Legendary director/producer/writer Garry Marshall wanted to fulfill a longtime goal: to bring his 1990 smash romantic comedy Pretty Woman to the stage as a musical. To do this, Marshall had to find a new heroine — not for the story, but behind the scenes.
He found one in film and Broadway producer Paula Wagner, who had acted on Broadway before launching a career as a Hollywood agent. Pretty Woman screenwriter J.F. Lawton tells it that Marshall sought to adapt the movie “on and off through the years, but there were always problems — with the rights, with the financing, with the approach” — until he met with Paula Wagner, who brought Jerry Mitchell onto the team for the new Broadway musical.
Fast-forward to February 2018: Wagner and Lawton are seated in a Times Square rehearsal studio during a lunch break for the company of Pretty Woman: The Musical, set to begin performances in Chicago March 13 before moving to Broadway, where previews start July 20 for an August 16 opening at the Nederlander Theatre. Joining them are the show’s two-time Tony Award–winning director/choreographer Mitchell — whose numerous screen-to-stage triumphs include Kinky Boots, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, and The Full Monty — and composer/lyricists, rock veteran Bryan Adams and his writing partner Jim Vallance.
“I’m just so lucky to be surrounded by this plethora of riches, of talent,” says Wagner. Mitchell returns the praise, noting, “The process on this musical has been extremely smooth, and that’s because Paula’s had a clear vision from the start, and we’ve been on the same page. And Garry was with us all the way through the first draft; he saw the first reading of the musical. When he passed on, it was Garry’s wife, Barbara Marshall, and Paula, and everyone else who said, ‘You’ve got to keep going.’”
Pretty Woman: The Musical has been through several stages of its evolution. “We had been thinking of doing it as a jukebox musical,” says Lawton, who cowrote the libretto with Marshall. Mitchell nixed that idea: “If movies are going to be musicals, the thing that matters to me is to bring them to the stage with a fresh new score,” Mitchell says. “And when I walk out of the theatre, I want to be able to sing the songs I just heard.”
As it turned out, Adams had thought independently about adapting Pretty Woman, but was initially “told it would never happen.” When Adams learned, years later, that the show was being developed, Wagner directed him to Mitchell, who asked Adams and Vallance to craft a few songs on spec. After hearing the tunes, Mitchell recalls, “I kicked them out of the apartment and said, ‘We’re hiring these guys or we’d be fools.’ The songs were spectacular.” Two are currently in the musical. (“It was the same with Cyndi [Lauper],” who wrote Kinky Boots’s Tony-winning score, Mitchell points out. “She played three songs for me at first, and two wound up in the show.”)
Not that Mitchell didn’t have certain demands. “We had to write a song about dreams without using the word dream,” Vallance muses. Similarly, when the director wanted a number for the scene where Edward, the corporate raider played on screen by Richard Gere, takes Vivian — Julia Roberts’s character, a call girl he’s enlisted for a week, who yearns for a better life — to the opera, “I told the guys I thought that was the place for a love song, but that they couldn’t use the word love, because Edward’s not ready to say it,” Mitchell says. “It was the idea of him experiencing the opera again, through her eyes.”
Mitchell notes that Pretty Woman “has always been a Cinderella story for me. I wanted [Vivian] to sing a song at the beginning, telling us she’s not content being a sex worker; she wants something else. … Garry wanted his nieces to be able to see this musical, and I have nieces who are 11 and 13 and are coming to the opening in Chicago. And I think that’s a strong message for young people — that when you’re at your lowest low, if you don’t lose your sense of self, your sense of worth, you can get out of that hole. You can climb out of the ashes.”
Adds Wagner, “The story is not just about Vivian finding a real relationship, but about her finding herself. And as she liberates herself, she liberates Edward. She knows who she is, but he’s kind of set his soul aside, and she brings him back to life, opens him up. It is a story of hope.”
Mitchell points to a scene in the film where Edward’s friend makes a pass at Vivian, “and Edward comes in and kind of rescues her. I said no — we need to build a character who knows how to take care of herself. And she does.” Vivian is played on stage by Samantha Barks, cast as Eponine in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables, in her Broadway debut. Barks won Mitchell over in her first audition by belting out “this stunning 11 o’clock number” Adams and Vallance wrote for Vivian, called “I Can’t Go Back,” “which is also part of the restructuring of the character, showing how strong she becomes.”
The part of Edward, now portrayed by Tony winner Steve Kazee (Once), has evolved accordingly. “Garry told me that when they made the movie, Richard Gere would come on the set every week and say, ‘You don’t need me, you just need a suit,’” Mitchell says. “We’re really working to flesh the character out.” Lawton notes, “Because of the music, you get to hear his thoughts for the first time, what’s really going through his head.” (There are twists involving other characters introduced in the film, played here by Jason Danieley, Eric Anderson, Kingsley Leggs, and Tony nominee Orfeh.)
For Adams, “this is a story about two people who have come to a point where they’ve both done what they needed to do in their lives, and they don’t realize that they’re about to embark on this new thing, which is falling in love.” Wagner adds, “The male and the female have to go on this journey together, toward autonomy and self-worth, and they are both redeemed. The audience will leave the theatre believing in happily ever after.”