Playing Legally Blonde The Musical – Guitar
Music & Lyrics: Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin
Book: Heather Hach
Legally Blonde has been ubiquitous in Seattle in 2018. Everyone seems to be producing it, all the time. Youth theatres have it on rotation; community theatre productions abound. Audiences, it seems, can’t get enough of perky Elle Woods and her pink fetish.
I have played four productions of the show since 2014, most recently back-to-back runs for Showtunes Theatre, and Seattle Musical Theatre. The Showtunes run, a concert staging, was particularly satisfying. The producers cast people of color in many of the lead roles, including Elle. They attracted a cast of A-List local talent, and hired the full 13-piece orchestra to really bring the score to life. The performance venue had just installed a new sound system, and it sounded fantastic. The event was a treat for everyone involved: audience, cast, musicians, even critics. It was a privilege to be a part of this very special production, and I’m very grateful to Showtunes and their Music Director, Nathan Young, for giving me the opportunity.
In this article, I reflect briefly on the show, and offer my general impressions of the guitar book. I provide details of the equipment I used and my approach to playing the material. In a separate article, I provide a detailed commentary on the guitar book, including further details of the electric guitar sounds I used, notes on technique, departures I made from the written score, and any errors I identified.
Based on Amanda Brown’s novel, and the subsequent 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde The Musical previewed briefly in San Francisco in early 2007, before transferring straight to Broadway in April 2007, where it ran very successfully for over a year, before running out of steam and closing in October 2008. A hugely successful US tour followed, running for two years, followed by a run of over two years in London’s West End.
Legally Blonde is a sugar rush of a show, the theatrical equivalent of sitting in a pink room listening to 90s pop, stuffing your face full of donuts and mainlining Red Bull for 2 hours. The musical steps up a gear from the light comedy of the film, offering riotous silliness and hammering out high energy dance numbers every 10 minutes for over two hours. It’s a bit exhausting to watch (and indeed to play), and ought to be terrible, but it really isn’t. It succeeds because it unashamedly flaunts its silliness with a knowing wink to the audience, and boasts a terrific pop-rock score.
The show lost out across the board at the 2007 Tony Awards to Spring Awakening; the contrast between the two shows could not be starker. Spring Awakening is brilliant, bleak, and can be overwhelmingly emotive, while Legally Blonde is a confection, described by the New York Times as “a high-energy, empty-calories…hymn to the glories of girlishness”. I tend to agree that Legally Blonde fails to land a real emotional punch in its two-plus hours. But sometimes it’s OK just to smile and eat the candy.
Artists producing the show frequently make the case that it offers a significant message about empowerment, but I find it better not to overthink Legally Blonde. Yes, Elle eventually succeeds on her own terms, accepting who she is and transcending her stereotype. But the show plays fast and loose with several other stereotypes (gay men, sorority girls, feminists and preppy boyfriends for example). Even the title of the show is a pun on a disability. There’s also the lurking subtext that, while you can be blonde, pink, smart and successful, being smart and kind isn’t enough if you’re not well-dressed. The show jumps the shark 15 minutes into Act 1, when Elle gets into Harvard Law by twerking and pleading lovesickness, and again 10 minutes later, with the appearance an imaginary “Greek Chorus” of cheerleaders, extoling the virtues of the “Bend and Snap”.
So, take your pick: tie yourself in philosophical knots trying to analyze Legally Blonde, or just drink the Red Bull, embrace your inner cheerleader and “jump around showing your panties” (as Paulette would say) to this most danceable of scores. In my experience, most audiences choose the latter. Despite its brazen ludicrousness, the show is witty and musically tight, and delivers two-plus hours of high octane fun. I predict it will remain popular for many years to come.
LEGALLY BLONDE GUITAR BOOK – GENERAL IMPRESSIONS
Irrespective of the merits of the show as a whole, the score of Legally Blonde is excellent. It’s as popular with musicians as it is with audiences, because it’s interesting and sophisticated, challenging to play, and a lot of fun. It’s also long (108 pages for the Guitar book), so it’s physically demanding, especially on occasions when you have to play the show twice in a day. Cast recordings are available for the Original Broadway Cast (2 guitars) and the Original London Cast (identical to the current guitar book). I recommend listening to the Broadway cast recording when studying the guitar book, because the guitar in the London recording is mostly inaudible in the mix.
Like all Laurence O’Keefe scores, it’s awash with endless key changes and most of the chord voicings are specifically written out. Sight reading isn’t an option if you intend to play the score properly; you have to spend some time with it before performing it, and know your way around the fretboard pretty well. Since the orchestration is for a 13-piece orchestra, it’s important to “play the ink” as written, and not depart too much from either the specific voicings given, or the precise rhythms notated, or you’ll step on somebody else’s part. Think of yourself as part of an orchestra, rather than a band. Where reduced orchestration is used, you have a little more latitude to fill out the sound of the ensemble. The specific rhythms given are frequently locked tightly in with the bass, drums and brass parts. If you play them accurately they will sound fantastic.
The book is a composite of the two original Broadway guitar books (I describe the origins of the current book in more detail in my detailed review of the guitar book). This results in some odd and gratuitous instrument changes, the worst of which come at the end of Act 1, where in quick succession you are expected to play “Run Rufus Run” on 12-string acoustic, change to 6-string acoustic for just one measure, then to nylon-string for four measures at the start of “So Much Better” and finally electric guitar for the rest of the number. There is also one impossible instrument change at the direct segue from “Scene of The Crime” into “Find My Way”. Notwithstanding the occasional frenzy of instrument changes, the book is mostly well structured. Page turns are achievable throughout (though occasionally fast).
The Legally Blonde Guitar book calls for 6 instruments:
- Electric Guitar: this should be Strat-style guitar, with single coil pickups. I used a Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic, mostly set to pickup Position 4 (middle and bridge pickups, with coil tap on the bridge humbucker to give a single coil sound). A Gibson-style guitar fitted with humbuckers would provide sounds too dark and thick for much of this material.
- Acoustic Guitar: I used a 2004 Atkin Guitars Small Jumbo, with the tone set slightly on the bright side, to suit strumming, and to cut through in the large orchestra. I ran the guitar through a Fishman Aura Spectrum preamplifier, for better tone shaping.
- Nylon-String Guitar: I used a Takamine P3FCN, with the stock 9-volt preamplifier swapped out for the 18-volt CT4-DX model (Takamine Pro Series guitars have a modular preamp system, so the different models are interchangeable). The 18-volt preamp gives a much crisper, more transparent amplified tone to the guitar, and has more extensive EQ options.
- 12-String Acoustic Guitar: I used a Takamine P6-JC12BSB Jumbo model, also fitted with the CT4-DX 18-volt preamplifier.
- Hollow Body Guitar: I used a Loar LH-650 archtop, fitted with a Kent Armstrong Handwound Johnny Smith 12-pole floating humbucker at the neck.
- Mandolin: I used a Michael Kelly model, fitted with a Fishman pickup system. I ran the mandolin through an MXR M108 10-Band Graphic EQ to get the exact tone I wanted (a little more body and warmth, but still bright).
Standard tunings are used throughout, and no capos are required (there are so many key changes that a capo would be superfluous; you just have to know your way around the fretboard).
This is lot of gear for one show; some pits are too small or crowded to accommodate all of it. If you want or need to reduce the number of instruments, I suggest the following approach:
- Eliminate the Hollow Body Guitar by using the Electric Guitar (neck pickup only), with most of the tone rolled off, to get a warm jazzy tone. This guitar is only used on one number (#5: Blood In The Water), and is not prominent, so this is not a big sacrifice to make.
- Substitute the Acoustic Guitar for the 12-String Acoustic Guitar. The 12-String is only used for #7: Ireland, and its various reprises. It adds a distinctive texture to these tunes, but it’s not a showstopper to lose it; the Acoustic Guitar will do the job adequately. I don’t recommend the use of 12-string simulation effects, because they mostly sound awful.
- Substitute the Acoustic Guitar for the Nylon-String Guitar. I don’t really recommend doing this. The Nylon-String features heavily in #17: Legally Blonde and #20: Find My Way, and adds a very particular texture to these numbers. However, if you really need or want to reduce the number of instruments, this is an option.
These changes will get you down to three instruments (Electric, Acoustic and Mandolin), or four if you decide to keep the Nylon-String. I do not recommend trying to dispense with the Mandolin. It’s used in several numbers and provides a very specific voice that can’t be replicated by an acoustic guitar.
EFFECTS & AMPLIFICATION – ELECTRIC GUITARS
Legally Blonde’s electric guitar parts involve some quick changes in sounds which would require some deft tap dancing on stomp boxes (for example, from clean with wah to distortion with delay in “Whipped Into Shape” – this would require at least three pedal changes at once). The fact that the book is combined from the two original Broadway books probably accounts for this.
Because of the variety of sounds and the numerous quick changes required, I opted to use a digital pedalboard instead of stomp boxes (although stomp boxes would be feasible in conjunction with a switching system). The first two times I played the show I used a Line 6 Pod HD500. For the most recent two productions, I used the Line 6 Helix, and was much more satisfied with my sounds. I programmed one patch for each major number in the show, then set up “snapshots” within each patch for all of the sounds used in that number. The bottom row of footswitches were for patch changes, and the top row for snapshot changes. It’s a very simple and logical setup, and is relatively easy to modify on the fly.
I set up a standard signal path which I used for every number (except for “Blood In The Water), and added particular effects blocks (wah, chorus, flanger, delay) in different numbers as needed. The diagram below shows the signal path for “Omigod You Guys” and is a typical example.
Here’s how it works: the signal first runs through Simple EQ and Deluxe Compressor blocks, before splitting into “Clean” and “Dirty” paths. Both paths use a clean-sounding “WhoWatt 100” preamplifier block (based on the Hiwatt DR-103 Brill), but the dirty path has a “Compulsive Drive” (Fulltone OCD Clone) distortion in front of it. The clean and dirty paths are combined at a merge, and the relative levels can be set at this point. I varied the relative levels in each song/snapshot, depending on how much distortion I wanted. After the merge, the combined signal runs through a Volume Pedal, then a Tube Overdrive, acting as a clean-ish boost for lead sounds. Next come other effects as needed (typically chorus and delay). Last in the effects chain is a Spring Reverb block. After the reverb there’s a simple Gain control, which I used to make quick adjustments to the relative volumes of snapshots as needed, to balance them against each other.
For the output, the signal is split again. One side runs to the Helix’s ¼-inch output then into the effects return of my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III (reverb on the Fender was set to zero and Presence to about 2.5). The other side runs through a cabinet model (I used the 1×12 Cali IV w. 409 Dynamic Mic), then out directly to the house PA via the Helix’s XLR outputs. I also set the master volume on the Helix so that it controlled only the level to the ¼-inch output, not the XLR output. I was using the Hot Rod Deluxe as a monitor, so this meant I was able to control my own level, without messing up the house mix.
For “Blood In The Water” I used the Helix’s Jazz Rivet 120 (Roland JC-120) amplifier model, and some EQ, running my archtop through the Aux input.
Other effects blocks I used in the rig at various points in the show included:
- Grey Flanger plus 70’s Chorus for “Andy Summers” tones.
- Trinity Chorus for modern chorus sounds.
- Vintage Digital Delay wherever delay was needed.
- Teardrop 310 Wah for all the disco and funky wah sections in the show.
EFFECT & AMPLIFICATION – ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS
I ran all four acoustic instruments through an AER Compact 60 amplifier, via a GigRig Quartermaster QMX 4 switching system. Typically, I use the Compact 60 as a monitor, and feed the output directly to the house using its balanced XLR output. Since all four instruments are run through a single channel of the amplifier (it has 2 channels), I typically set a moderate gain level, a more or less flat EQ, and just a tiny amount of reverb on the amplifier. I make EQ adjustments for each instrument using its built-in preamplifier and/or an outboard EQ pedal, and balance the levels of the instruments against each other.
For Legally Blonde, I used the onboard CT4-DX preamplifiers of the 12-String and Nylon-String Takamine guitars to set their EQ and levels, as this preamp has a 4-band graphic EQ and 2 notch filters.
My Atkin acoustic is fitted with a Fishman Matrix Infinity pickup and preamplifier. I set an approximate sound using its onboard tone control, then ran it through a Fishman Aura Spectrum preamplifier to dial in the exact tone I wanted. The Aura has EQ, compression, and built-in acoustic modeling (very fancy EQ), allowing you to blend a “modeled” sound with the clean signal from the pickup.
The Michael Kelly mandolin has just basic volume, treble and bass controls on its onboard preamplifier (an old Fishman System 1). I ran it through an MXR M108 10-Band Graphic EQ to get exactly the tone and level I wanted.
All of the outboard gear was mounted on a small Pedaltrain Jr. board, powered by a Cioks DC-10 power supply (Cioks makes outstanding power supplies!). To keep cabling tidy, I have a GigRig Cinco Cinco patch bay mounted under the side of the board, so that all inbound and outbound connections come through this one area of one side of the board. From the patch bay, each instrument was routed via its outboard EQ (if any) to the return of one of the loops on the GigRig QMX 4 switcher. The QMX 4 was set so that only one instrument could be on at a time.
In summary, the signal chain was as follows:
Instrument → Cinco Cinco Patch Bay → Outboard EQ/Preamp (if any) → GigRig QMX4 Switching → Ernie Ball VP Jr. Volume Pedal → Cinco Cinco Patch Bay → AER Compact 60 Amplifier → XLR to house.
Hercules GS525B 5-Piece Guitar Rack: it’s common for pit guitarists to arrange their instruments in arcs to either side of their music stands. However, this requires more space than many pits have. I find that I’m able to obtain a more compact and ergonomic setup using the Hercules GS525B, which takes 5 guitars and can be expanded to take up to 10 slim electric guitars. I set the stand up on my right side, and can change guitars very quickly without getting cables tangled.
Ingles Adjustable Violin Stand: I used the excellent little grey Ingles stand for my mandolin (it’s also good for ukulele). It’s very robust, with an adjustable height neck support, and a lock on the neck support to keep the instrument secure.
Picks: I used my usual yellow Herdim Light (0.63mm) picks for electric guitar, and Dunlop white nylon 0.38mm and 0.46mm picks for acoustic guitars, depending on the tone I wanted in any given number. I used fingers to play the Loar Archtop, and a thicker Dunlop triangular pick for the mandolin.
Stool: as always I used my Big Dog HF004 Round Drum Stool, rather than a chair. I find that a drum throne allows me to keep my setup more compact, and results in zero instances of me knocking my instruments against the edge of my chair!
Legally Blonde provides two-plus hours of interesting and challenging material for a pit guitarist. It requires a lot of practice and a lot of gear if you plan to play it properly. It’s too complex to sight read, but it’s worth spending the time to work at getting it right. Once you have it in your fingers, it’s a lot of fun to play.
Legally Blonde Novel – Wikipedia page
Legally Blonde Film – Wikipedia page
Legally Blonde The Musical – Wikipedia page
MTI page (licensing)
Broadway World review of Showtunes production
New York Times review of 2007 Broadway Production