“Legally Blonde” production grapples with stereotypes

February 15, 2022

“Legally Blonde” is full of pink, pink and more pink.

Elle Woods is the epitome of stereotypical femininity: her life centers around her appearance, boyfriend and potential marriage status. This completely changes when she transfers from a major in fashion to Harvard Law School in order to win back her ex-boyfriend, Warner, and make a name for herself in the world of law.

The Performing Arts Department performed “Legally Blonde: The Musical” from Feb. 3 to Feb. 6. Three members of the cast chose to remain anonymous due to concerns about repercussions for future shows. One of the students who wished to remain anonymous, who will be referred to as X, said the show crossed into difficult territory in regards to stereotypical characters.

“On a Broadway stage with consenting adults, a lot of these (stereotypes) are more acceptable, but because these are high school students, choosing a show with so many outdated songs and stereotypical depictions of people, especially of Jamaican people and gay people, could be problematic,” X said.

Songs and stereotypes

A source of discomfort for several students was the song titled “There! Right There!” The song was also referred to as “Gay or European” by some members of the cast. A cast member, who will be referred to as Z, said they had concerns about the song at the beginning of the rehearsal process.

“Two of the characters are written in broken English and are flamboyant stereotypes of gay people. In the (original script), they use words like ‘genetically, medically and chronically’ to describe gay people, which is offensive,” Z said.

During rehearsals, that part of the song was cut by Elena Maimonis, the director of the show. Still remaining in the song were these lyrics:

“This man is gay, and it’s not a disgrace. You have to stop being such a complete closet case. It’s me not her he’s seeing no matter what he’ll say. I swear he never ever ever saw the other way. You are so gay, you big parfait, you flaming one man cabaret. (I’m straight), you were not yesterday. So if I may, I’m proud to say he’s gay.”

Maiomonis said she made a lot of changes and cuts to “There! Right There!” in particular. While X and Z said members of the cast tried to talk with Maimonis, she said they did not.

“I didn’t want to play into stereotypes that are very outdated and just incorrect. So, yes, there are characters who are gay in the show, but there’s no right or wrong way to play them. There aren’t set mannerisms. Regardless of if you are gay or not, you simply just act,” Maiomonis said. “I would never want to do anything that actively made students uncomfortable, and if I was aware of (students discomfort level), I would’ve done something.”

X said the song “What You Want” was another example of uncomfortable stereotypes being depicted in the production.

“The song was originally sung with a Jamaican accent and the three Black people in the cast were cast as that dance section. It’s hard because those stereotypical roles can’t be played by white people, so they’re filled by people of color. That limits a lot of options for people of color, and is not an equal way of casting a show,” X said.

A third cast member who will be referred to as Y, said the song “What You Want” had a negative effect on the rehearsal process.

“I think the show could have gone on without that solo. It just caused unnecessary problems. A few members of the cast were singing the lines in the song with an accent during rehearsal which was a hurtful experience for a lot of people,” Y said.

Concerns about script and production

Several students who participated in the musical were unsettled by the stereotypes present in the songs and script. Although the musical focused on Elle Woods and her evolution from being self-centered to self-sufficient, other stereotypes, specifically those focused on race and sexuality, made students feel uncomfortable.

Maimonis cut parts of the original script that included scenes she did not find appropriate, as she wanted everyone to feel accepted. She said she was unaware that students still remained uncomfortable throughout the rehearsal process.

“I told (the cast) from the jump to always come talk to me if (they) want to talk about a role or line of dialogue. I changed a lot of lyrics to be more inclusive and body-positive. I don’t want anyone to think that my intentions are different from what they were. Honestly, I feel a lot more sad that students didn’t feel they could bring this up with me than any article being published. I did my best to make everyone feel comfortable and allow them to portray every character in their own way, without any preconceived stereotypes,” Maimonis said.

X, Y and Z said Maimonis told them near the start of the rehearsal process not to ask about making changes in the musical.

“It’s difficult for an actor to say that they’re uncomfortable with something, especially when explicitly told not to at the beginning of the process,” said X.

X also said the Performing Arts Program’s unofficial rule, that dropping out of a show will impact their casting in the next performing arts production, caused cast members to feel obligated to perform uncomfortable scenes.

“She’s told us this rule, which is less of a rule than a tactic to get kids to behave, many times: something most directors do. It kind of insinuates that if someone were to speak out, then that could jeopardize their standing in a future production. But more so, with such a big cast it made it hard to talk to her,” X said.

Maimonis confirmed that the rule does exist.

“That rule does apply to the musical, even though it’s technically not Drama Society. I’ve never come across that issue though,” said Maimonis.

But X said that power dynamic between a director and student made it hard for cast members to speak up.

“There have been a lot of instances in which either I or other people in the cast have felt like something was tone-deaf, insensitive and not a good choice. There’s just not really the space made to address it. It’s more like we just have to trust that (Maimonis) handles it, but if she doesn’t, then we can’t do anything about it. People of color are assigned these roles (Jamaican stereotypes), and it’s hard to speak up about discomfort when it’s a director-student relationship,” X said.

Senior Camryn Lezama, who played Paulette’s ex-husband Dewey, said Maimonis was in a complicated situation.

“People were complaining about being typecast. As a director, I have an idea of how stressful it is, so I think that (Maimonis) did the most she could. I think there should be a balance in a show like ‘Legally Blonde’… how can we change it and fix it?” Lezama asked.

Maimonis said her casting process is very complex and takes into consideration many different factors.

“There’s a fine line between whitewashing a production and type casting and I would never want to do either. I really try to find a balance of staying true to certain cultural things if they’re appropriate while also giving everybody equal opportunity in the cast, regardless of race or sexuality. I take in consideration talent, behavior, attitude and all sorts of things,” Maimonis said.

Larger issues with performing arts at the high school

This is not the first instance in which a production at BHS has sparked controversy. The Merchant of Venice, a show that was supposed to be performed this school year, and the Brookline Educational Theater Company’s (BETCo) skits during the MLK assembly this February, caused the most recent controversy.

Z also said there are many difficulties people of color face regarding casting.

“There are very few people of color in Drama Society, so we can’t do shows that are specifically made for people of color. Still, it could have been handled better. They have done shows in the past that aren’t problematic. In “Legally Blonde,” the main idea isn’t racism. Racism is just built into it,” student Z said.

According to Maimonis, the show was focused on Woods’s transformation from needing outside validation to using her intelligence to help others.

“I really hope that the audience walks away feeling empowered because I think that’s what the whole show was about: a woman at the beginning of the show being dumped by her boyfriend who told her she wasn’t smart enough or good enough for him. She then has this whole awakening that she has a bigger purpose in life,” Maimonis said.

Y said while they love the performing arts program, they are aware of the internal problems and the work that needs to be done to make it a safer space for all students.

“I heard from a few people that they weren’t sure if they were going to continue doing performing arts at the high school, which honestly just makes me so sad,” Y said. “I love theater, and hearing people say they won’t do a show because they fear they won’t be accepted is awful. Even though I love the arts, I can still acknowledge the problems. The musical is a place where I want everyone to feel accepted.”

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