Producer Paula Wagner on Theater’s Magic, Bringing ‘Pretty Woman’ to Broadway

Pretty Woman The Musical
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Theater always held a powerful magic for me, a girl from Ohio with dreams of the stage, but the Broadway landscape I faced as an actress in the 1970s lacked much of what defines its success today. I did perform on Broadway in the ’70s, but soon I made my way to Hollywood in search of bigger dreams behind the scenes. I started at Creative Artists Agency, which was just a small firm at the time, and I became an agent, then a film producer, and later a studio executive. It wasn’t until I returned home to the theater in 2012 as the lead producer of “The Heiress” and a co-producer on “Grace” that I realized how much had changed, and for the better.

The force of Broadway today is undeniable. Rising numbers in box office revenue and spikes in attendance support the general buzz of excitement throughout the theater world. Opportunities for new ideas abound — even, and maybe especially, if they are based on old movies.

Six years ago, the time was finally right to shepherd “Pretty Woman: The Musical” to Broadway as its lead producer. Garry Marshall’s 1990 film was a worldwide hit, the rare romantic comedy that crossed international borders and earned itself a permanent spot in the pop culture pantheon. Garry’s vision for the stage adaptation was to highlight the musicality inherent in the film and infuse it with the kind of electricity you can find only on the stage. The challenge, shared among Garry, his co-writer J.F. Lawton, director Jerry Mitchell, composers Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, the entire creative team and me, was to retain the essence of what fans cherish about the film while giving theater audiences reasons to fall in love all over again with the story and its characters, live on the Broadway stage.

The link between film and theater is nothing new— some of the earliest silent films were based on plays — but the synergy we see now is unprecedented. Nearly half of the shows running on Broadway are based on stories originally given life on film. And why shouldn’t they be? The exchange between film and theater is an opportunity to explore beloved material beyond the confines of the original form, and there has never been a better time to be “bilingual” in both stage and screen.

To adapt “Pretty Woman: The Musical” we asked ourselves: What is theatrical about this story? What iconic moments from the film can the show not exist without? How can we make changes to best fit the current cultural context? Theater comes with a unique set of creative and technical tools, and each is an opportunity to expand an audience’s connection to the heart of a story. The original film’s late-1980s setting is channeled into Adams and Vallance’s score.

Rodeo Drive stays, and Kit, Vivian’s loyal friend, is the one to herald its arrival, with the help of Orfeh’s showstopping performance — a celebration of all that Rodeo Drive represents. Vivian’s red dress makes its requisite appearance, but the opera scene onstage offers us a new window into Edward’s love for Vivian with the ballad “You and I,” as Andy Karl reveals the character’s depth and vulnerability. A close-up of Vivian in the original becomes the 11 o’clock number, “I Can’t Go Back,” sung by Samantha Barks, whose performance gives the character the soul of a modern woman coming into her own power.

What was rooted in reality on screen is transformed onstage into impressionistic images that ask the audience to open their imagination and be swept up in a moment that will never happen again in the same way. Unlike in film, the actor on stage shares space with the audience, and their presence can be felt as the story unfolds each night as if for the first time. Successful theater is riveting from start to finish, but it is not spectacle that draws you in, as with the standard screen blockbuster. Onstage it is a great idea, the soul of the thing, that captures you.

The preparations required to create this singular experience are the primary reason why the producer’s job looks different from the back of a theater
than it does from behind a camera. On the creative side, the essential steps of producing are not so different from those of the film world. The producer secures the IP or manages the writing process, and next must assemble the creative team that will bring life to the material. Then, to oversee the creative journey to Broadway, it’s on to organizing workshops, rehearsals and previews to push toward opening night and beyond.

It is between the business of Hollywood and the business of Broadway that the producer’s path diverges. Once the lead Broadway producer has assembled the pieces of a show, she or he functions in the traditional role played by the studio in the movie business. It is the producer who finds the financing, forms an LLC, books a theater, hires a general manager, PR and an advertising firm, sets the ticket prices with the theater owner and bears all inherent risks. As they assume many of the responsibilities of both distributor and exhibitor, Broadway producers must analyze the landscape from week to week to position their show in the best possible way. What Hollywood producer ever dreamed of adjusting prices for the newest release to meet varying demand on different days, as producers do on Broadway with dynamic ticket pricing? Then again, how often do movie producers specify the exact theaters that will screen their film? In Hollywood it is the role of the distributor to release a film in however many thousands of screens it can access worldwide. A Broadway producer, however, vies for borrowed time in one of just 41 venues spread across a few blocks in New York City.

On Broadway the rewards are as real as the challenges. Watching the audience night after night is one of the thrills  of theater producing. Their palpable anticipation as the lights go on at “Pretty Woman: The Musical” at the Nederlander Theatre is surpassed only by their expressions of joy after they spend the evening live and in real time with characters that they know and love. “Pretty Woman” is poised to follow in the film’s globe-trotting footsteps when it opens in Germany in September and continues on to other locations around the world. And so the work of the producer continues.

Audiences today will only turn off their phones for the kind of performances that demand their full attention. Theater has been provoking that kind of focus for thousands of years. It is primal in a way that viewers cannot help being drawn to as the world around us grows more and more steeped in technology, and seemingly less and less in the essential kind of humanity that is laid bare with ease onstage. In a world overrun by small screens, it is no wonder viewers have turned their eyes toward the Broadway stage.