Blong. It’s a hair color that conjures up images of beauty, privilege, thoughtlessness. Throughout history, women famous for their beauty, from Marilyn Monroe to Paris Hilton, have been slapped by these stereotypes. This cliche was so prevalent at the turn of the millennium that it stepped up Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon’s Malibu Barbie became the Harvard law-educated heroine to show that blondes can be smart too, in fact, in the classic comedy of 2001 Revenge of a Blonde. But for the film’s new musical production in London this summer, blonde is more of a state of mind. For Courtney Bowman, who will play Elle’s pink Louboutins in the lead role, it’s not just a hair color, but “a metaphor for everything you’ve felt judged for.” [by]”. She screams. “Oh my God, that’s the headline over there, isn’t it?” I made one for you!”
This new production of Legally blonde: the musical approaches blondness from a new angle. This raises big questions: How do associations with blond, a hair color traditionally linked to whiteness, change when the actor in question is not white? Bowman grew up in Lincolnshire and has dual heritage: her father is from Cape Verde, while her mother is white and Bowman describes herself as African-European. When it was announced that Revenge of a Blonde – a wildly popular 2007 musical based on the cinematic phenomenon – was updated and relaunched a decade after it last aired in London, she was as excited as any fan. When news broke that directorial prodigy Lucy Moss would be helming, it only raised the bar. And when it was revealed that Bowman herself would be playing Elle, she knew she was making “musical theater history.” She shivers. “Oh, that’s so disgusting, I can’t believe I just said that.”
The process was emotional, and Bowman rejoices when she remembers getting the part. “It’s good that Lucy trusted me to say ‘Yeah, you know what, that’s the girl.'” Her eyes suddenly fill with tears and she whispers “don’t cry” to herself. ‘Being tall – ooh, my God – being tall and a person of color, it’s so nice to open it up and have more people coming in and watching the show and talking and being like, ‘ Oh my God, this person looks like me’… I’m not just doing this for me, [but] for all the girls out there. The tears come back. “Ooh, she’s leaving.”
I meet Bowman, 27, on a wonderfully sunny day in Regent’s Park (the show will open in his Open Air Theatre), where the cast is rehearsing for three and a half weeks, with two more to go. Bowman, understandably, is quite knocked out and yet still manages to be energetic. The story of Elle – who goes to Harvard in pursuit of a man, only to find she’s perfectly fine on her own – is her final role in the “empowerment show” subgenre (her words) . She originated the role of Fatimah in Everybody’s talking about Jamiea musical about a Sheffield schoolboy who dreams of being a drag queen, and played Anne Boleyn in a pop musical Six, the hit co-written and directed by Moss, who reimagined Henry VIII’s Wives as a feminist girl group. “It’s kind of my niche,” Bowman says. “I always try to make it a point of honor to do a show that means something and sends a message, because then what is theater for?
From an external point of view, it is easy to group Revenge of a Blonde among other film musical adaptations and dismiss them as a cynical grab – criticism leveled at recent West End productions of Frozen and Red Mill!. But there’s a reason fans love this show so much: it’s really, really good. The musical is sharp and hilarious, self-referential and self-aware, with nuanced characters, full-throttle dance numbers and songs that have the sticky power of the theme of Frozen.
And there is no greater fan of Revenge of a Blonde than Bowman herself, which she told me more than 10 times during our conversation. His first introduction to the musical came from a 2007 MTV Broadway taping and its corresponding corny reality show. The Search for Elle Woods, where aspiring actors competed in corny challenges as they competed to replace Laura Bell Bundy in the lead role. Bowman had previously worked with Moss on Six and was desperate to be involved in her take on Revenge of a Blonde (“I was like, ‘I’ll be a tree in this production'”).
Bowman says she originally “foolishly” closed her mind to the possibility of playing Elle. As a tall, non-white actress, she had assumed the role would go to a blond, white girl. So she was surprised when the show’s crew asked her to read for Elle and admits she wondered if it was “some kind of a joke.”
Indeed, when news of her casting broke, Bowman said there was a vocal minority that echoed her doubts and complained about things like “You could never be blonde.” But for the most part, it was widely celebrated. And as Bowman points out, “there are people who are my color and are naturally blonde…Blonde isn’t just the hair, it’s the feeling of everything: the personality and the bubbly and everything.” . People just assume – talking about me here, woooah – that because I’m tall and bubbly and all, that like [I’m] not all up there. She pats her head. “It’s just nice to play a role that proves people wrong.”
There have been discussions about what blonde means to Bowman’s Elle in particular. “Obviously I’m twisted as an actress, but we have to point out to people what the real basis is here,” she says. Is Elle, the character, a natural blonde? Or does she wear a wig and “choose to be blonde”? It’s one of many collaborative decisions made as the cast and creative team strive to bring this 2007 play, based on a 2001 film, to 2022. “People have expectations of from the Serie [from] a few years ago, but it’s not the same show as it was then,” says Bowman. “If you think you’re going to see the old show, then you have something else to come.”
The cast is made up of a “mixed bag” of actors from “all experiences, all sexualities, all genders, all races,” says Bowman, which means opinions are wide-ranging.
“The one thing we all have in common,” she continues, “is that we all love the show and we all want to portray that story properly.” The original iteration of the musical addresses issues such as racism, homophobia and prejudice, but there are areas where it has aged less well and as Bowman points out, “the little things add up.”
Take the song “Positive” from the 2007 musical, a high-spirited anthem to female empowerment fraught with internalized misogyny (“Keep her positive while you slap her on the ground/Keep her positive when you pull her hair out and call her a bitch,” Elle’s sorority friends sing). In one line, Elle comments that Warner’s new love interest, Vivian, is “twice my size”; Bundy was “something five feet” while Broadway original Vivian Kate Shindle was closer to six feet, so Bowman always considered the comment to be about “height, not weight.” But, knowing that the line didn’t read that way without context, the team on the new musical changed it.
While many musical writers would be valuable to their screenplay, the creators of Revenge of a Blonde have given Moss and co carte blanche to make the changes they want. That’s what Bowman comes back to when critics question his casting as Elle. “A lot of people – everyone has an opinion, I get it, it’s okay – they’re like, ‘What are the writers going to say?’ The authors said yes. I can’t really help you with that,” she said with a shrug.
Her ability to rise above the comments again goes to the blonde. “It’s just a joy – don’t say it, don’t say it – because your brain wanders when you’re watching theater and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can relate to Her because I’m judge.’ She pauses. “You know what? Take it all out, take out the fact that I’m a person of color; She being blonde, it’s the equivalent of my weight. I feel like people are judging me, but I don’t care, I just get on with my life, and I’m still happy and I’ve still reached my end goal… You basically have to channel your inner She and be like, ‘I’m me . Take it or leave it.'”
‘Legally Blonde’ runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theater from May 13 to July 2