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Legally Blonde: The Musical cast challenges racial stereotypes

The cast of Legally Blonde: The Musical 
Courtesy of Larry Levanti
The cast of Legally Blonde: The Musical Courtesy of Larry Levanti

University students are redefining the charismatic rendition of a perky California dream girl by casting a person of color for lead character Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde, The Musical.”

This version of the classic musical, based on the famous novel and subsequent film of the same name, is led by people of color, beginning with Tamia Goodman ’19 as director. Will Alvarado ’19 (Paulette Bonafonté) and Jasmeene Burton ’19 (Elle Woods) are featured, and Alexandra Palocz ’19 is the lighting designer. Together, the four wanted to challenge the limits of this story of acceptance and social stereotypes.

Originally, Elle Woods, the president of the fictional Delta Nu sorority, is stereotypically portrayed as a pink, prom queen-type, pretty woman with ocean-blue eyes and long, luscious blonde locks. However, this production invites the audience to explore the world of an underestimated and grounded woman through a non-traditional cast that features a woman and man, both people of color, as the lead roles. 

During her first year of theater at the University, Burton questioned why the demographics of the United States are not represented on the stages of the country. Alvarado and Burton jokingly proposed pouring color in the whitest roles, such as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, to challenge whiteness in American theater, during their first year at the University.

Three years later, this concept became reality, allowing a cast to address what happens when race is not a limiting factor in casting roles.

However, challenges arose throughout the rehearsal process. The script was embedded with racial and gender stereotypes that conflicted with the diverse identities within the cast. Certain phrases and words, such as “the bend and snap” and “off da hizzle,” shifted their connotations through the lens of a person of color, therefore changing the identities of the characters.

Particularly, the famed attention-grabbing maneuver in “Legally Blonde,” called “the bend and snap,” through the perspective of a black woman, raised the idea of the sexualization of black bodies in America. Those involved in the production found that, because pop culture today fetishizes black women’s bodies, when a black Elle Woods does “the bend and snap,” the challenge of not reiterating the misinformed caricature of black women emerges.

While the script could not change, the deliverance of the lines could, and did.

For the cast, rehearsing for the musical was a learning experience that not only taught theater but also enabled exploration of race. Throughout the process, the cast uncovered new depths to their own racial identities and those of others.

“It is interesting learning the struggles of marginalized groups by putting them into spaces that they never would be in,” Burton said. “People’s identities carry different baggage [in different places].”

Confronting a predominantly white environment by combining a script written for certain races with a cast that does not confine to those expectations altered the portrayal of characters. Burton aimed to reform Elle Woods’ ditzy persona into a headstrong character.

Furthermore, Alvarado redefined Paulette Bonafonté, originally known as a brash and comical female who longs for romance. He portrayed Paulette as a transgender woman that hides behind “crazy, excessive stuff” because she does not see her own power.

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Alvarado and Burton hope the audience admires the power of this non-traditionally cast show.

Burton said, “I want to tell my story for people who aren’t able to put it in this space.”

“We want to be inclusive. We want to push the boundaries of what shows do,” Alvarado added.

“Legally Blonde, The Musical” was performed at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center on Friday, Nov. 9, with a further show on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m., and three shows on Thursday, Nov. 15 through Saturday, Nov. 17, all at 8 p.m.