‘Legally Blonde’ makes its case

MTV reality show bumps box office sales

CHICAGO “Legally Blonde” may have had a bumpy Broadway berth, but its accompanying MTV reality show has helped boost the tuner’s touring street cred.

Take a handful of recent road stops: $2 million for a couple of weeks in Houston; $2 million at St Louis’ fabulous Fox; high $900K’s for single-week stands in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.

“Every presenter has gotten into splits,” says producer Mike Isaacson, referencing the sweet spot where, after meeting guarantees, venues get to share some profits. “That’s a real joy to be able to say these days.”

The boffo road grosses are especially noteworthy because “Legally Blonde” got mixed reviews and no Tony love on Broadway, where it did not fully recoup its investment. In New York, it was perceived as yet another teen-oriented musical fueled by mass culture. Many Gotham critics couldn’t stand it.

“It’s hard to like a dumb blonde when you are a really smart critic,” says Jerry Mitchell, the director. “We had to continually keep proving ourselves. Like a dumb blonde.”

And when the carnage of this past January killed off a lot of its peer musicals, the only reason “Legally Blonde” was unaffected was because it had already closed — the previous October.

“We looked at the same cliff everyone else was seeing,” Isaacson says. “So we took our money and jumped off early.”

Clearly, blondes have more fun on the road. That’s partly because hinterland auds are more receptive to its sweet, PG story; partly because there’s usually no “Wicked” competition in town; and partly because word of mouth on this show has always been reasonably strong.

And then there’s MTV. Or, more specifically, “Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods.”

The success of TV casting shows is well documented. “You’re the One That I Want” did a lot — financially, if not artistically — for the Broadway production of “Grease.” “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” did a lot for the London revival of “The Sound of Music.”

But there was an important difference with the “Elle Woods” show. Styled as a search for a replacement rather than an original star, the show was broadcast toward the end of the New York run. It thus did little for the Broadway box office. But the timing has been huge for the road.

“It helped us become the thing everybody loves: the four-ticket buy,” Isaacson says. “The show has given the kids a huge knowledge base about the show. You can hear the whispering in certain scenes.”

By doing the TV show after the stage show was already open — and by negotiating plenty of creative input — the “Legally Blonde” crew was able to use actual scenes from the musical as the exercises in the TV talent show. The other fly-on-the-wall casting shows didn’t yet have a production to showcase.

With “Elle Woods,” the actual property became lodged into desirous young heads, not just the celebrities who probably wouldn’t have been on the tour anyway. That’s the problem with the current “Grease” tour. The production on display came out of the NBC TV show, but those lovable TV winners — who were watched all over America — are nowhere to be seen on the road. Jim Jacobs, the co-author of “Grease” and one of the judges on the TV show, said recently that the original leads had turned down their offer of a tour.

The downside of the “Blonde” replacement approach, of course, was a loss of impact on that all-important Broadway advance. But Mitchell says he had been loath to let in cameras in advance of his Broadway directing debut. And, anyway, from a presenter’s perspective, the timing could not have been better.

“We wanted more weeks,” says Eileen LaCario, VP of Broadway in Chicago, where the show will land for a month later this year. “People are very excited.”

“Blonde,” which would appear to have underbooked itself in certain big markets like Chi and Los Angeles, has gone out with a measure of fiscal prudence. Mitchell says his experiences touring the many versions of “Hairspray” (which he choreographed) have taught him to be “prudent about what I do and don’t need.”

Isaacson says he figured the show, which is on track to tour through 2011, had to be scaled so that, say, a typical $650,000 week would not bring financial disaster for all parties. In almost every market so far, the dumb blonde has hooked up with a lot more than that.