At first glance, the uber-perky, pink outfit-wearing, toy dog-toting protagonist from 2001’s Legally Blonde, Elle Woods, seems a far cry from being a model of modern-day feminism. After all, she follows a boy across the country, despite the fact that he’s dumped her because he thinks she isn’t serious enough for him and his political aspirations. But upon closer inspection, Elle may be a good example around for girls—and even for boys.
On Friday July 12, Elle’s special variety of self-empowerment comes to Marin when Legally Blonde the Musical by the Marin Musical Theater Company opens at the Novato Playhouse. I had an opportunity to sit down with Claudia Shapiro, who plays Elle in the Novato show. Shapiro is a Marin native who graduated from Tamalpais High School in 2012 and grew up with a love of musical theater and dance, playing her first role in Hair in elementary school. She is an avid collector of theater playbills, one of which is signed by Laura Bell Bundy, who played the original Elle Woods in the version of Legally Blonde the Musical that debuted in San Francisco before heading to Broadway.
There are a lot of parallels between Shapiro and the Elle Woods character. Both are animated, outgoing and high achieving go-getters. Both are following men across the country, although Shapiro is legitimately engaged to hers, and isn’t trying to prove anything by doing so. Shapiro seriously considered law school after participating in her high school mock trial program. The biggest difference between them, actually is that Shapiro is a natural dark brunette who went blonde for the role.
Like the movie, Legally Blonde the Musical is also set in the year 2001, long before the #metoo movement, the Women’s March and an overall resurgence in feminism. “We were challenged to keep true to the time in which the story happens,” says Shapiro. “It would be interesting to see how the show would feel if it took place in the year 2019.” We might see that soon, considering there’s a rumor that Legally Blonde 3 will arrive in theaters in early 2020.
So until then, what relevance does this musical have for modern times? There’s more than a few nuggets of advice that we think kids, and probably adults too, could learn from:
Elle Woods’ Life Lessons
1. Being Yourself Never Goes Out of Style.
Elle is unapologetic about herself in every way, from her love of fashion (basically everything in her wardrobe is pink), to her dog obsession and dedication to her sorority girl tribe of friends. She exhibits deep determination and passion for everything she does, while staying true to herself.
2. Appearances Can Be Deceiving.
Elle is called a “dumb blonde” and compared unflatteringly to Marilyn Monroe on several occasions throughout the show. However, she is about as far from dumb as they come. She has a 4.0 at UCLA, is the president of her sorority, is a philanthropist and makes it into Harvard Law School where she graduates at the top of her class. She proves over and over again that she is one smart cookie. Neither does she judge others on their appearances, befriending her middle-aged, often-insecure manicurist who becomes her closest ally.
3. Don’t Let Anyone Compromise Your Principles.
In the show and the movie, Elle’s mentor, Professor Callahan, makes a pass at her, telling her she’s beautiful and he’s a man who knows what he wants. Elle rebuffs him and tells him off. Talk about a #metoo moment. Elle sticks to her ideals and immediately quits Callahan’s program, deciding she would be better off without him. (In 2019, she would also report him to his seniors and possibly get him fired).
4. Don’t Let Them See You Sweat.
In the play, Elle is tricked by her arch-nemesis, Vivian (who is her ex-boyfriend’s fiancé) into wearing a costume to a law school party. Elle shows up as a playboy bunny, ending up as the only one in costume. A snickering Vivian calls her a skank, to which Elle quickly retorts, “Actually I’m Gloria Steinem, circa 1963, researching for her feminist manifesto, ‘I Was a Playboy Bunny.’ Are you calling Gloria Steinem a skank?” Elle then walks away, leaving Vivian slack-jawed.
5. You Can Fully Embrace the Feminine and Be Taken Seriously.
Elle is undoubtedly a “girly girl” with a love of mani-pedis, pink convertibles and dogs that fit into purses, but she is also a hard worker with good common sense. Her watershed moment is when she strides into her first courtroom appearance, wearing pink of course, and outsmarts a witness to win the trial. Elle realizes her worth and full capability, and concludes that the ex-boyfriend she followed across the country to law school can’t keep up with her.