The 2001 movie Legally Blonde was a charming star vehicle for Reese Witherspoon, but few who saw it in cinemas would’ve wagered it would go on to become a hugely successful, seven-time Tony-nominated musical.

Except, that is, for Jerry Mitchell, a theatre veteran (his credits include Hairspray, The Full Monty and the Broadway Bares charity events) who directed and choreographed the Broadway and West End productions of the show.

He was in Sydney recently to oversee the first week of rehearsals for our local production.

“I knew. What makes a movie ripe for musicalisation is a larger than life character. If it’s over the top on film, it’s easy to musicalise. That’s what drew me to do it… there was also the fact that I had just been dumped, so I could relate,” he told the Star Observer.

As the musical opens, Elle Woods (played by the always-excellent Lucy Durack in the Australian production) finds herself adrift after the supposed love of her life, Warner Huntington, breaks up with her.

So begins a bright, bubbly and very camp journey of musical self-exploration as she rails against her own blonde bimbo stereotype.

“I got involved with this show because I was passionate about it, and because i’d just gone through the worst break-up of my life. My Warner Huntington broke up with me, and I had to learn to stand on my own again, so I knew I could tell that story with humour,” said Mitchell, who flew Durack to London to audition her for the part.

“The characteristics that I look for in an Elle are vulnerability, trust and honesty – we have to fall in love with her right away, because she’s beautiful and she’s got money, so what’s the problem? OK so her boyfriend broke up with her, but honey, we’ve all been dumped! It comes in the ability of the actor to make you root for her, and Lucy has that.”

Durack will be joined on stage by a well-rounded cast of musical theatre performers, including Rob Mills and David Harris as her suitors, and Helen Dallimore in the Paulette Bonafonte role made so famous by Jennifer Coolidge in the original film.

But Mitchell acknowledged that the musical was in some respects a one-woman show, with much of the responsibility resting on Durack’s shoulders.

“She never leaves the stage; she sings three-quarters of the score herself. She’s literally off stage just long enough to make a costume change,” he said.

“I’d just come off Hairspray, where Tracy was another character who barely left the stage. I said to Larry and Nell [Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin, writers of the show], not only have you written another one of these characters, but you’ve written every damn song for her,” he laughed.

INFO: Legally Blonde, Lyric Theatre from September 21. www.legallyblonde.com.au

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