By Ilana Bernstein

Pretty Woman,” the iconic movie starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, is getting a musical adaptation. The unlikely love story of a prostitute and a wealthy businessman is opening in Chicago for a five-week run before moving to Broadway this summer. Samantha Barks, best known for her role as Éponine in the 2012 film adaptation of “Les Misérables,” and Steve Kazee, who won the Tony for his performance in the musical “Once” and is known for his role as Gus in “Shameless,” will take on the leading roles.

Vivian, a down on her luck prostitute, is picked up by wealthy businessman Edward to be his escort. Throughout the film, she is presented with gifts and privileges, including a very expensive rented necklace to be worn for a night at the opera. Toward the end of the film, Edward’s lawyer, Philip Stuckey, sexually assaults Vivian. Luckily, Edward comes in at the last minute to save the day.

In a year that has been focused on female empowerment and has ushered in the #MeToo movement, the film’s plot can be seen as problematic. One wonders if the original film had been created today, whether it would pass, let alone become a smash success. The 1990 film grossed $463 million worldwide.

The film’s treatment of prostitution has also created a stir over the years. Ziba Cranmer who runs Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation told Newsweek that the film provides the wrong message. “Pretty Woman wrongly glamorizes something that ruins lives,”  Cranmer said. “Most sex buyers do not treat the women they buy to strawberries and champagne, or shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive. Buying sex is not a first date.”

Reporter Chris Jones for the Chicago Tribune put it clearly: “The show can’t be seen to be poking fun at prostitutes, nor can it be seen to be objectifying them, and certainly not shaming them.”

Director and Choreographer Jerry Mitchell, best known for his work on the musicals “Hairspray,” “Legally Blonde” and “Kinky Boots,” was fully aware of this when he decided to take on the project. He shared his vision of updating the film’s narrative with book writer J.F. Lawton, who was the screenwriter for the film.

Lawton told Jones of the Chicago Tribune his thoughts on updating the project.

“I liked the idea of the script evolving with the times,” said Lawton. “We’re not a revival, we’re an original adaptation of the source material. This is a fairy tale of sorts, an allegory of self-empowerment for women. Vivian was a free spirit in the film — but we now have run with that and extended and enhanced it. She asserts her own autonomy.”

Mitchell told ET this production has emphasized the strength of Vivian’s character.

“I didn’t want it to be funny,” said Mitchell. “I wanted the show to be a classic love story in a timeless period like a good fairytale is. With where we are as a world, I thought Vivian is a strong character and I think the music and book have only strengthened that to tell this story about a girl who kisses the prince and wakes him up.”

Actor Jason Alexander, who played Stuckey in the film, told Wendy Williams his piece of advice for the actor who plays the role in the musical.

He’s gonna have a really bad time walking around the streets of New York,” Alexander said. “When that movie came out, women would look at me down the block, and as I got closer, the scowl would get more — I got slapped, I got spit on. They were very protective of Julia Roberts, but it meant that we got to them.”

Kerrigan Stern is the Chair of Recruitment for Preventing Sexual Assault (PSA) at this university. The student-run organization focuses on spreading awareness, creating communication and instrumenting action surrounding the topic of preventing sexual assault on campus.

Stern explained that there are a few things the creative team should keep in mind if they plan to keep this subject matter in the production.  

“While I understand they have artistic license,” Stern said. “The creative team should make sure the rapist gets their justice served in some way. It is not fair to rape or [sexually] assault survivors [and] let the rapist walk free with no consequence.”

Stern also stressed the importance of caring for the audience if they decide to present this subject matter.

“The creative team should make sure they have a therapist or social worker that can talk to people who would be triggered watching that happen,” Stern said. “Triggers can really affect people in negative ways so there should be someone that can talk to anyone who is affected. The creative team should inform the audience of this before the show begins … so that the audience knows there is an outlet if they need one or if they choose to not watch the show for that reason.”

Times have certainly changed since 1990. It will be fascinating to see if “Pretty Woman” the musical becomes a hit.

The show will have a five-week run at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago from March 13 – April 15. The show will begin previews on Broadway, July 20 at the Nederlander Theatre. For more information, visit https://prettywomanthemusical.com/

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Ilana Bernstein is a junior journalism and theatre double major and can be reached at ilanab@terpmail.umd.edu.

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