Based on the smash-hit romantic comedy film that turned Julia Roberts into a superstar, Pretty Woman The Musical is the big musical – big! huge! – that’s presently touring the UK and Ireland, following record-breaking runs on Broadway and in the West End.
The movie tells the charming tale of Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), a vivacious and street-smart Hollywood sex worker and Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), a wealthy and successful businessman who, by chance, hires Vivian for a week to accompany him at various social events. As their seemingly disparate worlds collide, an unexpected and transformative connection blossoms between them.
Edward, initially drawn to Vivian’s bold spirit, begins to see beyond the surface and discovers the genuine warmth and kindness beneath her tough exterior. In turn, Vivian experiences a taste of a life filled with luxury and sophistication.
Through a series of delightful and heartwarming moments, the movie explores themes of love, acceptance, and the transformative power of human connection against the backdrop of glamorous Beverly Hills. The film captures the essence of an unconventional love story, where two individuals from different worlds find common ground and ultimately redefine their own definitions of happiness and fulfilment.
And according to his wife Barbara and daughter Kathleen, the film’s director and co-writer of the musical Garry Marshall would have been thrilled to learn of its ongoing success. He passed away in 2016 after working on the production with the movie’s writer, J. F. Lawton, for many years and dreaming that it might open in New York some day.
“Had someone told him it would such a hit around the world he wouldn’t have believed it,” Barbara smiles proudly. “Not only did it make it to Broadway, it’s bringing joy to so many people in so many other places.“
Earlier in the year, in a London hotel on a visit to see the show’s final performances at the Savoy Theatre, Barbara adds: “He’d be here with us if he could and he’d have come to all the places we’ve seen the show.”
Kathleen agrees. “As well as being a director my dad was a writer, which he saw as a lonely profession. He always said ‘Once you finish writing something you just have to bask in it because you’re going to be back in the room writing again soon’. So he would be just basking in the excitement that the show is doing so well.”
Bronx-born Marshall was a Hollywood legend who studied journalism and, in the late 50s, landed a job writing gags for Rat Pack funnyman Joey Bishop. He broke into TV on the writing staff of The Tonight Show before adapting Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for the small screen. An even bigger breakthrough came when he created Happy Days in 1974, followed by spin-offs Laverne & Shirley (starring his sister Penny) and Mork & Mindy.
He went on to direct such feature films as Young Doctors in Love, The Flamingo Kid, Overboard and Beaches before Pretty Woman gave him the biggest hit of his career. Set in the late 80s and released in 1990, it was conceived as a much darker story, with LA streetwise sex worker Vivian (Roberts) struggling with a cocaine addiction and Edward (Richard Gere), the wealthy businessman who hires her for a week, abandoning her at the end.
Known for his heart-warming stories and flair for comedy, Garry worked closely with screenwriter J. F. Lawton to refashion it as a fairy tale romcom in which Vivian falls for Edward’s charms. And she rescues him right back.
Marshall decided to make Vivian a more resilient character than she was in the preliminary draft. “After he got the script,” Barbara recalls, “he freshened it up and he made her into this strong woman.”
Garry was a canny choice to direct the movie, given his track record with uplifting women’s stories. “And it’s sort of my dad’s story too,” his daughter points out, “because he came from the Bronx and he went to Northwestern University, where everybody was sort of a little fancier. Then he came to Hollywood and he was constantly his own fish out of water.”
Kathleen appeared in the film as she did in all of Garry’s movies, as a desk clerk, and she recalls it being an easy shoot. “It was a small movie at the time and the studio left them to get on with it. In my memories there’s a lot of Julia and Richard and my dad together, sorting out ‘How are we going to do this?’ and ‘How are we going to do that?’.
“He was very collaborative and there wasn’t a lot of stress because they didn’t know what it was going to be and if it was going to work. It was scripted but it was an interesting collaboration, finding little bits about Julia that he could then put in there.”
Fun fact: Barbara is in the film, too. “But you can only see my red jacket and hear my voice say ‘Goodbye’. I had a whole scene in Gucci before Julia comes in, but when I saw the first cut I said ‘Where’s my part?’ and Garry said ‘It wasn’t necessary’.”
Marshall kept his family close (he was also a father to Scott and Lori) and had a reputation for being great to work with. As Barbara points out, “he was not a yeller or a screamer. It was a party on set. He wanted to keep everybody’s spirits up because it’s a lot of work and everybody’s tired.”
The budget was $14 million, and Marshall was amply rewarded when the film became the most successful romcom ever, with a worldwide gross of $463.4 million.
It continues to enthral viewers and the scene where Roberts returns to a store that snubbed her and declares, “You work on commission right? Big mistake! Big! Huge!” has launched thousands of GIFs. “Julia says it is the most quoted line to her from all the things she’s done,” Kathleen notes. “It’s this great scene in this wonderful romantic comedy, with this woman going ‘You can’t treat me like that’. I like the way that still resonates today.”
Barbara adds: “I think it’s also about dreaming and wishing and showing that wishes come true sometimes.”
The idea of turning Pretty Woman into a stage show was her idea. Garry went on to direct the likes of Runaway Bride and The Princess Diaries. “But I kept saying to him ‘You know, this could be a musical’ and he’d say ‘Yeah, OK’ but nothing happened. Finally, maybe 15 or more years later, he and J. F. started writing together one a day week, every Wednesday in Garry’s office for five years.”
Marshall himself said of the rewrite: “It’s always nice to do something again because you saw what you missed the first time. I must confess that the original Pretty Woman was terrific and a hit but I always felt that creatively I didn’t do justice to Richard Gere’s character. So in the musical, we have some great new moments for Richard’s character. As much as he changed her life, she changed his life. That wasn’t totally clear in the picture, so we make that much clearer.”
The stage version strengthens the characters, even more, Kathleen feels. “And they made it a little more modern but it’s still got the nostalgia and those iconic moments. I mean, people still love to see Edward arrive at that fire escape.”
Bryan Adams and his songwriting partner Jim Vallance were commissioned to write the all-new score, which is very much influenced by late-80s and early-90s rock and pop. Roy Orbison’s ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ was added a few months into the show’s Broadway run, and Wesley and Alex Orbison even joined the cast on stage to perform the track as a tribute to their late father.
Eventually, producer Paula Wagner came on board, as did director Jerry Mitchell. Marshall passed away in July 2016 at the age of 81, but the team was determined to carry on and fulfil his dream of having a show on Broadway. “He was so excited about that,” Kathleen says. “He loved revisiting the story and transforming it into a musical, adding the songs and changing some of the structure. As Jerry Mitchell said ‘It’s all the things you love from the movie and more’.”
The original production played Chicago’s Oriental Theatre in March 2018, with Britain’s Samantha Barks and US actor Steve Kazee as the leads, and opened at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre that August – breaking box office records and enjoying a year-long run. Andy Karl took over from Kazee, and during previews on 02 August, a performance was dedicated to Marshall, with none other than Julia Roberts in attendance.
“She came and met the cast and we took pictures on the stage,” Barbara remembers fondly. “She was very cute. We were sitting together during the show and she would lean over and say, ‘I wrote that line’.”
The show played Hamburg in Germany in 2019, and the West End production opened at the Piccadilly Theatre in March 2020, with Aimie Atkinson as Vivian and Danny Mac as Edward. Forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it reopened at the Savoy Theatre in July 2021, playing to packed houses until the final performance this June 2023.
The musical also toured the US from October 2021 until May this year, and there has been a Polish-language production in Kraków, an Italian version in Milan and a Spanish version in Barcelona.
As it sets off around the UK and Ireland, Kathleen ponders why audiences respond so positively to this particular story. “There’s a beautiful moment in Pretty Woman where you know that Edward really sees who Vivian is and Vivian really sees who Edward is, and that’s where they connect.
“There’s a joyousness in the way that people connect in my dad’s shows and films, and he did that in life as well. He really thought you should be there for people when it’s a hard day and be there for them when it’s a fun day.”
Barbara adds: “I think everybody remembers that movie as a happy moment or it helped them with something in their life.” She grins. “Now people come to this musical wearing the clothes, like the famous red dress or the trench coat with the same Julia outfit underneath, in the high boots and blonde wigs.”
And, as Kathleen points out, it’s not just for female audiences. “They bring their husbands and boyfriends, who then end up really enjoying it too,” She smiles. “There’s a lot there in the storytelling that’s really beautiful and romantic and uplifting, and I think everyone can connect to that.”
Pretty Woman: The Musical is on at New Theatre oxford until Saturday 09 December.