If you’re the type of theatergoer who checks out the list of Musical Numbers in the program before the show starts, PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL will already be pretty disappointing.
“Welcome to Hollywood.” “Something about Her.” “Luckiest Girl in the World.” “On a Night Like Tonight.” “This Is My Life.” “Never Give Up on a Dream.” “You and I.” “I Can’t Go Back.” And — oh, yeah — “You’re Beautiful.”
All clichés, all phrases we had heard before we reached our teenage years.
Don’t expect the lyrics that follow those titles to hold any particular interest, either. As champagne is poured during Act Two’s opening song, we hear “Bring on the bubbles; forget all your troubles.”
Worse happens long before that. Rich Power Broker Edward Lewis takes a fancy to $100-an-hour prostitute Vivian Ward. He sings that there’s “Something about Her” and that “I can’t put my finger on it.”
Too bad; the song would be substantially more involving if he could.
Before this, Vivian has sung that she would like to be “Anywhere but Here” – meaning Hollywood Boulevard where she stands all night in hopes that there’ll be a drive-by hiring. To be sure, the “want song” is a staple of the Broadway musical, but PRETTY WOMAN’S original screenplay was more intriguing by having Vivian NOT want or expect anything to change in her life – and to be surprised when it did. Because the song is full of stale images, it’s comes across as a seen-there-heard-that retread.
Perhaps songwriters Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance wrote with the charts in mind. They may have wanted the songs to be as unspecific as possible so that the tunes could step out of the show and become hits.
Indeed, they do pretty much come across as the stuff we used to hear on AM, down to “rhymes” that settle for the vowels but not the consonants: “not”-“cop,” “boulevard”-“are,” “dream”-“between,” “miss”-“wish” and plenty of others.
Accompanying many is that tortured and distorted too-loud guitar sound that is meant to rustle up excitement. When Edward and Vivian duet and sing “I believed in you; you believed in me” (another entry in the cliché parade), an off-stage chorus echoes the words they’re singing in the pop-song manner.
In centering on so many allegedly-from-the-heart love ballads, Adams and Vallance have missed opportunities for comedy songs. The scene where Vivian, in her first moments in Edward’s penthouse hotel suite, pulls out an array of condoms and makes a comment on many of them could have been good for some laughs.
More importantly, there should be a song where both Vivian and Edward insist that there will be “No Kissing.” She has her reasons and he has his; let’s hear them. Her stating what she WILL do instead could be funny, especially if she uses euphemisms for some kinky sex acts.
That Vivian and Edward state that they won’t ever kiss is, in fact, one of the most significant moments in the PRETTY WOMAN film. It’s the metaphor that shows that these two keep their emotions not only close to their vests but actually inside their heads.
This cries out for musicalization, for when Vivian and Edward finally let down their guard enough to kiss, the moment would mean so much more if it had been underlined by an earlier song.
What’s more, that kiss could have led to a fascinating love song where Vivian finally feels that she can pull down the chain-link fence that’s been long around her heart and tell Edward “I Love You” – only to get silence in return. What a way that would be to show that the stakes are getting ever higher.
But instead we get songs like “You’re Beautiful.” Oh, please! What do dazzling looks mean in the long run, especially if we’re talking about a couple we want to see have and hold from this day forth? Lorelei Lee wisely observed that “we all lose our charms in the end,” so having Edward harp on Vivian’s physicality is terribly shallow of him. It’s even an insult to the more complex nature of the screenplay; there it was clear that Edward, although of course impressed with Vivian’s face and body, had more admiration still for her quirky nature and perceptive quips. Those are what suggested to him she could Really Be Somebody with the right guidance from a mentor.
And why not a song when Edward is about to take Vivian on the town and she says “If I forget to tell you, I had a really good time tonight.” That’s one of the screenplay’s most endearing lines, for it shows that Vivian is already enjoying herself, is appreciative and fully expects the feeling will last all night long.
In both the film and musical Edward has a revealing moment. He recalls that when he was a little boy, he liked to create buildings out of blocks. These days, he laments, he never builds anything; instead he takes companies apart.
Here someone decided that the Act Two opener where Edward takes Vivian to a polo match should have a banner stating “The Edward Lewis Enterprises Charity Polo Classic.”
The film simply deems it “a charity match” with Edward not involved at all. That makes sense and doesn’t hurt the “building blocks” speech. For if Edward WERE endowing a charity, he WOULD be building something.
One wonders why those connected with PRETTY WOMAN — who presumably watched the show dozens of times in rehearsals, during the Chicago tryout and the Broadway previews – didn’t notice this. Who’s watching the store?
At the match, Vivian shocks two society women by saying that she’s only using Edward for sex. This worked well in the film, for director Garry Marshall had his pair of actresses take on the rarefied air of To the Manor Married. Here director Jerry Mitchell allows them to be low-class caricatures, so when Vivian delivers her zinger, we don’t believe that these two who have been established as vulgar would be shocked at all.
Marshall had worked on the musical libretto, but died two years ago. That left J.F. Lawton, who wrote the original screenplay (which was massaged by many others) to go it alone. Whether he or Marshall added one of Groucho Marx’s most famous quips is a question that may never be answered. From the response that the crowd gave it, they either didn’t think it was so funny or they’d heard it before.
Making a solid Broadway debut is Samantha Barks, who’s charming, appealing and most able in song. (Mitchell has given everyone very little dance.) You’d never know that Barks hails from The Isle of Man (which is between England and Ireland), not from the flawless American accent that doesn’t trouble her for a second.
(Those Brits are really good at becoming convincing Uncle Sammers, aren’t they?)
Barks especially shines in “Luckiest Girl in the World” which she shares with her (platonic) girlfriend Kit – and Giulio, who works as a bellboy (and has other hotel duties). Why he’s in this number where two old friends are re-bonding cannot be defended. Mitchell may have hoped that having Giulio (Tommy Bracco, who would set his hair on fire to be noticed) end with a somersault would be sure to add to the applause. Still, it’s a song for the two women and he has no business being there.
Kit isn’t much of a role, so “Never Give Up on a Dream” was probably added to showcase Orfeh’s impressive voice. However, Kit hasn’t thus far expressed ANY dream on which to give up; she’s very much at home with her occupation. So by song’s end, she finds a dream to which she can aspire. Why not give it to her in Act One so that the song could make more sense?
Andy Karl, bless his heart and soul, is miscast. No question that here’s one of Broadway’s most valuable leading men, for he can radiate good-natured charm and a love-me smile.
In this show, though, both exacerbate a problem. At the show’s outset, Edward Lewis needs to be steely and unemotional with rock-solid gravitas. He must be loosened up, but Karl is too innately loose to begin with; a nice guy at the start and nice guy at the end. Adding to the problem is the little self-deprecating laugh that he occasionally adds to the end of a line.
Here’s wishing that this endearing actor will star in a hundred million musicals that allow him to display those wonderfully warm qualities. They’re not required here, and he can’t make the character into the no-emotions straight arrow – nay, straight spear – that Edward Lewis Enterprises must be.
Here’s betting that the songwriters are happy with Karl, because he delivers that soul-stricken gravelly voice that is so beloved in pop songs. It allows a man to sound uber-masculine even when he’s experiencing The Anguish That Love Can Bring.
Lending excellent, Tony-nominatable support is Eric Anderson as – well, four characters. Two aren’t more than walk-ons, but in the first few moments of the show, he’s “Happy Man,” a narrator who seldom returns for the character is really unnecessary. Happy Man could very well be there because he gets applause when he removes his ratty overcoat, displays a smart suit and becomes Mr. Thompson, the unctuous manager of the Beverly Wilshire where Edward (and Vivian) reside.
As was the case with Giulio, in order to get an extra laugh, Mr. Thompson is in the hallway when Edward and Vivian have one of their most intense fights. Considering the all-too-proper demeanor we’ve seen from the man, he’d know that the upcoming altercation is none of his business and would make a quick (but nevertheless dignified) exit. Here he stands pat and uses Body English to show that he’s on Vivian’s side (which he would not be; after all, Edward pays the bills).
PRETTY WOMAN, then, more than once resorts to making characters do what they’d never do, figuring that this unexpected behavior will get the audience to laugh.
And it does every time.
In the end, of course, Edward does build something: Vivian, who also builds him into a better person. Those two changes are wonderful to witness, which is why PRETTY WOMAN will still be as big a smash hit on Broadway as the film was 27 years ago.
Nevertheless, a musical whose original screenplay is the main asset is one that won’t command respect from every theatergoer. Too bad that the writers didn’t give PRETTY WOMAN substantially more thought.