical with MTV. "You mean the Hairspray route?" he was asked by this reporter. That John Waters film was turned into a hit Broadway musical, which was then turned into another film. "Exactly," said Luftig.

Bailey Hanks as Elle Woods in <i>Legally Blonde</i>.
Bailey Hanks as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Photo by Andrew Walker
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