MTV's New TRL; Theatre Relatively Live

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.


That's the opening number from Legally Blonde: The Musical. The track is called "Omigod You Guys" and this past weekend was indeed an Omigod moment for American theater. Not necessarily in the artistic evolution of our domestic stage art, but in the acceptance—and even promotion—of theater by a significant cultural arbiter: MTV.

MTV once stood for Music Television; but last Saturday, for the first time in its 26-year history, it stood for Musical Television as the network aired (gasp) a Broadway show.

For MTV, the channel that mints ultra-hip rock, rap and reality stars to embrace the big emotions of Broadway is sort of like Hillary Clinton asking Rush Limbaugh to be her Vice President.

How did this bizarre marriage happen? Three words: High School Musical. The Disney Channel's incredible success with a Broadway-style singing and dancing extravaganza has made producers and executives scramble for similar projects.

Just across from their TRL studios in Times Square, the musical version of the film Legally Blonde was playing—and so MTV said, "Let's put on show."

I was at the taping last month and have to say I was pleasantly surprised with Legally Blonde. Like it's plucky heroine, Elle Woods, Legally Blonde: The Musical is smarter than you might presume. It's an unabashedly pop confection, but the lyrics are smart—and amazingly, the music truly drives the action.


Like Reese Witherspoon, the on-stage Elle, Laura Bell Bundy, as well as her cast-mates, have great energy—and the best thing about the show is that it believes in the conventions of musical theater. In the movie, Elle's application to Harvard comes as a video essay; on stage, she and her sorority sisters fly to Cambridge and impress the admissions board with an old-fashioned song and dance number.

The show's writers are unafraid of people breaking into song, which is why Legally Blonde: The Musical is a good ambassador to millions of MTV watchers. True, it's not a groundbreaking work like West Side Story, but it is professional, polished Broadway entertainment.

And what's more, given its cinematic pedigree, it also works on screen. Watching the broadcast over the weekend, the cameras do a good job of capturing the best aspects of the staging. Sure it's a little cutty and there are too many of those swooping, VMA-style crane shots; but overall, it's a success because it makes live theater look fun.

Seventy years ago this month, the film The Jazz Singer rocked the theater world and helped movies eclipse live theater as America's preferred entertainment. Legally Blonde: The Musical, like The Jazz Singer, will likely be remembered more for its history than its artistry, but the show and its arrival on MTV suggests that perhaps live theater is becoming more central to American culture—and at the very least, Broadway music is once again becoming popular music.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image by Paul Kolnik; other images by Joan Marcus