If you are of a certain age and remember going to see Pretty Woman with the luminous Julia Roberts and falling in love with her like I did, you may have silly notions that a new Broadway musical based on the film would be a good thing; however, 1990 is a long time ago and a good deal has happened since then that makes the idea of a play featuring a prostitute who falls in love with a billionaire (who happens to be her client) more than a bit incongruous considering the current events of the past two years.
Pretty Woman: The Musical stars Samantha Barks in the role that made Roberts famous. I am not sure how faithful the play will be to the Gary Marshall film (based on the reviews I’ve read it seems that it will be), but the story is that Vivian Ward is a prostitute who meets super rich Edward Lewis (Andy Karl in the play, Richard Gere in the film) and snags an extended job as his sexual partner and companion. It all seemed so simple when I first saw the movie, and the film succeeds due to the chemistry between Roberts and Gere, but now thinking about it there is a salient truth – Lewis pays Vivian for sex and companionship. Since he is paying her she is technically an employee, and Lewis uses that dynamic to take advantage of Vivian physically and emotionally.
I recall the film being compared to a Cinderella story – as far as I remember Cinderella had to clean, cook, and serve her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine and her stepsisters as an unpaid housekeeper. When she does meet Prince Charming no money exchange occurs, though she does leave a glass slipper behind for him which will be the clue to help him find her.
Other comparisons have been made to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady (two films starring the incredibly wonderful Audrey Hepburn), but even if you make some connections to the love story in the former and the makeover of Eliza Doolittle in the latter, there is nothing at the heart of those films as ugly as prostitution. Yes, Holly is an “escort” to wealthy men, a New York socialite hoping to snag a rich older man to be her husband, but it is implicitly understood that Holly is more in charge than the men whom she is entertaining.
The problem with Pretty Woman – that Vivian is a hooker and it is a dangerous profession – has always been there, but we drank the critics’ Kool-Aid and went with the notion that this is romance and we were okay with that because in the end Lewis does fall in love with her, brings her flowers on the fire escape, and stares up at her like an older Romeo looking at his Juliet on the cast iron balcony. Audiences bought it then but aren’t they too wise to buy it now?
In this era of #metoo and Time’s Up, where women have been sharing their horror stories of men abusing them and sexually harassing or attacking them inside and outside of the workplace, it surprises me that anyone on Broadway thought it was a good idea to develop this musical in the first place. Can you picture the meeting where someone said, “Let’s put on a musical version of Pretty Woman.” What were they thinking?
I know there will be those people who look at the film and the play and evaluate things differently. They will say that Vivian is in the power position, that she chooses her clients and is in charge of her body. No one can tell her what to do or not to do. There will even be others who say prostitution should be legal anyway (as it is in some foreign countries) and what is the big deal?
The problem is that prostitution is a dangerous business; female prostitutes are subject to drug abuse (about 70% use drugs), physical and emotional abuse from customers, obvious health risks, and death (they have a 40% higher death rate than other women). Pretty Woman the movie (and I suspect the play as well) glosses over these glaring problems in favor of making it a comedy and a love story.
So why is this play on Broadway? The answer is obvious – the bottom line is what matters. Judging from generally positive to glowing reviews the play is receiving and the recognition factor of the title and association with warm memories of the film for many people, Pretty Woman: The Musical is probably a lock to be Broadway’s next huge hit. Whatever puts people in those expensive seats, right? The show will also no doubt rack up a slew of Tony Award nominations next year.
I do not plan on seeing the play because it feels inappropriate at this time, and I am certain other people will feel the same way. Unless the show handles Vivian’s back story and highlights the extremely negative effects of being a sex worker, there is no reason to see this play through rose colored glasses that hide the pernicious truth at its core.
In the end the box office will tell the tale, and I have a feeling that Pretty Woman: The Musical will be a huge success. As for me, I’d rather go see Beautiful – a story about a powerful and independent woman named Carole King who was ahead of her time. Now that is a show for this and every other era.