It was easy to predict that a musical adaptation of Pretty Woman would find fans on Broadway. As producer and veteran film executive Paula Wagner points out, the 1990 movie, starring Julia Roberts as plucky working girl Vivian and Richard Gere as Edward, the wealthy client who falls for her, is “beloved all over the world. It has at its heart a classic love story that everyone responds to, and it just puts a smile on everyone’s face.”
But for both Wagner and Jerry Mitchell, the two-time Tony Award–winning director and choreographer she enlisted partly because of his triumphs with other film adaptations, the success of the musical has nonetheless been disarming in the various forms it’s taken.
Since beginning previews last July, Pretty Woman: The Musicalhas remained in Broadway’s “Millionaires’ Club,” grossing more than $1 million each week. And Wagner notes the show has broken the house record at the Nederlander Theatre three times. She’s been struck by the diversity of its audiences: “We have people coming in speaking French and German and Italian, and people from Illinois and Texas and Florida. There are 17- and 18-year-olds and people in their nineties. I met one group of women from the Midwest who come to New York once a year to see a show, and this year they picked Pretty Woman — and one of them said she was going to come back with her husband.”
Wagner, who began shepherding the show with the film’s late director, Garry Marshall — who envisioned Pretty Woman as a musical decades ago — attributes its romantic appeal in part to Bryan Adams and his longtime collaborator Jim Vallance’s score. “If you’ve ever been to a Bryan Adams concert, you’ll see many couples, and they’re all hugging,” she says. “That was a factor in choosing him.” And it happens at Pretty Woman too: “You see young people on date nights and men who want to bring their wives. I spoke to a gentleman who took his wife for their 50th wedding anniversary.”
Another phenomenon is the prevalence of “women’s-night-out groups,” as Wagner calls them. Mitchell, who incidentally had wanted to get the rights to Pretty Woman back in the early 1990s when he was dancing in The Will Rogers Follies, recalls that during Pretty Woman’s first night of previews, “there were groups of women at the bar, and I thought, ‘This is going to be a fun night for these ladies.’ The bartenders told me later that we set not only a house record but a bar record.”
Mitchell has noticed “a lot of women commenting on the show on social media,” where Pretty Woman has also earned an avid following. Many have responded to how the lead character, Vivian Ward — played by Broadway newbie Samantha Barks, whose powerful voice was showcased in the screen adaptation of Les Misérables — has been developed for the stage. Marshall, who cowrote the libretto with original screenwriter J.F. Lawton, “wanted to keep the movie’s story but make the musical accessible to his nieces and granddaughters,” Mitchell points out. “It was important that we deal with what was happening in the world today, to make Vivian more powerful, not a victim.”
Vivian “sets her own limits” in the musical, Wagner agrees. “And she doesn’t tolerate being pushed beyond what those limits are. She’s a good negotiator, and she’s looking for something better in life. She doesn’t know exactly what that is at first, but she knows she’s smart and has talent and that she’s going to find something.” The producer cites Vivian’s “empowerment ballad, ‘I Can’t Go Back,’ where she really makes the decision to turn her life around. Women have really connected with that.”
Wagner adds, “Everybody in this show wants something more.” Edward, played by three-time Tony nominee Andy Karl, “is obsessed with making money, but after meeting Vivian he realizes he’s missed something spiritually.” Vivian’s friend Kit, played by Orfeh, another Broadway veteran and Tony nominee — and Karl’s wife — has her own ambitions beyond the world’s oldest profession, and, says Wagner, “by the end, she’s on the road to realizing her dreams.”
Audience members have also responded to key elements retained from the film. “When Vivian says, ‘Big mistake,’ or when she comes out in the red gown — those are classic moments we had to keep in, and people love them,” says Wagner. “We’ve had women come to the show wearing red gowns and people pulling up in white limos.”
Some attendees, on the other hand, are Pretty Woman virgins. An old friend of Mitchell’s “brought her daughter and a friend,” he recalls, “and they had never seen the movie, but loved the show. You get women coming with their daughters and nieces, who haven’t seen the movie either, and love it.”
“It’s an experience that transcends boundaries, I think,” says Wagner. “The show has two people from different worlds finding each other and finding true love, and it’s done with humor and heart. That’s how Garry Marshall approached it, and hopefully that’s carried over. From the minute you walk into the theatre, it’s warm and embracing; you watch a love story unfold and leave feeling good. Right now I think people need that.”
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