My Favourite Musical Songs: #14
14. Chip on my Shoulder from Legally Blonde: The Musical (the 2007 Broadway Cast on MTV performed by Christian Borle and Company)
There seems to have been a hell of a lot of ‘Film that had an audience that would almost certainly pay to see a stage version of said work: The Musical’ type shows of late. I am not saying these ideas are necessarily rubbish. The truth is there are very, very few entirely original musical stories out there. So if the idea of turning something that already exists into a show with songs is lazy, the modern world can hardly be blamed for this: It has been done for years. When I hear people lamenting that truly original pieces of entertainment don’t exist anymore and therefore nothing is as good as the work of yesteryear, I take endless pleasure in bursting their bubble by informing them that every song in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was a rehashed track and that the ‘Wizard of Oz’ was a remake. People like imaging that the art of their youth is somehow morally superior as it is not satisfying enough simply to enjoy the diversion. If you like something, who cares where the idea came from or how artistically worthy it is?
So I may say that these musical adaptations don’t have to suck but I didn’t always feel this way. Oh no. I confess: I hated ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘We Will Rock You.’ And I continue to loathe them. I feel a stomach ulcer coming on whenever someone assumes I love them because I like musicals. Just…no. Nobody is watching musicals for their plots but if I wanted to hear a poorly written excuse for people to sing karaoke standards I would open my window at home and enjoy the sounds of the attention starved drunks at my local pub rather than waste £35. So even though these are examples of jukebox musicals rather than movie adaptations they still set me on a self righteous path of avoiding any new musical for quite a while. This is the story of how that period in my life came to an end.
As I said, this self imposed black balling of fresh new talent lasted some time and I despaired every time a new show was announced. Who was really crying out for Shrek the Musical? Dirty Dancing the Musical? Legally Blonde the Musical??? That last one in particular sounded seriously weak. For those of you who don’t remember Reese Witherspoon starred in the 2001 movie about a girl who is dumped for being too blonde but then follows her ex boyfriend to Harvard Law School after getting in herself somehow. She attends solely to win him back but it turns out she is, like, totally great at law and somehow wins a murder trial before she even graduates.
The film was ok, despite taking place so so far from reality that it may as well have been set on Neptune, but I had no desire or intention to seek out the musical version. Then…I saw the cast perform a song from the show on some kind of US morning show. Several days later the song was still in my head. So I took to Youtube to find out more (the show was still on Broadway and quite far away from the West End) and discovered someone posted the entire version with handy sing along pink letters and an enthusiastic crowd. Unusually, this was not a badly ripped recording but a performance made especially for MTV. I knew within 7 minutes I had found a new love. The show is pretty irresistible. It is sweet, funny, I love the soundtrack and, best of all, the writer made some changes from the movie that improved the story in countless ways.
As soon as Luke Wilson’s character is introduced in the movie version of ‘Legally Blonde’ we know that he and Elle are going to fall in love. And, through no fault of Wilson and Witherspoon, it is impossible to care. They have very little to work with and, as a result, there is no chemistry. Similarly Witherspoon’s Elle Woods montages her way to legal success: She is shown buying a laptop, reading law books while on a treadmill and slapping a classmate to get him a date. I am not sure how that makes her a better lawyer but I think it is all to do with personal growth and that.
I like that Chip on my Shoulder does two things successfully: 1) It shows that in order for Elle to become a good lawyer she is going to need to make some personal sacrifices and 2) it shows that Emmett is a good fit for her. He is supportive, challenging and sweet and therefore watching them bounce of each other and start to fall in love feels more like a journey than a tedious inevitability. He is intrigued by her from the start but he doesn’t start to fall for her until she demonstrates that she is actually pretty smart. And he has his own baggage. He is not just a squeaky clean bland helper monkey to our main character like in the film. (Sorry Luke Wilson. You were great in Royal Tenenbaums.) The Musical Emmett is snarky, bitter and willing Elle to emerge from her first year of law school victorious almost as much for himself: Note the ‘WE can’t win if WE don’t follow through’
There are undeniably catchier, funnier and more moving songs in this superbly silly musical, but this sequence is a winner for me. The message is a good life lesson, and unlike the film we get a real idea who Emmett is and what he is all about and we can see why he would fall for Elle and she for him. Additionally, we actually see how she gets good at lawyering. There is a real journey here as he explains why it is not good enough just to be average and why it is ok to be resentful of what life throws at you as long as you turn it into useful energy. Like any good musical, this turns into a mantra that inspires our heroine to greater things. And it did the trick on me too.
After a few drifting years I went and got myself a profession. And no. It wasn’t blogging. Getting my dream job took a lot more time, money, energy and emotional intelligence than I had. And while I slogged away, working for free to get experience, reading all the books that had ever been published, travelling across the country to attend the course I wanted and answering extremely annoying questions from people who were confused as to what I was actually going to be able to do with another degree, I whispered to myself over and over: ‘With the chance I’ve been given I’m going to be driven as hell…I’m so close I can taste it…So I’m not going to waste it’ while nursing the massive chip on my shoulder. I pictured having the diploma in my hand whenever I wanted to slack off and I felt a hunger that I never known. And it was worth every horrible minute. Because now people pay me to do the work I love. This is just a silly musical song: But it is also great life advice. In fantasy you can treadmill your way to legal glory and life long stability. In reality, taking a leap of faith for a new career in a competitive and troubled work climate is never going to be bump free. So make your anger count.
Much of what works with ‘Chip on my Shoulder’ is the great delivery of Christian Borle who manages to make singing to a girl while an overexcited crowd applauds at the mere sight of a menorah seem like the most natural thing in the world. Seriously, it doesn’t even feel like he is in the same show as everyone else at times so understated and real is his work as Emmett. Some favourite touches include his dismissing her calling his motivation sweet at 2.35, getting her blood up at 4.15 and his wonderful smitten response at her getting one up on Warner in class from 10.32 onwards. Check out the accompanying cute little dance. Bless him.
So ‘Legally Blonde: The Musical’ worked for me. Who knew??? Maybe I should give ‘Ghost: The Musical’ a chance after all…
OTHER NOTABLE VERSIONS: I have listened to a few (admittedly dodgy quality) renditions but none are quite as convincing as Borle…possibly because rumour has it he and co-star Laura Belle Bundy were a real life Emmett and Elle leading to his divorce during the run of the show…What would Emmett say?!
BEST BIT: For me the truth begins to sink in with the line at 2.45 ‘Though I can’t take the day off, I just think of the pay off’ a powerful message for those of us who do not get everything handed to us on a plate.