In 2007, Broadway and MTV entered an unprecedented partnership with an airing of Legally Blonde: The Musical in its entirety. The collaboration continued the next year as the production sought out its new star through Legally Blonde: The Musical – The Search for Elle Woods.
Just as the UCLA sorority girl navigated Harvard halls to win back the guy (and perhaps pick up a law degree), a group of young women would enter the equally unfamiliar realm of reality TV to reach a shared goal of taking center stage on Broadway. What transpired was an eight-episode series that showed what it took to star on Broadway—through rigorous challenges, dramatic eliminations, and (for one) a bout of food poisoning.
Ten years after the series premiered (and with a Feinstein’s/54 Below reunion concert on the horizon), Playbill spoke with 24 contestants, creators, judges, and more who helped make MTV and the Great White Way a little more pink. Here is the inside story behind Legally Blonde: The Musical – The Search for Elle Woods.
“Girls, I Have a Completely Brilliant Plan”
Amanda Lipitz (musical producer and series executive producer): MTV had aired the musical [in October 2007]. At the same time, we were having trouble casting the next Elle—getting a name to play this part. Celebrities would come. They’d sit and watch the show, and they’d be like, “Oh my god.” It’s a huge part: lots of dancing, huge belty songs, and you’re in every scene. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Laura Bell Bundy (Elle Woods, original Broadway cast): I got to January  and I was renegotiating for another six months, and I said, “Hey guys, this is going to be my last six months. I’m going to leave at the end of this in July.” A couple months later, Amanda was in my dressing room telling me about the possibility of MTV doing this because of the success of the MTV live version.
Bernie Telsey (casting director): We were about to start our open call way of casting anyway, like we had done for Rent, Hairspray, and many other shows. And then Amanda had this idea. Not only will it help us find a woman, it’s also a great way to publicize Legally Blonde on Broadway.
Amanda Lipitz: The way to capitalize on a Broadway veteran or Joe Schmo coming in was to do a reality show that builds them up and makes them a star. That was the idea. The Grease thing [NBC’s Grease: You’re the One That I Want!] had happened, but this was more like MTV—more they all lived together. And this would show how hard it was to be on Broadway.
Laura Bell Bundy: I definitely saw from a producer’s standpoint how that was a smart decision. Especially for Legally Blonde, because it was the right age demographic. And I was ready to go. There was not any part of me that felt any sort of insecurity from seeing anybody else play the part. I was like, “Fantastic. Get it, ladies.”
Amanda Lipitz: All the creators had to give permission. I went to Jerry, and I was like, “Would you be OK with this? Is this alright with you?”
Jerry Mitchell (Legally Blonde director): I was game. I didn’t want to do it for an original cast like they did for Grease, which was something that was floated around. Creating the musical is hard enough.
Amanda Lipitz: I sat down with [producers] Kristin Caskey, Hal Luftig, and Dori Berinstein, and I threw in ideas that I thought were fun. I remember thinking, “Oh, we could have somebody drop a line and see what happens”; I remember mapping out running on treadmills and singing; we wanted to do a quick change challenge. I sat down with Laura Bell, and she gave me all these ideas.
Laura Bell Bundy: It’s endurance, cardiovascular strength, and vocal health. I did say that the vulnerability was important. Elle Woods was a real person, not just a dumb blonde. So being able to understand that she’s just smart about other things that other people aren’t smart about. And she’s very positive.
Amanda Lipitz: I went to friends of mine that ran Reveille: Ben Silverman and Howard Owens. They did The Biggest Loser. I said, “I have this idea,” and they loved it. They were like, “Let’s take it to MTV with you.” They had other shows on MTV, and I knew we needed some reality show muscle behind it. We went and we pitched it to [MTV Development and Programming heads] Liz Gately and Tony DiSanto, and they loved it. They brought in an amazing showrunner to work with me, because I had never done anything like this before.
Adam Paul (showrunner and executive producer): I remember sitting down with MTV, and the minute they said this, I was like, “That’s the one.” I was a Broadway performer who wasn’t ever performing on Broadway; this selfishly satisfied my own dream. I could see myself—if I was blonde and female—auditioning for this show.
Amanda Lipitz: I was representing all the Broadway people, and he was the one who knew how to make a reality show. He had to explain to me the TV side, and I had to explain to him the Broadway side.
Adam Paul: Amanda and I became fast friends. We realized there were multiple masters to serve as far as making entertaining television for MTV, but this is also a real deal. It wasn’t like, “You’re the Biggest Loser; here’s a check.” No, the person who wins this show has to be on Broadway.
Jerry Mitchell: The agreement was that I got to choose the girl; MTV wouldn’t choose. There was a percentage of contestants that they got to keep and that we got to keep every time there was an elimination. So if it comes down to two people—a person they like because they were good TV and a person I liked because they were a good contestant—I would get to choose who won.
Assembling the Team
Jerry Mitchell: I wasn’t allowed to do it on camera because I was under contract at Bravo at the time for Step It Up and Dance. So the on-camera time I could do was very limited.
Amanda Lipitz: Kristin Caskey suggested [ensemble member] Paul Canaan; he had such a huge presence.
Paul Canaan (judge): I didn’t love that Laura Bell was leaving the show, but I actually thought it was time for Broadway to do something inventive like this and get on TV to spread the word of musical theatre.
Amanda Lipitz: Heather Hach wrote the book for the musical—and literally looked like Elle Woods. And she’s funny and smart.
Heather Hach (judge): I thought it was a great idea. I had to kind of do an audition for MTV, but the minute [Amanda] told me about the concept, I thought it was terrific and it could only help the show.
Amanda Lipitz: Bernie did not want to do it. I spent an hour on the phone with him convincing him.
Bernie Telsey: She’s very convincing. I was nervous about it. I loved watching American Idol at the time for watching the talent, but they were also making TV. The last thing I wanted to do was be like Simon Cowell, because it’s not what I do in the room here.
Amanda Lipitz: I’m like, “It’ll be amazing. You would actually in reality be picking it, so we need you.”
Bernie Telsey: She kept saying she really wanted whoever I am. I don’t know who I am, but whoever, whatever I am or however I act as a casting director, she was interested in that.
Amanda Lipitz: He finally just said OK. He was like, “Alright, Amanda. Alright.”
Bernie Telsey: I went in nervously, but I loved every minute. Loved it.
Amanda Lipitz: I’m the only person in the world that can say, “I cast Bernie Telsey.”
Adam Paul: That’s why Amanda’s such a great producer: She can connect a lot of different dots to make a singular piece. And she kept it real. It wasn’t just getting a fake casting director. It was Bernie Telsey.
Having found their judges, the team reached out to industry professionals and Legally Blonde cast members to join as mentors and scene partners.
Seth Rudetsky (vocal coach): Amanda asked me to do it. She was so smart, and I really trusted her. I had done a lot of reality shows at that point, including Made on MTV. Every reality show I’ve done has been 80 percent true, and I’ve always been frustrated by that. I wanted to do true-to-life reality shows.
Denis Jones (associate choreographer): Jerry Mitchell was the first one who brought it up to me. I was on board as soon as the idea came up.
Nikki Snelson (Brooke Wyndam, original Broadway cast): It was kind of bittersweet, because we all loved Laura Bell so much. We were kind of unclear if she was just leaving and this was the tactic they were choosing to replace her, or if they were replacing her because we weren’t doing well. So there were concerns, but we got more information as we went and got really excited about it.
Andy Karl (Dewey/Kyle, original Broadway cast): The cast had already been part of proving that Legally Blonde being made into a musical had plenty of skeptics raising eyebrows, but it turned out to be genius. If perhaps Les Misérables was part of a reality show stunt casting, I’m sure there would have been a lot more groans. I wanted to keep Legally Blonde going strong, and being asked to be a part of [the series] seemed harmless enough.
Laura Bell Bundy: I took the stand that my job is to do this show eight times a week. I’m happy to participate in a few episodes, but not if it hinders my ability to do the show. There was also more stigma around reality TV than there is now, so my agents were really protective of me to not be super present.
Seth Rudetsky: I don’t play that game. Unless you’re trying to sell tickets to a Broadway show, shut the hell up. I have no compunction about Broadway stars, movie stars, anybody to keep selling tickets. It would have been unfortunate if they had to change the keys or modify the choreography; that kind of stuff is depressing, but I didn’t think that was going to happen.
Bernie Telsey: It’s no different than when we find however many kids in Hamilton or Rent from open calls. No one knew them either; they just weren’t public about how they got it.
Adam Paul: We also needed someone to show what we were doing—someone who had gone through that Broadway process before. Haylie [Duff] was someone who came to mind.
Haylie Duff (host): I was drawn to it immediately because of my experience in Hairspray. Being in a Broadway show really changed my life and taught me about myself. I was immediately drawn to the opportunity of being able to see that happen for someone else. I had stood in their exact shoes; I had auditioned for Bernie.
“And You’ve Got a Lot of Work in Front of You…”
Before setting out to find the group of potential Elles, Lipitz and Paul tied up loose ends while honing in on a shared objective.
Amanda Lipitz: I have a very clear moral code—I know what I’m OK with and what I’m not OK with. So when things weren’t realistic, I was like, “This is not going to happen.”
Adam Paul: NBC tried Grease: You’re the One That I Want!. That was: Can Broadway find the next stars of Grease? I don’t think it worked, because the rest of America outside of Broadway doesn’t care if Broadway succeeds or not. I love Amanda Lipitz, but this is not her story. This was: Can one of these girls’ dreams come true?
Amanda Lipitz: MGM, Universal, MTV, the producers, and the writers all had to come to an agreement. That was tough, and no one had done this before. We had lots of conversations. Also, the musical got paid per episode. Everybody likes that.
Adam Paul: Tony DiSanto gave us a great note as we were coming up with each episode. He said, “Let’s try to make each episode escalate, so it becomes more and more like the real thing.” That culminated in a final, incredible dress rehearsal hybrid on Broadway with the actual cast, orchestra, and crew.
Amanda Lipitz: I was really proud of that. Actors’ Equity and all the other unions had never done this before. I have to credit MTV’s legal team, because they worked really hard. Everybody worked well together; Equity created their rules, and they created them fast.
“What You Want Is Me”
Open calls were held in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, and Nashville in late January and February, 2008. The casting notice called for young women over the age 18, noting “experience in musical theatre a plus” and encouraging non-blondes to audition as well.
Laura Bell Bundy: I thought that was really funny. I stuck the casting notice on my door. Like, if anybody knows anybody who could play Elle Woods, let me stick that on my door in case anybody walks by this dressing room door and thinks they might be right for this part.
Heather Hach: I went to the open call in L.A. I remember having a little bit of trepidation because it felt like the talent was not as strong as I had seen for the audition that we’d gone through when Laura Bell was selected—nor should it. But I was confident we would be able to find someone.
Paul Canaan: It wasn’t necessarily people like Kerry Butler. It was girls out of high school and college. So we definitely had our doubts.
Doubts aside, some girls from the opens calls showed promise.
Lauren Zakrin (contestant): I was a freshman at Western Michigan University. We drove to Chicago—me and four other girls from school. This would’ve been the first audition any of us had ever been on. They asked me if I had any secret hidden talents, and I do a really fantastic chicken impression. I know that doesn’t sound impressive, but I do, and it worked! So don’t knock the chicken impression.
Rhiannon Hansen (contestant): I saw the [pre-Broadway] tryout of Legally Blonde in San Francisco. I kept telling everyone, “I’m going to be in Legally Blonde,” and everyone didn’t believe me. We were all still in college. One day, my roommate looked at me and goes, “Rhiannon, there’s an open call for this Legally Blonde show. You should go.”
Natalie Lander (contestant): One of my best friends from college told me about the notice. The auditions were the next day, and I hadn’t prepared anything. I got to Millennium Dance Studio in North Hollywood at like seven in the morning, and I was the second person in line. I thought it was going to be like a line around the block.
Bailey Hanks (contestant, winner): Legally Blonde was my favorite movie, and I always thought to myself, “It would be so cool for Legally Blonde to be a Broadway show.” I knew there could be a possibility. And then I heard about the musical, and of course I was like, “Oh my gosh, that is my dream.” One of my college friends from the musical theatre department emailed me; she saw on Playbill there were going to be regional auditions for finding the next Elle Woods, and that it would be recorded as a reality show. I had just gotten back from Nashville the weekend before I heard about this because I was auditioning for Belmont University; I was going to transfer there. I went back to Nashville and auditioned for Legally Blonde. At that point, I was like, “I don’t care if I get accepted to Belmont; I want Legally Blonde!”
Amanda Lipitz: I remember walking out of Bailey’s audition. We were like, “Holy shit. That girl is Elle Woods.”
Bailey Hanks: I only took two outfits, and where I’m from [Anderson, South Carolina], it’s about a six hour drive to Nashville. There was no going back home and grabbing a change of clothes or anything. My dad ended up having to take me to the mall twice and find a dance store in Nashville.
Others—including some who had been in for the show before—had a more direct route to the competition.
Bernie Telsey: We had many people in the theatre community who were auditioning. We were reaching out to agents to get their clients to go to the open calls.
Amanda Lipitz: That was something that was part of my pitch: having people that were part of the competition who had been on Broadway or had professional experience and could speak to it to the girls who didn't. A mix of novices and working actresses.
Bernie Telsey: And it wasn’t on network TV, where I think some of the theatre girls wouldn’t want to. On MTV, losing was not going to hurt your career. And you’re going to work with Jerry and with me.
Autumn Hurlbert (contestant): I had gone in a couple times for the Broadway show, and I was in final callbacks for Margot at one point. I got a call from my agents, and they said, “MTV has decided to do a reality show about doing the search for the next Elle Woods, and they said it’s going to be like Project Runway.” I knew nothing about reality TV. I had auditioned for American Idol, but I had no idea what was actually going to transpire.
Cassie Okenka (contestant): Rachel Hoffman [CSA, Telsey + Company] did a workshop at my school, and I was in her brain that I might be a good candidate. They were like, “Hey, can you make it to Chicago for a callback day?” So I went with my friend Libby Servais. We actually played twins in Side Show together, so it was great to go on this adventure with her.
Libby Servais (contestant): I remember them telling us there that we would be going on, so that was really exciting. That doesn’t always happen that they tell you in the room.
Rachel Potter (contestant): I was living in Orlando working at Disney World. I had gone in for the cover in Next to Normal, and Bernie Telsey was in the room for that. It’s kind of one of those crazy stories where you never know how one opportunity can lead to the next. Because of that, I got a call and he said, “We want you to be a ringer and go to the Orlando audition, and you’re gonna pull through.”
Lena Hall (contestant, then known as Celina Carvajal): I’d been in for every role in the show—the cheerleaders, Vivienne, Brooke—I’d always get to the end, and it would never work out. Then I got a phone call from Telsey saying that Jerry Mitchell requested I audition for this reality show. I thought, “If Jerry Mitchell requested it, then I must have a good shot. Maybe I’m Elle!”
Nikki Snelson: As it started going, we started seeing people like Celina Carvajal in the mix. She and I had been going up against each other for things since we were 18 years old. So we saw that there were some more seasoned performers with some kids straight off the bus. I guess that’s how any Broadway audition is, really.
Casting was a twofold process, as the team was looking for both viable stage stars and reality TV-friendly personas. Candidates went through interviews, personality tests, and psychological evaluations.
Lindsey Ridgway (contestant): There’s always the rumor that they’re looking for people who are dramatic and will cause drama. But I remember thinking, “If I do make the show, my grandmother’s going to watch this. So I don’t want to do or say anything that would embarrass my family.”
Rhiannon Hansen: I remember telling my mom, “I think I might have gotten it, because I said, ‘Sometimes I tend to annoy people because I’m so positive.’” Something really silly that only a young girl would say.
Lena Hall: I said some really awesome things that are terrible. It’s hilarious. I was like, “If you want me to be on the reality show, I’m a crazy person. If you want me to be Elle Woods…” I think I said, “It’s time.” Which is so terrible, looking back. What was I thinking? I was trying to say, “I’ve been in the business for so long; I can handle eight shows a week as a lead.” Not, “It’s time for me to be a star.”
Natalie Lander: I did a full physical. I had to get a bunch of blood tests, and I had to do a psych evaluation, which was a ton of questions trying to figure out if I was going to murder people. Like maybe I’d get violent.
The day before the first big audition, the chosen Elle hopefuls were sequestered in a midtown hotel—even those who already lived in New York.
Autumn Hurlbert: They said, “OK, there’s no guarantees, wink wink, but pack about two months of clothes. And if they choose you, wink wink, you won’t be able to have your phone and you’re going to come to this hotel and we’ll take care of you from there.” I checked into the hotel, and they were like, “Great. So give us your phone, there are no newspapers in the room, you can’t call out of the room, and we are taping your doors shut.”
Natalie Lander: They sent us all this packing info on what to bring, and basically all it really said was bring every outfit that exists on the planet in the color pink.
Rhiannon Hansen: I look back and laugh because I’m always like, “I had everything pink.” My pink pants, my pink shirt, my pink jacket.
Autumn Hurlbert: They got us into a big boardroom, and I remember seeing Celina, and I knew her and Emma Zaks from auditions. That gave me comfort.
Episode 1: “You’re Cut”
The next morning, the girls were taken to 37 Arts Theatre (now the Baryshnikov Arts Center), beginning production on the 23-day audition process. As the series opens, 50 girls dance for Mitchell, with Jones assisting in cutting the group down to 15. However, some of those 15 had already been flagged to move on, and not all 50 had been part of the comprehensive pre-production search.
Adam Paul: It wasn’t fully locked. We knew 20ish, and from that pool we had our top 15. For the viewers, there’s only so much footage you can show from that nationwide search. So we wanted to recapture that A Chorus Line effect.
Amanda Lipitz: We certainly had our girls that we knew were going to be standouts and move into the house, no question. But everyone was there on a level playing field. Some of them we had seen before and some of them we hadn't.
Jerry Mitchell: The 15 were chosen between us choosing some and MTV choosing some. They wanted good TV, and we wanted good Elle possibilities. And sometimes there was crossover. We already had notes on them, but that call was kind of a final straw.
Ashley Loren (contestant): The looks on everyone's faces were priceless at that point. Because some people were like, “Oh, I got this.” Others were like, “This is insane; I don't know what I'm doing.” It's those audition faces you very rarely get to see in the room because you're that person.
Natalie Lander: Some girls started to figure it out, because we kind of got a little bit of special treatment. We got these little Legally Blonde gift bags, and we brought our bags with us, and everyone’s like, “Where did you get that?” We’re like, “Oh, they gave it to us.” And some girls were like, “Wait a minute, you already auditioned for this?”
Autumn Hurlbert: I knew three girls that were not in that meeting the night before. I walked up to one, and was like, “Just so you know, some of us were in a meeting last night.” I told her, “You’re on camera, so if you want the five seconds of fame, go for it. But if that’s going to wreck your soul, I just want you to know what’s happening.” One girl walked out. She was like, “Yeah, I’m not here for that.”
Ashley Loren: I kept staying, and I was the last one cut before the 15. I'm definitely more of a dancer now than I was then, most likely sparked because of that audition and how out-of-place I felt.
Loren made her Broadway debut five years later in Jekyll & Hyde.
The first episode introduced the candidates to what was in store over the next few weeks while also introducing the TV audience to the candidates. In a testimonial, Hall admitted to being the “rocker of the group,” adding, “They used to call me ‘trouble’ in high school. I made out with everyone. Everyone.”
Lena Hall: I thought it was hilarious. When it aired that first time, I was so embarrassed that they chose that. I said it so offhandedly as a joke. The people that were interviewing you—we befriended them. So you’d forget the cameras were on. They can make you seem like anything they want, because they’ll have a soundbite for any type of role they want you to play.
Following the mass-elimination, the top 15 were sent to learn a new dance combination from Jones and a 32-bar cut of “So Much Better”—ending on a C-sharp sustained for eight bars—from Rudetsky. The girls would perform both for the judges, and five would be eliminated by the end of the day.
Denis Jones: There were times I would wear an earbud, and they would feed me things to say. Or they would say, “Don’t say anything at all; just stare at the women for prolonged periods of silence.” There are some great shots of the women looking incredibly anxious, and it might have been been because they were like, “What the F is going on? Why is nobody speaking?”
Seth Rudetsky: It was like a real rehearsal. I gave them a sassy speech about, “Try to relate to these lyrics.” It was a lyric about being on time, which, by the way, I’m one of the latest people in the world. So I was completely projecting.
Autumn Hurlbert: They were kind of sneaky about it. You’d be thinking you’re just casually learning a song. Then all of a sudden the cameras would come in, and everyone would perk up and start singing more accurately.
It was during production on the first episode that Jones began to understand his intended role, albeit not without some initial tension.
Denis Jones: It seemed clear to me at the front end that my character was to be a bit of a drill sergeant. I think my energy in the room is more warm and playful, but I was to be a slightly colder version of myself.
Seth Rudetsky: Denis had an earpiece, and we were always joking because they literally made him say, “Girls, you’re dancing for your lives!”
Denis Jones: I didn’t say it. And then all of a sudden the voice changes in my earbud giving me the same line, and I was like, “Oh shit, we’re going up the food chain. Some other person is now requesting me to say it.” I had words with one of the producers. I was like, “I just cannot say that on camera. There are people who I know in the business who are going to watch this, and I just can’t say absurd things.”
Seth Rudetsky: We were always quoting that to each other. We were completely obsessed with it. It’s the stupidest. At least he has a good sense of humor and he knew it was hilarious.
After the 15 learned the material, Duff introduced the contestants to the three judges. For some, no introduction was needed.
Paul Canaan: I had worked with Celina Carvajal and Emma Zaks, but [the producers] were like, “You can’t talk to them; you’re not going to be friends with them.”
Lena Hall: I knew Bernie Telsey, too, and a lot of people who came in and worked with us—I knew Nikki Snelson really well; I knew Orfeh. So it was weird to be put into this situation where you’re made to feel totally inferior.
For others new to New York, names like “Bernie Telsey” didn’t mean much (yet).
Bailey Hanks: I wasn’t necessarily intimidated by the judges, because to be honest, I didn’t know who they were. I was just a musical theatre college student in South Carolina. Obviously, I got to know who Bernie Telsey was and know the magnitude of what he’s done.
Rhiannon Hansen: I had never been to New York, and I was still in college. I didn’t know who anyone at the table was, and I was so embarrassed.
Hansen did recognize one person at the theatre, though.
Rhiannon Hansen: When they told us Haylie Duff was the host, I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.” I was obsessed with Hilary Duff. Lizzie McGuire was my jam. I had seen some of her and her sister’s movies, so it was really fun. And she was also super chill.
Lena Hall: Nothing against Haylie Duff, but when they told us we were going to have a mentor, I thought it was going to be like Patti LuPone or Bernadette Peters. I was like, “Oh my god, what if it’s Joel Grey?” Some classic, legendary Broadway performer. Then Haylie Duff came out, and I was like, “What? She’s been on Broadway?”
They had already survived a dance call in front of Mitchell and two coaching sessions, and fatigue was setting in.
Libby Servais: We were all so hungry. I remember Emma Zaks had this Luna bar or something, and we cut it up into little pieces. She was like, “You guys, we really need to eat!” We were all so hungry and tired and losing it. It was all morning through the night.
Autumn Hurlbert: Right before we started singing, I was like, “I maybe have this in my voice two more times.” I’m just downing Throat Coat, and everyone thought I was so weird.
It wasn’t only the contestants who faced exhaustion.
Heather Hach: They didn’t have it all worked out the first episode, and they didn’t feed us. It was just way longer than they thought. The next morning, I was getting up early, and I think because my blood sugar was so out of wack, I completely passed out in my hotel room. I didn’t know where I was. I was like, “They’ve got to feed us; this is not right!”
The 15 performed for the judges for the first time, showcasing the dance combination and “So Much Better” cut.
Paul Canaan: Bernie had an in-ear thing the producers would use to talk him through stuff he had to say.
Bernie Telsey: The earpiece was all about things to keep it moving or speed it up—sort of like steering me. It wasn’t forming opinions; it was more direction.
Amanda Lipitz: Their taglines! They never liked them. Bernie’s “We just don’t see you as the next Elle Woods.” They were terrible, we knew it.
Bernie Telsey: I think there was a whole meeting about the catchphrase. Which is so not me. I would never say, “You’re not Aaron Burr.” I didn’t want to be known for “You’re not the next Elle Woods.”
Amanda Lipitz: But I loved Paul’s “It’s a hit!”
Paul Canaan: I actually said that backstage at the show with all the guys in the dressing room. I did it that first day, and the director came over and was like, “You literally just blew the mic.” I was like, “Well, my gayness is a lot to handle. Sorry not sorry. Figure it out, sound.”
The judges, producers, and Mitchell deliberated the ten who would go on to compete.
Paul Canaan: Celina was not originally in the top ten. We all had a meeting, and I raised my hand and chimed in. I’m like, “Listen, I know this girl. She’s very talented, and she’s going to be good TV because she’s balls to the wall. I think she should be in the top ten, and maybe not the girl who is very Vivienne,” who was Rachel Potter, who’s now a huge star. A mistake? Who knows. And then when [Lena and I] did Kinky Boots, I was like, “Girl, I got you on that reality show.”
Rhiannon Hansen: When it was down to just Rachel and I, in my head, I was like, “I am going home.” Because I had heard her sing, and her voice is stunning. So I got prepared to graciously bow down. Then they told me I had made it, and I thought, “Don’t break down on the floor.” And I also felt horrible because I thought she should have gone through. It was all of the emotions wrapped into one.
Rachel Potter: I just could tell I really didn’t fit into the type. I was like, “You guys need to cast me as Vivienne, because what am I doing here?” But I will forever go down in history as that brown-haired girl with bangs and the purple that sang the shit out of “So Much Better.”
Servais was also among the first five to be cut.
Libby Servais: They didn’t make me cry, but I remember them trying to. They would ask these questions that would poke at my heart, like, “Elle Woods was your dream role…” and I remember saying, “Actually, Glinda is more of a dream role.”
Incidentally, both Servais and Potter later understudied Glinda in Wicked on tour, with Servais also serving as the standby on Broadway. Potter, who is also an alum of Broadway’s The Addams Family and Evita, went on to compete on another reality show: The X Factor.
Episode 2: “And Then There Were 10”
After a demanding first round of cuts, the group moved from the hotel in which they were sequestered to a custom, dayglo penthouse atop the Empire Hotel.
Amanda Lipitz: I brought on Pottery Barn Teen as a sponsor on the musical; they did Elle’s dorm room. When we got the reality show, I was like, “I’ve got a better thing for you. Do you want to do the loft that the girls live in?”
Rhiannon Hansen: It was like my teenage dreams had come true. I was like, “This is what I want my house to look like!”
Amanda Lipitz: It was so weird, because they were living in a bar. There was a bar in the middle of it, and they weren’t allowed to drink or anything.
Natalie Lander: It was basically where they threw weddings, I think.
Autumn Hurlbert: It was these little twin beds organized with all of our little heads together. And I was like, “This is going to be a gigantic, noisy slumber party for however long we’re here. Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?”
Laura Bell Bundy: I thought it was really funny that they had them all living in a house together, because the number one thing that the person playing this role needs is quiet time. You can’t be talking to people 24/7 and play Elle Woods.
Lauren Zakrin: When we first walked in, we were like, “This place is dope!” But you can’t use the balcony because it’s freezing out. There’s no food in the kitchen. The bathroom is on a different floor. All the walls are basically curtains, and there are people with computers and cameras behind them.
Natalie Lander: We had no alarm clock, because they didn’t want us to wake up before the cameras got there. So they’re like, “OK, goodnight everyone.” And literally some burly grip guy would come in and pull the plug and all the electricity in the room would go out. We had little battery operated lights.
Cassie Okenka: It was kind of a fun thing to be like, “This is the weirdest princess prison camp I’ve ever been to in my life.”
For their next audition, the girls performed a book scene with Snelson. However, the challenge tested not only their acting skills, but also their ability to stay in the moment when a scene partner drops a line.
Nikki Snelson: When they told me what I was going to get to do on the show, I just thought it was too fun and hilarious. And I felt a little guilty. It’s not something that would normally happen in an audition, but it is something that happens on stage quite a bit. We had so many synapses.
Bernie Telsey: In an audition, if someone dropped a line and it really screwed it up, there’s an okay-ness for the actor or the reader to go, “Oh, I skipped a line; can we go back and do that again?” But the actor that stays in it and keeps going and is still able to do their best work, power to them.
Nikki Snelson: It’s not a challenge you’d necessarily have happen in the Bernie Telsey room, but it is certainly a challenge that you would have happen on the Broadway stage. So it wasn’t so far off.
Autumn Hurlbert: That was kind of a brilliant first challenge, because the greener you are, the harder you’re going to fall on that. It’s pretty cruel.
Nikki Snelson: A couple of the girls actually almost got, for lack of a better word, bitchy with me about it. And then all my bad feelings about doing that flew away a little bit.
Cassie Okenka: She’s looking at you like, “OK, your turn.” So you’re like, “What did I do? I swear I learned this!” And there had been many times that people would be talking to you and then stop mid-sentence and start over. So I was like, “Oh, maybe she’s hearing something in a prompter that I didn’t realize she had in.” It was just so weird.
Heather Hach: These poor things are so, so nervous to begin with. It just felt pretty “cat with a mouse.” But I get the drama of it, and it does also illuminate quite a bit.
Following her audition, the judges critiqued Hall’s attempts to save the scene, noting her gestures to Snelson seemed out-of-character.
Heather Hach: I remember the producers being like, “Come on, say it.” Especially to Lena. I remember, “Come on, you’re frustrated.” And I was like, “Well, yeah, but I don’t want to do it.”
Lena Hall: What’s hilarious is they decided to put the commercial break between when Nikki dropped the line and me picking it up, so it looks like the dropped line goes on for ages. It really wasn’t that long.
Heather Hach: And look, she wins. Because who has a Tony?
As the judges settled into their roles, Lipitz found a secret weapon to help Hach overcome her nerves.
Amanda Lipitz: Heather was nervous, and she loved Chardonnay. So you would see the coffee mug, and it was filled with Chardonnay. She was sipping it throughout. To get her meaner! Or perhaps honest.
Heather Hach: They wanted to loosen me up. I was a little wooden my first show, as I recall. And they knew that Chardonnay brings out the show tunes.
Laura Bell Bundy: Heather should come with a disclaimer: Please add wine.
Paul Canaan: There was a bottle in all the mugs toward the end. Which was fun for me, because you don’t drink before you go onto a Broadway stage to dance your face off. I was like, “Oh, this does loosen us up!”
Bernie Telsey: In the real world, you can go, “OK, it’s not going to work for Mary.” And the next day something can change and you’re like, “You know what? We need to see Mary one more time.” Here, it’s like we’re letting them go. That’s where the Chardonnay came through. You just really had to be on your game, right or wrong. That pressure was real; we felt very, very responsible.
The second episode introduced “the list,” naming those guaranteed to move on to the next challenge. Those not on the list were sent to the “casting office,” where the judges would eliminate (at least) one contestant. Cassie Silva, Okenka, and Ridgway were the first three on the chopping block.
Paul Canaan: We laughed with them downstairs, but upstairs was a much more serious show. We’d come up with what we wanted to say and gameplan it out.
Lindsey Ridgway: How often in a real audition would you ever get the opportunity to have a casting director tell you specifically why they’re eliminating you? I think maybe it would be good to have some feedback, but that kind of feedback is terrifying. Obviously there was no dramatic music playing in the moment, but in our heads, it probably was.
Heather Hach: They obviously wanted us to go on and on and draw it out dramatically. And you can see these girls in agony, knocking their knees in front of you as they film this over and over. It was like seeing who you were going to slaughter. I just wanted to be like, “Thank you. Thanks for coming in.”
Cassie Okenka: I was the first one kicked off. I do think it being a reality show maybe took me off the table earlier than it may have otherwise. Having those confessionals felt very abnormal to me. When I realized that all the other girls had questions about each other, but they didn’t ask me about anybody else, I was like, “Oh, I don’t think I’m in the right world.”
Three years after the series aired, Okenka made her Broadway debut in Bonnie and Clyde. She currently appears in School of Rock.
Episode 3: “Omigod, She Threw Us Under the Bus!”
Before the next audition challenge, Rudetsky led a physically demanding workshop testing the girls’ stamina. The winner would get a mani-pedi and spend quality time with Tony-nominated cast member Orfeh.
Seth Rudetsky: I was always so fascinated that Marissa [Jaret Winokur] told me how she got into shape for Hairspray by singing the whole score while jogging on a treadmill. I said, “I think that’s really relevant, and I would love to do something like that.”
Adam Paul: A majority of the girls had never been on Broadway before, so it was also, “How do we communicate to them—and to the viewers at home—what it takes?”
Autumn Hurlbert: I was legitimately terrified of Seth. I was like, “Oh my god, I thought he was campy and funny and loud. But now he’s military and mean? What are we doing?”
Throughout the workshop, Rudetsky had the girls belt out the score while doing crunches and cycling.
Natalie Lander: We were on those bikes for hours. Lena was like the Equity deputy of the group. She had done enough shows and she was like, “This is bullshit.”
Lena Hall: I was like the mama bear of the house; I had the most experience in the business, and I was also one of the oldest. I would put my foot down for us a lot. I was like, “We haven’t eaten since seven in the morning, and it’s already one, and you want us to get on these bikes?” Of course they wanted that because we would all pass out. I was like, “We’ll look into the camera the whole time if you guys don’t feed us.” I would start a little revolt. I was kind of a dick to the producers.
Natalie Lander: I remember after getting off that bike, I felt like that seat was lodged up my butt for a good three days.
Laura Bell Bundy: I always said that the role was like getting on a treadmill at a 4.5 with a moderate incline and going for two and a half hours. And then for “What You Want,” “So Much Better,” and “Legally Blonde Remix,” you started running. It was like interval training.
Lauren Zakrin: [Seth] gave everyone different parts of the song [“What You Want”] to sing—different harmonies. People like me and Celina were given the highest lines to sing, so of course we look like we're belting our faces off when the other girls could’ve sang it like that too.
Seth Rudetsky: What really sent me over in that challenge was they wanted to show Cassie Silva and make it sound like she was off. It was a really hard harmony, and she sang it right. But because how they edited it, and how they cut away to people rolling their eyes, they act like that’s what it was.
Lauren Zakrin: Of course none of us knew that at the time until we saw how it was edited that people were going to be made to look like that.
The next morning, Rudetsky and Jones led rehearsals for the next audition: a performance of the opening number “Omigod You Guys.” When not playing Elle, the girls were to appear as the ensemble as their competitors took center stage.
Rhiannon Hansen: I remember everyone being a little put off by the fact that we had to do all the other tracks, too. And I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m a little frustrated, but it’s kind of fun because we do get the opportunity to see everyone perform.” Maybe this is my naivety and the fact that I was 19: I thought we were all best friends and that we all were really getting along. I didn’t really think there was as much cattiness as ended up being shown.
Adam Paul: You put ten people living together under one roof, living under those circumstances, all you have to do is make sure you’re rolling.
Bernie Telsey: Purposely for the show, I stayed away from all that. Because that’s not going to help me. In the true world of casting, you have a director go, “What’s their reputation like?” And I’ll find out. But I don’t want that unless I’m being asked.
Bailey Hanks: Living in a house with a bunch of girls—there was going to be a little back and forth. There was always something [the producers] wanted to hear, so they ask you questions that tended to lean toward a certain reaction or answer they wanted. I knew that; I wasn’t dumb. But I have to hold myself accountable for what I said in interviews.
During a testimonial interview, Silva admitted her frustration that her housemates did not seem as willing to rehearse the ensemble tracks when she was Elle—a frustration the judges asked about after her audition.
Paul Canaan: That’s the thing I love about a reality show. They don’t know you know, and there’s all these storyboard people who’ve been with these girls 24 hours a day. And those people are looking for cracks the same way we are.
Autumn Hurlbert: With Cassie, her worst crime was that she was eager. She just really wanted it. She wanted to show up and be loved. And they loved it and twisted that to make her less palatable. Because she’s just the sweetest, most energetic and hilarious person. And they made her look crazy town.
Lena Hall: I sat her down. I was like, “Look, you’ve got to stop, because they’re baiting you into this.” I was telling her that we were all on her side, and we were all in it together. We were a family.
Natalie Lander: Who knows what the producers were planting in her ear while she was doing her interviews. I think they sort of planted seeds trying to pit us against each other. Now, as grown-ups, I’m like, “No, that wasn’t her.”
Amanda Lipitz: It's an MTV reality show—that's what it is. For the MTV executives who had final cut, they definitely had a formula that they stuck to that we all watched during that time and saw in different shows. But she wouldn't have been in the top 15 if she wasn't good. For the spectrum of shows that they had, I actually was really proud of the tone of The Search for Elle Woods.
The judges were not immune to the requisite reality show drama, either.
Heather Hach: I remember hearing from one of the producers that some of the contestants were talking smack about me. It was like two sides of yourself: your rational and irrational self. I was like a wounded kid, like, “They don’t like me?” The other part was like, “I’m not the one you want to piss off. It’s not smart to attack the judge, and the writer, and the female of the female empowerment show.” But I was also conscious at the time and thought, “Are they telling me this to get me to be more comfortable reacting negatively to them? Am I being played?”
After the audition, Hall, Zakrin, Zaks, and Ridgway were sent to the casting office.
Lena Hall: There’s footage of me crying and talking about how they talk down to us, and they used that to make it seem like I was talking about this critique I was getting from the judges. But it totally was not about that; it was about our producers. I was angry at the producers, and they used it against me. That’s the brilliance of reality television; it’s all in the hands of the editors.
Paul Canaan: I said to Lena, “You grabbed your boobs at the beginning! We are not looking for the next Pussycat Doll, missy.” Paul, who do you think you are?
Lena Hall: She’s a comedic character, and I thought that was a comedic thing to do. Making bold choices is what actors do. If it’s not the right choice, the director tells you no. No big deal. And I was like, “What am I going to say to that?” I’m not interested in being portrayed as argumentative, because at the end of the day, I was still working on Broadway. This is my livelihood. If I give you anything to make me look like I’m difficult to work with, that’s not good for me.
Autumn Hurlbert: So much of reality TV is you just slapping on this fake face and biting your tongue. The entire time you’re being filmed, you’re trying not to say what you actually think. Because what you actually think is, “This is all bullshit! This is all fake! This is all set up! This is terrible!” You’re just trying not to say it, and they count on that. It’s fascinating, psychologically.
Lauren Zakrin: I don’t think I had a lot of confidence in myself. So I was just standing there like, “This is it.” But damn, that face looked so sad. I hadn’t realized the thing you learn by being in the business about always being on. I didn’t realize I’m supposed to be looking like Elle Woods in every moment.
Paul Canaan: She probably thought nothing of it. She was just nervous maybe. But Heather and Bernie picked up on that too. I probably don’t seem happy all the time.
Lauren Zakrin: That followed me later, too. I had some interview with Seth, and he really railed me about that. C’mon, I didn’t know! It’s my face. It’s what it looks like.
Ultimately, Ridgway was eliminated, leaving eight girls in the competition.
Lindsey Ridgway: I kind of knew it was coming because this was my second week in the casting office. You’re in an uncomfortable situation to begin with; you’re not going home and rehearsing in the comfort of your own environments. You’re with all these other girls and you’re not sleeping as well. I think I could’ve done better if I’d have stayed a little longer and gotten more comfortable.
Following the show, Ridgway continued to pursue a career in theatre before transitioning to promotional modeling and marketing.
Episode 4: “It’s Time to Get Serious”
Spared from elimination, Zaks, Hall, and Zakrin returned to the loft. After a dramatic audition, Hurlbert found a way to help diffuse any lingering animosity.
Autumn Hurlbert: When we first got to the house, you could tell they wanted us to have a pillow fight. It was so conveniently set up. And my go-to to break tension is to do something crazy and make people laugh. And everyone was a little cranky, so we were like, “OK, this is the day it’s happening.”
Rhiannon Hansen: I’m sitting there like, “Oh fun, we’ll gently hit each other and feathers will go flying and it’ll be really cute.” But no, these girls were hitting hard. I got hit by Bailey a couple times and I was like, “Oh, girl, you really are after me!”
Lena Hall: A lot of the stuff that never made it on the episodes was what was golden about the house: how hilarious it was. We were laughing all the time and running around like tween fools.
The eight learned the song “Serious,” a duet with Elle’s soon-to-be ex, Warner. Cast member Richard H. Blake shared the stage with each during the audition.
Rhiannon Hansen: That night was my jam. I went to AMDA, and for our final, we’d do a big musical showcase. That song was my final. I wore that same dress; I wore the same shoes; I wore the same jewelry. It was weird, the amount of the same things I had on to recreate the experience. It was a really weird out-of-body experience. I looked across to [Blake] and I was like, “I can’t believe I’m singing this with you right now.”
Lauren Zakrin: I went on to work with Richard; we toured in Wicked together years later. I think I was like, “Please forget about that. Forget that we shared that moment. Let’s just start over.”
Hurlbert, Hall, and Silva were sent to the casting office. In a Search for Elle Woods first, two girls—Hall and Silva—were eliminated.
Paul Canaan: That was funny, because the two of them were like, “OK, bye,” and walked off together. The producers were like, “Can you guys just do that one more take—maybe not the best news you’ve ever received? Can you act a little bit sad?”
Lena Hall: I did the best I could with the time allotted—did it how I was going to do it—and I thought I did it well. I was more sad because I didn’t want to leave my girls. By that point, we were all very close.
Silva would go on to appear on Broadway in Rock of Ages and Matilda. After a name change from Celina Carvajal, Hall appeared in Broadway’s Kinky Boots before winning a Tony Award for her performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Bernie Telsey: Celina Carvajal, Tony Award winner. Who I had to say, “We just don’t see you as the next Elle Woods” to. I will always remember that, and I laugh about it every time I see her. I’m like, “Do you hate me?”
The Other Side of the Table
As production continued, the judges and Duff navigated the intricacies of their roles as part of a reality show.
Heather Hach: I know how hard it is to get rejected creatively. And someone who’s just busted their ass to do their best for you, and we say no—it’s a very difficult thing. I want to be gentle with that, and that isn’t what reality TV is about.
Paul Canaan: We’d stress about that. If someone had a rough line, we’d be like, “Good luck looking her in the eyes while you say that.”
Autumn Hurlbert: They were never rude; they were giving really honest and crafted feedback, and it’s hard to hear that on your own. When you’re hearing it with your literal competition standing next to you, you’re just totally exposed. We were sweaty palming it together.
Bernie Telsey: What we do in those rooms is very private, and I don’t ultimately say it to the actor. So it was learning how to be who I am and be honest, but also to articulate a point of view because there was a third party watching. It felt like what lawyers must be doing when they’re summarizing their case.
While the performers were thrown into a variety of challenges, the judges and host faced obstacles of their own, including the art of the dramatic pause.
Haylie Duff: They would say, “Before so-and-so is eliminated, you have to hang for this long beat so they can cut to everyone’s reactions. There were some times where I’d be overwhelmed with emotion because I’d know how hard it was for these girls and how much they wanted it. Building up those dramatic beats was hard. There’s part of it that’s very human, but another part that’s playing the game.
Autumn Hurlbert: The funniest part was when they were setting up the cameras to get our faces; it’s like a commercial break. Bernie would be like, “Autumn, we were really disappointed in your ability to…” Then I wouldn’t hear what he was going to say for like four minutes while they’re setting up the cameras. So in your head, you’re like, “My ability to sing? My ability to dance? My ability to what? What was he disappointed in? What was Daddy disappointed in?!” It’s the ultimate parent-child relationship.
Meanwhile, Canaan was living a double life as a judge and cast member.
Paul Canaan: We’d film all day long, and Heather and Bernie got to go home. I had to walk to the Palace Theatre, jump rope, bend and snap, and then wake up at six the next morning and be camera ready.
Laura Bell Bundy: Paul is one of my very best friends on the planet, and then he was judging this. We used to do this thing five minutes before our show started—we’d have a dance party in the dressing room. So that was my opportunity to find out what was going on.
Episode 5: “These Pink Boots Are Made for Dancing”
Before the competition continued, Mitchell stepped in to work with the girls in one-on-one, off-camera coaching sessions. Though he had either been in the room for their auditions or saw performances on tape, this was his first time working directly with them.
Jerry Mitchell: They had to audition for me privately. I needed to spend a little time with them to find out who they were and how they approached the material, which you can’t always fully do in front of a camera. It also helped them understand how I approach the material.
Autumn Hurlbert: I almost peed my pants; I was intimidated and eager and a whole mix of all the anxiousness that comes with auditioning in the final stages. It felt like a wonderful work session, but performed in a pressure cooker. I wish I could have been more in the moment and able to soak it all in, but I do remember him encouraging me to be more confident—to really go for it with my choices and my embodiment of Elle. I have implemented that same type of advice so many times
Natalie Lander: I always felt like Jerry was genuinely on all of our sides—that he was rooting for everyone.
The next workshop took the remaining six to Brooklyn, where Jones and ensemble member Nick Kenkel taught a dance combination to be performed outside—in February weather and on cobblestone streets.
Amanda Lipitz: We were trying to replicate the grating on the stage, which is a problem for people when they’re in high heels and the tracks are there. It’s kind of boring to put someone on a theatre stage and show that. Isn’t it more fun and visually beautiful to go out onto the streets of Brooklyn and do something you’ll probably never do in your life?
Denis Jones: What at times fell on my shoulders was presenting that to them as an experience that would be akin in some way to dancing on a Broadway stage, i.e. stepping over tracks on the deck, cords, wires. Now that is a bit of a stretch. I wasn’t buying it, not really. But we were tasked with finding the next Elle Woods, and at the same time, creating an interesting television project.
Bailey Hanks: I won’t lie, sometimes I felt like I was on a cobblestone street in the Palace Theatre. It got me one time; I stepped just perfect into one of the tracks, and my heel got stuck right in it. When I went to take the next step, my foot came completely out of the shoe, and the shoe was still on the ground.
Natalie Lander: We all had to wear these same pink boots. And my foot’s a size four, and the smallest they could get was a size five or six. So I’m also dancing in shoes that are too big for me. But you know, that’s Broadway.
Denis Jones: I was wearing an earpiece, and they wanted me to say, “If you think this is hard, try eight shows a week!”
Rhiannon Hansen: It’s kind of funny, because in the moment, you’re like, “That’s right. If Laura Bell can do it on Broadway, I can do this.” In my head it was words of encouragement. Like this is my bootcamp to being on Broadway. I was struggling with it because of my asthma. A lot of us had lung issues; the cold made it really hard to breathe.
Denis Jones: Those women were shivering, and that was a really hard shoot. I was also not supposed to speak to them off camera, and I stuck to that rule somewhat. I remember that day in particular though, offering them some comfort and a little bit of humanity off-camera. They were such champs.
Rhiannon Hansen: Denis was my savior that day. He was the coolest cat in town. I remember him being like, “I think that’s enough; the girls’ lips are turning blue.” And then a couple of the camera guys came over and gave us their coats. We’re all in crew guy stuff trying to warm up.
Once back at the house, the girls were instructed to take a survey, asking each to identify the strongest and weakest competitors based on multiple factors.
Lauren Zakrin: There was a question on there that was like, “Who isn’t in the right shape to play Elle Woods?” I felt very targeted by the question.
Autumn Hurlbert: In the back of my head, I was just like, “This has been a manipulative experience, but it hasn’t been this negative.” It was so out of place and not at all within the message of Elle Woods.
Rhiannon Hansen: In my head, I thought it was a joke. I was like, “Oh, is this an extra challenge? They’re looking for us to not answer these questions.”
Lauren Zakrin: I felt like this was going to be the most humiliating moment for me ever on television.
Natalie Lander: At first we were doing a protest. We were sort of at this standoff. But the producers would come in and be like, “Okay, no, you have to answer the questions.”
Dry-erase marker in hand, Hurlbert gave the harsher questions a positive spin.
Autumn Hurlbert: I finally was like, “They’re going to make us do this, but we’re going to do it our way.”
Natalie Lander: We were each other’s support because we felt alone in the process. I think that’s why we didn’t all turn on each other. And we’re show people. I feel like we were used to the camaraderie of that.
Autumn Hurlbert: I think much to the producers’ dismay, it was such a supportive, beautiful experience—because that’s how theatre people are. We’re family, you know? I don’t think they quite expected that. It was harder for them to create drama than I think they anticipated.
Adam Paul: The questionnaire was showing that when you’re on Broadway, it’s not just about what you can do on stage, but you’ve got to be able to know yourself, and you’re going to be challenged. You’ll need to identify for yourself your strengths and weaknesses.
Once in front of the judges, the six performed the “shake your junk” dance break from the number “Positive.” Hurlbert had admitted that dancing was not her strongest suit, but during the audition, she faced a more pressing concern.
Autumn Hurlbert: Every morning, they had little pastries and yogurts and stuff for us. That morning, I took a yogurt, and I was so stupid and tired. I was like, “Oh wow, I wonder if this is, like, Greek yogurt; it’s kind of sour.” Sure enough, about three hours later, I started feeling really bad and I didn’t know what to do. It was either throw up on stage or run out of the room.
Bernie Telsey: It was alarming, and she was someone who we already were starting to feel good about. “Is she just sick in the moment, or is this someone who’s having a breakdown?” We had no idea.
Autumn Hurlbert: I got sick in the bathroom, and they did try to follow me in, but they’re not allowed. That’s not my leg they show—I would never be caught dead in those character heels.
Amanda Lipitz: We decided to leave out the bad yogurt part because it was more dramatic that she was nervous.
Autumn Hurlbert: I was so mortified when the show aired and they said that it was stage fright. That was so unfair to me. I’d been slighted in so many ways: They said I got stage fright, and that I puked with ugly character heels on. Social media wasn’t quite what it is now. I would have been all up in there like, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.”
Hurlbert was not the only one feeling under the weather. Zaks had been battling bronchitis, and after her performance, she admitted that were she in a show, she likely would have called out—an admission the judges were reluctant to excuse.
Bernie Telsey: Not to be cruel about it, but if someone’s really sick and they’re auditioning, I feel bad, but we’ve got to keep going. It’s not like I get to reschedule this until tomorrow.
Paul Canaan: The girls flubbing lines, doing little things here and there, we needed to find our way in to critique it. But this was an obvious difficult situation to address. I knew Emma, and I didn’t want to be a jerk to her, so I was just speaking from what I knew about eight shows a week.
Ultimately, Zaks was eliminated. Shortly after the series aired, she joined the cast of the 2007 revival of Gypsy, later appearing in the 2009 revival of Hair. Zaks, the daughter of Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks, now focuses on wellness and fitness as a SoulCycle instructor. She presumably does not have her trainees belt the Legally Blonde score while cycling.
Episode 6: “Blonde to the Bone”
Prior to the next audition, the top five received makeovers, bringing redhead Hurlbert and brunette Lander one step closer to resembling Elle Woods.
Amanda Lipitz: We were at John Barrett.
Lauren Zakrin: Totally chill for me because my hair was already blonde, and they made it a little blonder. I was like, “Cool, free highlights!”
Rhiannon Hansen: It was the craziest haircut I’ve ever gotten in my life. He would literally fling my head to the side, then fling my head to the other side It was like something you’d see in Edward Scissorhands.
Natalie Lander: They dyed my hair this yellow. They literally just bleached it three times. It was not the best process for hair dyeing.
Amanda Lipitz: I was so worried about Autumn’s hair, because I think it turned out blue.
Autumn Hurlbert: They dyed my hair this beautiful strawberry blonde, and it looked really good. And then the MTV producers were like, “No no no, it’s not light enough. She has to be platinum.” So I went through bleach twice. It felt like straw, and my scalp was burning. I was like, “Listen, I’m game for all of this, but you just massacred my hair.”
Amanda Lipitz: Everybody left to go to the photoshoot, and I stayed with Autumn, because I was so nervous about her hair.
Autumn Hurlbert: I still laugh thinking about that—laughing through tears. Not once did I get mean or cry or anything. And yet Bailey lost like three inches, and it took her like three days to get over that.
Bailey Hanks: Oh, I was so embarrassed.
Natalie Lander: She was bawling her eyes out and Autumn and I are just like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Like, my hair is literally falling out of my head, my scalp is burned. That was amazing. All we had to do was give her a look, like, “Look at us.”
Bailey Hanks: It really had nothing to do with the hair. At this point, I hadn’t spoken to my parents in three weeks. And I’m stressed out, tired, and anxious. That started to weigh on me. It was just a breaking point. And it was the worst haircut I’ve ever had, and that was disappointing, because you think you’re gonna get this killer haircut. Honestly, if Elle Woods’ hair looked like what mine looked like after that, she would’ve done the same thing.
Autumn Hurlbert: With Bailey, her hair is her thing. Bailey has one of the most beautiful heads of hair I’ve ever seen in my life. I think that’s why that was her freakout. It was like, “Yeah, get over it,” but also, I was like, “Okay, you weren’t prepared for that.”
Bailey Hanks: I’m proud that it was my only breaking point. At least I had only one crying breaking point, and of course it was the hair.
Lauren Zakrin: We could’ve just put on wigs right? If they wanted to see what people look like as a blonde, they have access to beautiful, expensive Broadway wigs.
With lighter, styled, and possibly fried hair, the five had a heart-to-heart with Bundy before a post-makeover photoshoot with publicist Michael Hartman.
Laura Bell Bundy: I had begun my process of playing Elle Woods in July 2005, and this was 2008. When I started playing Elle, I was a girl. And when I left the show, I was a woman. Elle Woods starts the show as a girl, and she ends the show as a woman. I grew as an actress, I grew as a person, and I found this character every night in new ways. I knew whoever was going to take this on was going to go through a personal transformation as well.
Rhiannon Hansen: We all go in the same dress, and it was a weird thing looking at each other and being like, “Ah, this is weird.” We all looked alike. It was kind of Stepford Wives.
For the next audition, the five tapped into Elle’s vulnerability, performing the title ballad opposite cast member Karl (who understudied Emmett). Prior to the audition, Rudetsky led a vocal coaching session, during which he guided Hurlbert through an epiphany.
Seth Rudetsky: She’d always be amazing with me, and then she would never be up to snuff in the audition. I said, “Why are you so good when we work together?” And she said that she loves performing, but she equates auditioning with people taking away her chance to perform. I was like, “An audition is your performance!” She was asking permission to sing the song, not acknowledging that she’s singing the song. I feel she really changed after that.
Autumn Hurlbert: Both Seth and Denis are angels on Earth. They were the nicest, most wonderful human beings. They were so supportive and went well beyond what they needed to do. They really could have just phoned it in and did what they needed for the cameras, but they really invested in us.
Paul Canaan: When the girls started digging into that level, the acting chops came out. And the younger ones read that they were young, because a song like that comes from real experience.
Andy Karl: It was a little odd doing the scene over and over again with different people; you could see different strengths in the actors.
Rhiannon Hansen: The producers knew that I loved Natalie, and they took it down to just she and I, which was just so rude.
Andy Karl: I would like to take this moment to apologize to Natalie. I was asked to give her advice. I was the Emmett understudy; I was not part of the initial breakdown of the scene in rehearsals, so I asked [composer] Larry O’Keefe the day before filming if he had any thoughts. I translated them to Natalie, but I think it just ended up confusing her. Whether or not that was the reason she was cut is unknown, but I think she deserved another chance. Oh, the scandal of it all.
Natalie Lander: I think my journey was actually supposed to end sooner. Like it wasn’t set in stone obviously, but I think I was supposed to be one of the first to go. I’d get a lot of comments from the judges like, “We’re still surprised by you.” Then I feel like when I was eliminated, it was extremely abrupt; I had won two challenges in a row but I’m standing there in the casting office with Bailey, who is obviously the winner. But I think the prize was being on the show for as long as I was on it.
Rhiannon Hansen: I was heartbroken when Natalie went home. Even now when I watch that episode, it’s really hard for me. We were the L.A. girls and we’d hide out in the hallways at night and be sneaky, trying to have conversations off-camera.
We had to go and do a whole bunch of interviews. We were going back up to the hotel room where they filmed the interviews, and Natalie got off a different elevator. We weren’t supposed to see each other, but I go running over to her, and she came running over to me, and we gave each other the biggest hug. So dramatic. That’s the one testimonial interview where I’m not really nice. They definitely catch me being really upset about Natalie being gone.
Lander returned to Los Angeles, where she now focuses on TV and voiceover work; her credits include The Middle and Lopez.
Episode 7: “Triple Threat Test”
Before the next audition, the top four were treated to a special dinner in the penthouse—and an Elle necklace from Tiffany & Co.
Autumn Hurlbert: I remember the food getting cold because they kept stopping us and saying, “OK, guys. We need you to talk about this.” They wanted me to lecture the girls. And I fell for it. I was like, “Broadway is great, but there’s so much more out there.” It’s true for any performer, whether you’re Sutton Foster or 19-year-old Bailey Hanks. You could book this Broadway show, and then you might not work. Look at me. Legally Blonde was my Broadway debut and I’ve not been back on Broadway since. That’s all I was trying to say. But how they capitalized on that as, “Oh, this is Autumn. She’s super old and jaded.”
The penultimate audition, dubbed the “Triple Threat Test,” was the most challenging yet, with the four tasked with performing “What You Want,” complete with an on-stage quick-change and dance break.
Rhiannon Hansen: It was really frustrating after the fact, because people would be like, “You had a week to learn the number.” Oh no, you had a week to think we learned a number. But we filmed everything in a month. So we had maybe 24 hours to learn it. We didn’t have time to build stamina or anything.
Lauren Zakrin: Even when you’re rehearsing—in numerous shows that I’ve done—it takes a while to build up stamina for different types of choreography and singing at the same time. And it’s different every time. It’s not like, “Oh, I still have the stamina from the last one.” Of course that’s going to be hard for anybody to do when cameras are on and a massive job is on the line.
Rhiannon Hansen: This is my friend’s favorite Rhiannon quote of all time, when I say, “I had wind. It was coming out kind of quickly, but I had wind!” She’ll still quote that. But like, of course I’m breathing hard; this is really hard. So I couldn’t put into words how hard it was to do that number.
In the casting office, the judges expressed concerns over Zakrin’s perhaps too youthful energy, bidding an emotional farewell to the 18-year-old performer.
Heather Hach: Any time you see a reality show, it’s always the same line of, “I can’t believe how quickly I felt so much.” I love to mock it to this day. But it’s like all the stereotypes were totally true for us. We couldn’t believe that we cared so much about the girls, and it was heartbreaking.
Bernie Telsey: I think I even cried. I remember they were like, “Oh, that’s good.” I’m like, “What’s good?” “You’re getting emotional.” “Because I am emotional!”
Amanda Lipitz: I think the only reason [Lauren] didn’t win—this is my opinion—she was too young. She was so young. When we put her next to Richard, it looked weird. You have to think about that.
Lauren Zakrin: I mean, it’s all good. I still got a job at the end, so I will say I’m glad they kept me hanging around. I think I knew the whole time I was too young; I think everybody knew. That 18-year-old with that big baby face is not going to take over the lead role on Broadway. That wouldn’t been insane and so wrong over some of those other women.
Heather Hach: I saw her ability; I saw her talent. I just felt so damn bad about it. She just felt very, very apprehensive, and needed a little bit more under her belt. There’s a reason she’s gone on to rise up.
The judges then announced that only two would move on to the finale, meaning one more would have to be eliminated. Hansen was the last cut, however, the judges recognized her talents were better suited for another opportunity and offered her the part of Margot in the musical’s upcoming national tour.
Bernie Telsey: I had a huge casting affinity for Rhiannon—so freshly funny. But it was clear in that moment that she didn’t have that strongest of strongest Elle voices. But she was such an asset. I remember having the idea: “What about her as Margot?”
Paul Canaan: I was like, “Let’s announce that on TV!” And that got shut down. They were like, “Nope, America likes winners and losers. We can’t just have a half prize for one of the girls.” I remember fighting for that.
Rhiannon Hansen: When they said no, I remember being like, “Okay, don’t cry your eyes out.” And then they called cut and said we needed to go again. I was like, “Are you kidding me? I need to hear this again, and I have to act like it’s fine again?” I’m already in that lowest point. And they go into the spiel that I’m eliminated, but this time they say they want me to come back as Margot. It was going from literally the lowest low of my 19-year-old life to the highest high.
Heather Hach: That was so cool. She just had that Margot energy.
Rhiannon Hansen: Autumn started screaming and gives me this huge hug. It was such an amazing moment. I think Heather ended up saying, “Of course you’re Margot.” It was like, “Oh yeah, how did I not see that? That is my type.”
Jerry Mitchell: I think it was a very well-planned decision. When the tour went out, we’d say, “Our Margot is from the MTV show.” That did make the tour very profitable, having those girls from the show on tour—not just on Broadway. MTV helped the brand in a massive way.
Rhiannon Hansen: I walked out of the room, and there were all these PAs and these computers, and everyone was crying. I didn’t even know all those people were back there. It was a little Truman Show-esque, seeing all those people I didn’t even get to see, and they were all cheering me on.
Zakrin also appeared in the Legally Blonde national tour; both she and Rhiannon Hansen understudied the role of Elle. Zakrin would go on to appear on Broadway in Rock of Ages and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
Episode 8: “A Star is Born!”
With the competition down to just Hanks and Hurlbert, the two faced their final audition: a showcase of three numbers from the show (“Omigod You Guys,” “Positive,” and “So Much Better”) on the Palace Theatre stage with full tech elements, including costumes, sets, lights, and the Broadway company.
Bernie Telsey: As a casting director, you don’t get that in the studio. It’s not like the old days—when I was a casting associate—doing callbacks on a Broadway stage. So this was really special. This was an opportunity to do what they do with screen tests for feature films.
Amanda Lipitz: We had to negotiate with Actors’ Equity and the musicians’ union and everything for what we needed for those songs. And I remember Jerry wanted to change one of the songs, and we couldn’t. That wasn’t fun. No one wants to tell Jerry no.
Paul Canaan: It was a whole day of tech rehearsals, and there was so much setup time in between to get that stage ready. The stage managers had to reset everything. So doing three numbers twice each took the entire day.
Bailey Hanks: Autumn was in her dressing room, and I was in mine, and we were kind of apart from each other. I really appreciate that they did that, because it allowed us to be in our own element. I liked that it wasn’t so much a rivalry.
Autumn Hurlbert: The timing was really weird that day. I remember while I was getting the wig fitting, one of the makeup artists said, “I’ll meet you in your dressing room before you do your final performance.” I remember sitting up in that dressing room, waiting and waiting. Then all of a sudden, they gave the notice that we’re going downstairs, and I was like, “Uhm, I have no makeup.” So I did all my own makeup. I know it wasn’t fishy; it just felt fishy. And I think that’s part of the paranoia that sets in. I did have fun, but I was so in my head.
Seth Rudetsky: I remember being in the balcony. I was just so excited that Autumn got to hit that note [an interpolated E-flat at the end of “Omigod You Guys”] again. I was literally looking forward to that. And she would do it before the beat; that’s what I was obsessed with. Brava to me that I’m still so obsessed with certain little minutiae.
Paul Canaan: When it got down to Autumn and Bailey, we were like, “Who can carry this whole thing?” We honestly weren’t so sure. People say reality TV is so fake, but there was a lot of real doubt. I remember Larry and Nell [Benjamin] were leaning more on the Autumn side because they wrote the score. They wanted their score to sound amazing, obviously.
Bernie Telsey: We all got to sit there and talk, and it felt like Bailey was the choice. It just felt like there is an expectation of who Elle Woods is, and she was naturally that, whereas Autumn was beyond talented, but it was acting Elle rather than is Elle.
Heather Hach: Bailey really felt like she had the DNA of Elle Woods in her.
Bailey Hanks: There were gives and takes with both of us. I knew at the end of the day, if she beat me, it would be OK, because she is a better singer than me. And there are so many people who are better singers than me. But I knew that I could sing, and the good thing is I can out-dance her. She could out-sing me, but I could dance circles around her.
Autumn Hurlbert: There was one intern I loved so much. She came in to change my batteries, and I was like, “So what’s the buzz? What’s happening?” And she was like, “I mean, I can’t say anything…” and I could tell by the way she hesitated. She didn’t say so, but she was very kind and gave me a little bit of an emotional warning.
Following the judges and creative team’s deliberations, Hurlbert and Hanks returned to the stage to hear the final verdict.
Bailey Hanks: I have a little secret. Go back and watch it. When Haylie pulls the tiny little envelope out, the spotlight comes down and busts right through. And you can see my knees buckle, because when that light hit through the envelope, I saw my name before she said it. I had to do everything to stay composed. I almost thought I was being a bad girl by seeing my name. And I’ve always wondered if Autumn saw my name, too. In a way, that broke my heart for her to see it before it was announced. But then again, I wonder if it would’ve softened the blow a little bit.
I thought I was going to have to create a reaction, but I didn’t, because hearing her say my name was just so different. I’ve never experienced that overwhelming joy and excitement—until I had my daughter. But in that moment, I had never experienced anything like that. Right then and there, my life changed at 20 years old; my dreams were coming true.
Laura Bell Bundy: I knew it was going to be Bailey. It was a gut feeling. It was her confidence; she was more sure of herself. And she had an energy to her. Autumn had more vulnerability and more depth, to me, but Bailey had an energy. Elle Woods has energy and effusive joy.
Amanda Lipitz: We all loved Autumn. She was an incredible performer. It just wasn’t her role.
Jerry Mitchell: I thought Bailey had it in spades. Bailey was Elle, and I thought Autumn acted Elle.
Autumn Hurlbert: I just felt it in my bones way before the finale that it was Bailey. You could tell that was the story they wanted, and I’m not the only one who was privy to that. I remember telling my parents before, “Don’t be disappointed.” It makes me emotional thinking about it. They wouldn’t pan to my parents when they announced the winner; they were so crushed.
Heather Hach: I remember going up to Autumn’s parents and just saying, “I’m so sorry; your daughter is so talented.” And they were so mad at me. They wouldn’t speak to me. I don’t blame them. I probably wouldn’t, either.
Bernie Telsey: I actually remember feeling like, “Okay, Autumn. I’m going to put her in five other things.”
Autumn Hurlbert: I think my fatal flaw was that Bailey was so confident. It was her favorite movie, her favorite character. It was her dream. But my dream was to be on Broadway—it wasn’t necessarily Elle.
Immediately after her win, Hanks performed a victory encore of “So Much Better,” with her fellow contestants (Hurlbert included) in the ensemble tracks.
Autumn Hurlbert: I’m still in the Elle costume. And all the other girls came back, but already had time to process. It was the loneliest, weirdest experience, because they were already separated from it.
Hurlbert ultimately made her Broadway debut in the ensemble of Legally Blonde; she’d go on to appear in Nobody Loves You Off-Broadway and in the recent national tour of Something Rotten!.
Lauren Zakrin: It was at the wrap party on the final day of filming. Bernie was like, “So, do you want to understudy Elle Woods on the tour?”
Autumn Hurlbert: [Associate Director] Marc Bruni, Bernie Telsey, and Jerry Mitchell pulled me to the side and said, “We don’t know how it’s going to work yet, but we’d like to offer you an ensemble role and understudy Bailey.” I’ll never forget—they didn’t say to understudy Elle. It was a weird way of saying it. I was like, “I don’t want this.” I will always feel bad about that, because it seems so ungrateful. But I was just truly in shock; I felt like I’d been force fed Legally Blonde for so long. I was like, “I just need a break. I want to go to an island where there are no blonde people, period.”
Paul Canaan: Becky [Gulsvig, the original understudy] was going to tour, so they knew that track was going to be available for the runner up. So whether Autumn was Elle and Bailey understudied, or reverse—either way they would both be able to come into the show.
Autumn Hurlbert: I obviously wanted to make my Broadway debut; I did earn it. I worked my little ass off, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity.
Production wrapped in mid-late March—about 12 weeks before the series aired on MTV.
Amanda Lipitz: I was going back and forth to L.A., editing it for two or three more months before it aired. We needed to do those testimonial interviews; a lot of them you don’t have time to do while they’re happening. Some were filmed in my apartment.
Natalie Lander: You’ll notice there’s this testimonial of me where I have a hat on and I have extensions clipped over my hair. It’s because I’m blonde underneath, but on the episode I hadn’t been blonde yet. I look like a weirdo.
Amanda Lipitz: MTV knew how to keep things secret. We even had secret rehearsals going on.
Bailey Hanks: We were under heavy contracts where we couldn’t say a word. There was a lot of money on the line—money I did not have—so my lips were sealed.
Natalie Lander: When I left, I was like, “Don’t you guys want me to dye my hair back? Because I’m going to go back home and everyone’s going to know that I made it at least to when my hair got dyed.” And they said no. So I went home and I had yellow hair, and everyone was like, “What happened to you?”
Bailey Hanks: I remember getting a massage, and the masseuse was like, “Your body is so tense and tight. You have so my knots.” And I was like, “You don’t even want to know what I’ve done for the past month and a half. And I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to, so don’t ask.”
While recovering from filming, Hanks went through the formalities that would bring her to the next step of her Broadway journey.
Bailey Hanks: Booking Elle meant immediate Equity membership. That little bitty piece of paper was something I had known about for so long, and I was like, “This little card opens so many doors.” That felt like a huge accomplishment in itself. And my initial pay—I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was a lot of money for a 20-year-old! Looking back, it’s not much now. Knowing what I know now, I probably should’ve asked for a bit more. But I was 20; you learn your lessons.
“Omigod, This Is Happening”
Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods premiered on MTV June 2, 2008, airing on Mondays through July 21.
Amanda Lipitz: A really good friend of mine threw me this crazy premiere party at the W Hotel downtown. We all watched the first episode together, and it was super fun. Then every week, I would have everyone over to my apartment. Slowly, people trickled out—maybe people were getting sick of it.
Paul Canaan: I’m just a normal actor; I’d come out of the stage door every night and just go home. The day after the reality show aired, I walked out that stage door, and it was mayhem. I signed autographs, and I was like, “Oh, this is what happens when you’re on TV and people recognize you.”
Autumn Hurlbert: There was kind of a dark period after that. Musical theatre performers are sort of afforded anonymity. But when the show came out, it wasn’t just like, “Oh hey, I recognize you from that show.” People see you on TV and they’ve formed this bond with you, but you don’t know them. People talk to you in a really honest, kind of rude way. Like, “Can I get your autograph? I mean, you totally weren’t as good as Bailey, but you tried your best. I really liked that about you.” It was rough.
Meanwhile, an incognito Hanks rehearsed for the musical before the finale aired and received support from one of the few people who knew what she had just gone through.
Bailey Hanks: Amanda’s a hoot. She was like, “You really need to go and buy a wig, because I have no clue how we’re going to get you in and out of the rehearsal space without people seeing you. It’s going to ruin it when the reality show airs and they see you in New York coming out of a rehearsal space.”
Lena Hall: A Broadway show is stressful, and eight shows a week is hard. And I knew what she was in for. I felt like, “If I can help, I want to help.”
Bailey Hanks: When I moved to New York, Lena opened her apartment to me; she was my first roommate ever. I lived with her a majority of my time in New York. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done without her.
Lena Hall: I was the mentor at that point; I got to play the Haylie Duff. She’d come home after rehearsals and ask me questions. If goodwill is gone around, then goodwill will come back when you need it.
Bailey Hanks: She literally was like my New York mom. She had things hanging in the closet for me; she had a dresser and nightstands that she ended up giving me. I still have some of those pieces to this day. On the first day, she was like, “Alright, girl, get your shoes on. We’re going to go and I’m going to teach you how to use the subway.”
“See, Dreams Really Do Come True”
The finale, announcing Hanks as the winner, aired July 21. Hanks and Hurlbert took their first bows two days later.
Bailey Hanks: The show aired, I had a press day the next day, and the third day, I opened on Broadway. And Wednesdays are two show days. So my quote-unquote opening night was a matinee. They didn’t publicize that to the public. So a majority of the people coming to the theatre to see the show that afternoon had no clue who they were going to see; Laura Bell already had her last show. When I came up from the floor, the roar in that place was so loud, it threw me back.
Opening night was different; the anticipation was palpitating. I had to wait a second before I said my first line, because people were screaming and applauding, and I started getting emotional. I was trying to tell myself, “Don’t cry. You’ve got a whole show you’re about to do.”
Autumn Hurlbert: It was wild. 1,500 seats of screaming girls and support—the best feeling.
Bailey Hanks: I said my first line, blinked, and I was taking a bow. It flew by so fast.
Autumn Hurlbert: When Bailey and I made our debut, there was a big party after the show. Photographer, champagne, the works. I did not know about the party until a cast mate mentioned it as I was going home to take care of my puppy between shows. I had the ultimate actress dilemma. I had nothing to wear, my hair was cray from pin-curls, and I had no time to do anything about it. I grabbed a cute sundress out of my closet and tried to hide in all of the pictures. I still cringe and laugh out loud when I see the pictures from that night because I was the ultimate awkward turtle.
Seth Rudetsky: I remember going and being extremely anxious at the end of Act 1, because the show had so built up the end of “So Much Better.” It was like, “Here comes this thing that we keep talking about how it’s the hardest thing in the world!” It’s like watching a triple axle. And then I was so happy that Bailey nailed it.
Laura Bell Bundy: When Bailey came up, I was like, “Yep, she’s got that Southern, ‘kill them with kindness’ kind of thing.” Reese and I are both from the South, and even though Elle Woods is from UCLA, I’ve always thought that a Southern girl understands Elle the best. Bailey had that that Southern essence, and that made her seem the positive, ‘bless your heart’ kind of attitude that Elle has.
Jerry Mitchell: With any great musical, you’ve got to be thinking about who’s going to play the part when the leading person you’ve cast in the original leaves. Is the actual role on the page, or is the role lying with one person? I don’t think anyone wants to get into that position where a role relies on one person. Bailey was a great replacement and did the show very well.
The series brought Broadway to an MTV audience and vice versa; the theatre community had stepped into the mainstream spotlight. One Tony winner (who would later step into the mainstream spotlight himself with a cultural juggernaut) recognized this and saw an opportunity to send up the series.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I was tickled that the reality genre tackled this musical theatre world I loved. I thought, “What’s our version of that?” I was tickled by the idea of a reality show replacing [Eliseo Román, In the Heights’ Piragua Guy] while he’s still in the show.
Thus, Legally Brown: The Search for the Next Piragua Guy hit YouTube. Miranda enlisted his In the Heights collaborator Quiara Alegría Hudes, Allison Janney, Norm Lewis, The Search for Elle Woods alums Bernie Telsey and Seth Rudetsky, and more to participate.
Bernie Telsey: I thought it was a really creative idea, especially since it was a loving spoof. I was flattered that Lin asked me to be a part of it since I had been working on the casting of Heights.
Amanda Lipitz: It was the funniest thing; I died.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: We wanted to play with reality TV tropes—Matt [Morrison] as the “bad boy,” Hunter [Bell]’s hilarious elimination exit. The performers improvised brilliantly, and their work was so good that what was intended to be one YouTube video became a six-part series.
“Back to What I Was Before”
The show saw an immediate box office bump between Bundy’s final performance and the subsequent cast change, with grosses hovering around $850,000. Eventually, the figures dipped , and the show began to gross less than 50 percent of its weekly potential.
Amanda Lipitz: We had an incredible box office number, but ultimately this show was just way too expensive. We couldn't sustain it in New York.
Two months after Bailey Hanks’ first performance, producers announced that the show would close October 19.
Bailey Hanks: They brought us all into the common area, and they read the letter to us. I remember looking up—I don’t remember who I looked at—but I said, “What does that mean? What are they talking about?” My dresser and somebody else told me, and it just hit me. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Autumn Hurlbert: Hal Luftig, the lead producer, is the sweetest man. I’ll never forget him getting teary eyed giving the news. He thanked so many people individually and gave this beautiful speech.
Paul Canaan: The closing notice came sooner than people expected. But I think that if the reality show—if Bailey—was the one that kept it open longer, they were grateful for the work.
Bailey Hanks: For a second, I took it personally. I was miserable for everybody; I thought it was my fault.
Heather Hach: We were hoping it would infuse the ticket sales more than it did for sure. But if we selected someone else, I think it would have probably ended just as it did.
Bailey Hanks: Around that time, I think it was 13 shows had closed or had gotten closing letters. It was almost a sigh of relief, because it wasn’t like we were the only show closing on Broadway. It wasn’t, “You’re just not as good as Laura Bell.” Because I got that; people wanted to say that. It was a rough time, but that allowed me to accept it and understand this happens to everybody.
Autumn Hurlbert: After that initial disappointment, it was just a full-on party for those last few weeks—a big love fest. The type of people that Jerry Mitchell attracts are fun, zany, and vibrant.
Bailey Hanks: We closed not long after. I’m kind of glad, because I knew to enjoy every second.
Autumn Hurlbert: It was a mixed bag, though, because I knew I wouldn’t get to go on as Elle. I never had a put-in. Bailey only missed one weekend, and Kate Rockwell [who played Margot] had been the understudy and had been there for a while. So that was her chance to go on.
Entering the Broadway company, making my Broadway debut, and getting a closing notice while still sifting through my heartache from not “winning” Elle was a very complicated time. I was not my best, nor my most gracious self during a lot of that time. Ah, maturity. But I wouldn't take any of it back for the world, because learning is growing. I love Legally Blonde, and I cherish my experience with it.
Life After Blonde
In the years following the series, most contestants continued to pursue careers in theatre. Incidentally, a former judge became a familiar face.
Libby Servais: I moved to New York and ended up going in for Wicked right away. Bernie Telsey was there for my audition. I was afraid to bring it up; I didn’t know if it was bad to be like, “Remember me? I was eliminated!” So when I got Wicked, I was so excited because the reality show didn’t matter that much.
Rachel Potter: What’s meant for you won’t pass you by. And I wasn’t meant to be Elle Woods. I was meant to make my Broadway debut as Wednesday Addams. I’m much more Wednesday than Elle. I had this relationship with Telsey and everything. Telsey was the casting company that ended up casting me in every single show I ever did. I owe them everything.
Lauren Zakrin: I’ve definitely gotten over it, but for a couple years after, every time going to Telsey, I would have the worst anxiety. I can go into any other casting office and be fine, but just bombing auditions at Telsey. I think it was just a sort of PTSD from being so embarrassed on television and being filmed in that building. I just saw Bernie the other day. God, I hope he forgot.
Bernie Telsey: I was really invested. All the unknown girls, I was trying to get agents for. It’s a bond—spoken or unspoken. When I see Cassie Silva, casting her in L.A. from a dance call, I’m remembering all these things
Cassie Okenka: Coming out of college and having Bernie know your name is a cool thing. Who knows if he knows it now, but it counted when it needed to count.
Bernie Telsey: My heart goes out to all of them. They wore their rejection in public. That’s a big deal, and I respect them for that and find them all—in some ways—extra talented that they were able to do that in front of the camera.
For Carvajal, The Search for Elle Woods was not the start of her Broadway career. It was, however, a catalyst for a rebranding—and the genesis of Lena Hall.
Lena Hall: It was the first time I realized you are a brand as an actor. You are this thing that people want to hire. With your name comes a certain kind of idea of what that name represents. I remember realizing I needed to focus on what I really wanted; I was starting to focus on rock ‘n’ roll. The reality show was the beginning of the idea of myself as a packaged product and less of, “I can do anything ever.” Because if you’re so diverse, no one knows where to put you.
Mitchell ultimately directed Hall in Kinky Boots. Less than a month after her final bow in the Tony-winning musical, she was back on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Lena Hall: When I look back at the tapes, I’m an entire foot taller than every other girl there. I’m edgy and dark. If you look at me, that’s not a part you’d ever consider me for. It’s so obvious now.
Jerry Mitchell: I didn’t think she was Elle; she was a rock girl. I’m not surprised with her talent and the way her career turned out.
Some contestants went on to play Elle as part of the aforementioned tour and/or regionally.
Lauren Zakrin: Being able to play Elle Woods at 19 and 23 and 26—to watch how I’ve changed and how much more depth she gets as time goes on—has been fascinating and rewarding. It was meaningful to do the role and be reminded that this is how I got started in the business. This was who I started with and the story I started telling. I’m still telling it, and I’m very grateful.
Rhiannon Hansen: Laura Bell had come out to cover Elle [on tour], and at one point she grabs my hand in the show and we’re looking at each other. I was like, “I can’t believe this is my life. I’m holding hands with Laura Bell Bundy and we’re on stage together.”
The first day I went on as Elle, I sang “So Much Better,” and the curtain comes down, and I could hear my friends in the audience cheering. I turned around and all of my castmates are cheering. It was the coolest moment to go full circle and know that I had done it—I had played Elle Woods.
Denis Jones: It was really fun to work with Autumn on another [regional] production of Legally Blonde. To have the opportunity to work with her outside the bizarreness of that TV show, just to have a normal process with her in the room for rehearsal, was wonderful.
Autumn Hurlbert: Elle’s indefatigable. She never takes no for an answer. And as a performer, that’s the number one thing you have to get used to. Elle is a great example of an undying spirit for knowing that she’s meant for something, and she doesn’t care if she makes a fool of herself along the way. She’s not afraid to show that she’s learning.
I saw Something Rotten! after I just had my baby. I called my agents immediately, and I was like, “Listen. I know I just told you I’m not willing to go on tour, but I’m totally reneging on that. I don’t know how, but I really think I should do it.” And it’s one of my most favorite jobs I’ve ever done. I think it took me a long time to really absorb that Elle message, but I definitely embody it now.
Shortly after Legally Blonde’s final performance on Broadway, Hanks starred in High School Musical at Paper Mill Playhouse before relocating to Nashville with her family. She continued to act, guest starring on Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns and local productions of 9 to 5 and Legally Blonde. While appearing in a 2012 production of the latter in Alabama, she came under fire after posting a picture of a meal from Chick-fil-A, known to have donated to political organizations against same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community.
Bailey Hanks: It was very devastating. I was doing Legally Blonde in Alabama, and one of my dearest friends worked at Chick-fil-A. When I posted that picture, I tagged her saying, “I miss you. I’m thinking of you as I’m going through the Chick-fil-A drive-through.” That’s what it was. A friend of mine—they know me and they broke my heart—took that picture and blasted it on social media.
I was doing the show with several people in the gay community, and no one ever mentioned anything about it. No one ever said, “Bailey, do you know what’s going on? Are you cognizant of the Chick-fil-A situation?” I wasn’t. No one ever said anything about it because it wasn’t posted that way. When it was pulled out of context and blasted another way, I can totally see how people would think. I would never do anything maliciously like that. That was not my intent at all.
I had to keep telling myself: hurt people hurt people. What was hurting me the most is that these hurt people actually thought that I felt that way toward them. It took a good year or so to really get over that. It really did get me down, and it really made me question and second guess being back in the theatre world. I was like, “Well, if that’s how people think of me, if that’s how they feel, I’ll leave them alone and stay away from them—just not give them any reason to be any more mad.”
Hanks relocated to South Carolina, where she now works as a hairstylist.
“I’m Gonna Find My Way”
Amanda Lipitz: I think it’s funny that it’s become this culty thing. I had no idea. When all this started happening, I was like, “What’s going on? Why do people care?” And Alex, who works for me, is like, “Amanda, people loved that show. Why do you think I came to work for you?”
Nikki Snelson: When we did it, we thought it was kind of fun and fluffy, and now that people are still remembering it, it kind of stood the test of time on a camp level that I’m really kind of surprised about.
Lauren Zakrin: I still meet so many people who are like, “Oh my god, I loved you on the show. I was obsessed with it.” And I’m like, “Girl, that was ten years ago.” But people loved it—especially young girls who were also aspiring to be in the business.
Rhiannon Hansen: Anytime I’ve done Legally Blonde, everyone wants to watch it, so we do a binge night. I will say I’ve watched it at least five times all the way through with different groups of friends.
Autumn Hurlbert: I didn’t realize what a special thing it was. It’s been nice to have had ten years away from it, to be able to revisit it with some joy. It’s really special to know that I was part of that. It’s like the gift that keeps giving—and maybe the PTSD that keeps torturing.
Heather Hach: It’s been so heartening to see how the musical’s been embraced; I think the reality show helped broaden that reach. It’s heartwarming to know it’s a timeless story and how applicable it is now. And to see the Saturday Night Live spoof was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Amanda Lipitz: It was my baby, and I wanted it to be amazing. You know, when you actually give birth, you forget what birth was like because the baby’s there and it’s so cute and time passes and you forget. That’s kind of how it is.
Adam Paul: Were our challenges silly sometimes? Yeah, but Elle Woods was a little bit silly sometimes. These things had never been done before, and never had a girl shown up at Harvard in a pink car.
Denis Jones: It was at times a bit ridiculous, but I don’t think that outweighs the positive. Reaching out to new audiences is always something I support. I believe that’s healthy for Broadway, and that’s what helps us continue to make theatre relevant for the next generation.
Seth Rudetsky: I thought it was really well done. They were legitimately teaching the show to people and you got to watch rehearsals and vocal sessions. I thought it was really informative to America.
Jerry Mitchell: The reality show made a lot of young people who are fans of musical theatre aware of my work. Seeing the Legally Blonde MTV showing—and how it has affected young people—they’re in awe of it. And they can actually watch it. It’s a big deal. It’s like a masterclass for young kids who never had that experience but want it. I think that’s the legacy of the MTV taping and the reality show.
Paul Canaan: We’ve had Tony Awards, starring roles, babies. All these girls are rock stars.
Rachel Potter: This was the first of many rejections I would experience, and the first of a few rejections I would experience publicly. I got kicked off a reality show that had a lot more viewers on The X Factor. It taught me I had a lot to learn—and I still do.
Lauren Zakrin: Being kind of forced to fake that I knew who I was or that I had confidence on national television was devastating—and also helped me find it. That was the biggest lesson I learned: to actually believe in myself and not sit around thinking, “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.” Because you are! You did it make it to the end, and you made a career out of it. I got on the show—and maybe because I clucked like a chicken. I recognize that every connection I’ve made has unfolded from being seen by those people at that time.
Lena Hall: I was feeling very entitled. I was comparing myself to other people and to their careers. And that came across when I watched this. I realized, “Oh wait, I’m on my own journey. Nobody’s thing is the same. I just need to do what I love.” Having myself shown to me in a mirror, and being like, “Oh god, I don’t like what I see or who I am,”—that is something I can change or have control over. The rest of the world, I have no control over. But how I am and who I am to other people, and how thankful I am, and being happy with where I am—that’s what I learned.
Though she no longer performs professionally, Hanks keeps Elle in her life in a different way.
Bailey Hanks: Her name is Noelle Marie, but we call her Elle. It makes me emotional thinking about getting the chance one day, when she’s old enough, to show her the videos and tell her what I went through. I go through it all, and they’re fun memories. There are some bad ones, too, but they shaped who I am. It made me stronger and it made me wiser. It made me braver.
Amanda Lipitz: The reason why I felt Legally Blonde did so well in this format was because of the “So Much Better” moment in the musical: seeing your name on the list and knowing you accomplished something. If you work hard and you are good to work with and you are kind, your name will be on the list one day. It might not be like this exactly, but it will get there. That's what I'm real proud of: for young people who had never seen Broadway to see young women working hard towards a goal.