Can a reality TV star make it on B'way?

July 25, 2008 11:59:07 AM PDT
Less than a year ago, 20-year-old Bailey Hanks was a typical college student studying theater and an active member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority at Carolina Coastal University. But as of Wednesday night, Hanks became a very different kind of sorority girl, as she made her debut as leading lady Elle Woods in New York's Broadway show "Legally Blonde the Musical."

And while other struggling actors may go to hundreds of auditions before getting cast in a hit show, Hanks' journey to the main stage was very different: She landed her leading role thanks to an MTV reality show.

A group of 10 young women from across the country competed with Hanks on MTV's show "Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods" to replace Laura Bell Bundy as the leading lady in the musical. The show finished taping in March 2008, but producers only announced the winner this past week.

Contestants were filmed perfecting their dance moves in hot pink stilettos, tuning their voices and memorizing lines from the show in front of a panel of judges -- including the show's casting director and writer -- who proceeding to cut one Elle-hopeful each week before eventually casting Hanks.

Wednesday night, fresh off the stage from her first performance and still clad in Elle Wood's signature pink from head to toe, Hanks spoke with about her transformation from college student to Broadway star.

"Everything happened so fast I didn't have time to be nervous," said Hanks. "I just have butterflies -- excited butterflies."

"I'm in a dream world," said Hanks, who had never seen a Broadway show before moving to New York City a few months ago.

A daughter of a pastor in Anderson, S.C., Hanks told that her warm-up to Broadway was on a much smaller scale -- she had performed in a handful of school and local productions before last night.

And while her young age and limited experience, coupled with the unique way she was cast in the show, may make some wary of Hanks' ability to perform on Broadway, others say she's got what it takes.

From Sorority Sister to Show-Stopper

Heather Hach, "Legally Blonde's" playwright and one of the judges who helped choose Hanks as the lead, told that she was unsure at first whether a reality show could really succeed at picking a Broadway star.

"I was definitely skeptical," said Hach, who added that she'd been "blown away" by Hanks' first performance. "You just never know if someone is going to buckle under the pressure, but Hanks didn't."

"What a pro," added Hach.

Casting director and fellow judge Bernard Telsey said that he too found himself surprised at how smoothly Hanks' first performance went -- proof that maybe reality shows really can find true talent.

"There were no mistakes," said Telsey. "She should have at least walked the wrong way on the stage once or something!"

Elysa Gardner, a music and theater reporter for USA Today, is equally confident in Hanks' ability and said that finding Broadway performers by way of reality television may soon become more common.

"People understand that reality television is part of reality now," said Gardner.

"[The casting directors] knew going in to this that this was a young woman who didn't have a lot of professional experience but that's been the case now for principals in 'Rent' and will be for other [Broadway shows in the works]," added Gardner.

Asked whether she thought the rest of the "Legally Blonde" ensemble may be resentful of Hanks' quick rise to fame, Gardner said if anything, they will probably appreciate the press the MTV exposure will give the musical.

"The cast is sophisticated and smart enough to know that this is how things are done nowadays," said Gardner. "And it helps draw attention to the show, which is a good thing for all of them."

And attention is certainly what Hanks and the rest of the cast received at the debut screaming and cheering audience members almost muffled the lead's voice during her first song of the night.

During a champagne toast after the performance, "Legally Blonde" director Jerry Mitchell raised his glass to his new heroine.

"You had big pumps to fill," said Mitchell, referring to the classic patent leather pink heels Hanks wears for much of the show, "but you did it."

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