Maybe we should blame it on Julia Roberts.
Because let’s face it, the premise of “Pretty Woman” is pretty dicey. The 1990 film depicts Vivian (Roberts) as a confident, carefree prostitute, whose john, Edward (Richard Gere), showers her with a shopping-spree makeover and swoon-worthy romance. Moviegoers let the utter ridiculousness of all that slide. Roberts, after all, with her outrageous cackle and Grand Canyon smile, was just so winning. The film, became a beloved rom-com classic, earning some $463 million worldwide and launching Roberts into superstardom.
Now, after several years in the works, "Pretty Woman: The Musical" opens Thursday, Aug. 16, at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, hoping to spark the same box-office magic, with British rising star Samantha Barks (Eponine in the film version of “Les Misérables”) as Vivian, and three-time Tony nominee Andy Karl (“Groundhog Day”) as Edward. But how do you tell the tale of the clichéd hooker with a heart of gold today, in the age of #MeToo?
“It is, of course, an issue that should be dealt with sensitively,” says Barks. “The focus for us has always been about making Vivian empowered.”
THE CHALLENGE? BIG . . . HUGE
This update challenge was taken on by Tony Award-winning director Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots”); Canadian rock star Bryan Adams and his longtime collaborator Jim Vallance, who together composed the score, and book writers Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, respectively, the movie’s director and screenwriter.
The show has had its share of setbacks. Disney, which owns half the theatrical rights, originally requested Vivian’s job switch from call girl to model, Marshall explained in a 2014 interview. Then Marshall died in 2016 at age 81 after suffering a stroke. And earlier this year the show’s original Edward — Steve Kazee, who won a Tony in 2012 for “Once” — left the show after the production’s out-of-town tryout in Chicago.
But there’s always been something buoyant about this story that has defied the odds. “It’s a fairy tale,” says Karl, who stepped into his role just a few months ago. “Seeing the rich and powerful and the disenfranchised meet on the same level, and fall in love — it’s Cinderella come to life.”
Fans of the film won’t be disappointed by the stage version, which hews close to the original tale, from costumes (you’ll spot Vivian’s outrageous streetwalker ensemble and the killer red gown for her opera outing) to plot points (the Rodeo Drive shopping spree, the piano love scene) to dialogue (“You hurt me, don’t do it again,” she still tells Edward; and “Big mistake . . . huge!” to those snooty saleswomen, garnering instant applause).
Barks feels the pressure of living up to expectations.
“I was such a fan of the movie growing up, and I’ve watched it so many times,” she says. “Since getting the role the hardest thing has been not watching it.”
FEEL-GOOD OR FEMINIST
Cultural observers and film critics have long debated whether “Pretty Woman” is just a feel-good tale or a feminist parable. As if it can’t, somehow, be both.
“I get really edgy if I see a tweet from someone who’s skeptical and saying, ‘Why are they doing this story now in the age of #MeToo?’,” Karl says. “And I’m like, you know what? This story is extremely powerful for women.”
Barks agrees: “For me, the most exciting part of Vivian’s transformation is that she finds her self-worth and learns how important it is to stand up for herself and make good choices.”
That’s particularly evident in a key scene in act two where Vivian shows she can kick some butt without a man coming in to save her.
FINDING #METOO IN THE MUSIC
What’s interesting is how some of the material covered in the film — such as Vivian’s scant back story as a small-town girl who makes bad choices with men, and winds up penniless and desperate in Los Angeles — adds weight to the musical. That “Mama called me a bum magnet” monologue goes by quickly in the film, but onstage gets more time in Barks' ballad “This Is My Life.”
Later, Vivian’s pounding rock anthem, “I Can’t Go Back,” underscores a moment that is brief, and more ephemeral, on-screen.
“This is the moment where she realizes who she really is and what she wants, discovering through the song that she cannot and will not go back to the life she lived before,” says Barks.
It’s perhaps ironic that the one aspect of a musical that makes it unrealistic — the breaking-into-song thing — is perhaps the tool that can make this show more #MeToo accessible.
But this story reminds us that business titans like Edward also need to grow.
Karl, who in the curtain call stands in between Barks and his real-life wife, Orfeh, as Vivian’s best pal, Kit, believes this is a tale not of the streets but of the heart.
“Even as I get older — and I’ve been married for 18 years — I appreciate stories like this, to remind me how powerful love really is,” he says. “It’s our duty to make sure that comes across. And we’re really having a good time with that.”
THE ORIGINAL VIVIAN
She’d already gotten noticed in 1988’s “Mystic Pizza” and nabbed a supporting actress Oscar nomination for “Steel Magnolias” (1989), but when “Pretty Woman” hit in 1990, everything changed for Julia Roberts.
"That’s my biggest pride, finding kids coming up,” said “Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall about Roberts, in a 2016 interview. “Young people are as exciting to me as veterans.”
Today, of course, Roberts is the veteran, and so the buzz was palpable when the Oscar winner appeared at a recent performance of “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” which was a tribute to the late Marshall. After the show, film Vivian (Roberts) met stage Vivian (Samantha Barks).
“What a beautiful woman inside and out . . . a night I will never forget!” Barks posted on Instagram.
“Lovely to meet this talented woman,” Roberts posted right back.
Andy Karl, who takes on Richard Gere's screen role, also talked about meeting Roberts: “She actually commented to me, ‘You have the hardest role in the show.' She’s like, ‘Richard Gere complained every day that he was a walking suit.’ I was like, yeah, I get it, I get it.”
— JOSEPH V. AMODIO