Musical hopes to stand out from pack

When the Broadway-bound tuner “Legally Blonde” scored glowing reviews from its San Francisco tryout earlier this spring, the surprise along the Rialto was palpable.

Turns out a sizeable number of Gotham legiters were perilously close to writing off the show — solely because it was “just another musical based on a movie.”

“At some point in the last four or five years, ‘based on a movie’ became this pejorative,” says Hal Luftig, a lead producer of “Blonde” along with Fox Theatricals and Dori Berinstein. “It became a hill to climb.”

For shows like “Blonde,” which starts Gotham previews April 3, the specter of movie-to-musical fatigue has become a potential stumbling block as pic-based tuners continue to proliferate on Broadway. Producers, marketers and creatives must now engage in a careful dance between the potential benefits and the possible pitfalls of taking a title from screen to stage.

Tuners based on features are hardly new.

“Sweet Charity” (1966) was based on “Nights of Cabiria,” “Applause” (1970) grew out of “All About Eve,” and “Nine” (1982) took its story from “8½,” to name just a few.

And in recent years, pics have inspired more than their share of monster stage hits. “The Lion King” (1997), “The Producers” (2001) and “Hairspray” (2002) are among the winners at both the box office and at the Tonys.

But as more and more musicals are being developed from feature properties, films have yielded an increasing number of legit disappointments, too.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (2005) never quite recouped on Broadway, “The Wedding Singer” (2006) foundered, and “High Fidelity” (2006), based on the film as well as the book, barely opened. Despite two out-of-town tryouts, “The Opposite of Sex” (2004) has generated no talk of a New York date.

Musicals based on movies were charged with lacking originality. Ennui appeared to have set in, not unlike the apathy that can prompt reflexive eye rolls when a tuner is labeled “a jukebox musical.” (It’s worth noting that so far this season, the leading contender in awards speculation is “Spring Awakening,” based not on a well-known pic property but on a little-seen 1891 German Expressionist play.)

“Blonde,” based on the MGM movie and the novel by Amanda Brown, came in knowing it would have to fend off the stigma, just as last season “Jersey Boys” worked overtime to fight being dismissed as another jukebox tuner. (“Boys” won that war, taking home four Tonys and becoming a hit on the Rialto.)

“Anytime you’re categorized, whether it’s as a jukebox musical, a movie-musical or a British megamusical, there are perceived limitations,” says Nancy Coyne, CEO of Broadway ad agency Serino Coyne, which handles “Blonde.”

“Turning movies into musicals feels like a trend, even though it’s been happening for years,” she adds. “It’s just that now, since there’s so much equity in a movie title these days, the titles don’t change” — the way, for instance, “Some Like It Hot” was redubbed “Sugar” for its 1972 stage tuner incarnation. (Recent tours of a retooled version have reverted to the original film moniker.)

For “Blonde,” the strategy has been to create an identity for the show that is separate from the movie — but not too separate.

Star Laura Bell Bundy is currently the central component of the advertising, instantly addressing the consumer question: Is Reese Witherspoon, the star of the movie, in it?

She’s not, as the art makes plain. But the image also incorporates a chihuahua, which fans of the movie will recognize as the must-have accessory of protagonist Elle Woods, the SoCal sorority sister who conquers Harvard Law.

The show’s collaborators strive to give the show its own identity creatively as well.

“The success of any of these adaptations is that they have to have their own life,” says Luftig, whose experience with pic-to-legit musicals varies from hits (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) to misses (“The Goodbye Girl”).

Helmer Jerry Mitchell, a first-time director but an old hand at choreographing tuners inspired by movies (“The Full Monty,” “Hairspray,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), watched the movie early on in his process, and hasn’t seen it since.

“It allowed me to take the basic story and create my own thing from it,” he said.

With composer-lyricists Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe and book writer Heather Hach, Mitchell has concentrated on beefing up Elle’s love interest (played by Christian Borle in the musical).

Creatives also have worked to better integrate story elements in the plot — the bend-and-snap routine, Mitchell says, now plays an important part in Elle’s deduction of shady doings. And since San Francisco, they have replaced one song (“Love and War”) with another (“Positive”).

Collaborators will continue to fine-tune the show as it heads toward its April 29 opening. Current prognosis is good, given that the production arrives in Gotham with out-of-town raves similar to those won by “Hairspray,” another bubbly girl-power tuner based on a pic. (If the show is a hit, MGM might also have a fresh property on its hands to follow the movie-to-stage-musical-to-movie-musical path taken by New Line with “Hairspray.”)

Still, Luftig isn’t taking the strong San Fran response as a guarantee of a Broadway hit.

“We all know those reviews are only good until April 29,” he says.

But as “Blonde” sashays into town, those reviews certainly will help the show shrug off the skepticism.

“People in New York sat up,” Luftig says. “Now they can’t just dismiss us.”

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