I’ve never seen a show that’s whiter, more American or more heterosexual than Pretty Woman the Musical.
It’s smooth peanut butter on wonderbread, denim hotpants over American-tan tights, Taylor Swift when it seemed like she might vote Trump and before she became the world’s most unlikely drag king, it’s the romance of silk-satin and naked social aspiration and emotionally stunted men in suits. It’s a bedtime story for adherents to a certain vision of ’80s/90s pop culture that makes quite a lot of room for actual naps during its two hour twenty five minute duration.
I found it all weirdly watchable, but look, don’t listen to me, my writing music is 24-hour longplaying autogenerated relaxation music YouTube videos. I grew up on ’40s Hollywood movie musicals. I ruin my girlfriend’s Netflix algorithm by watching shitty romcoms. I can stand a bit of synthetic kitsch.
The key (and trust me, I am a cynical person, this is a skill I have cultivated) is to let it float through your brain like a dream, to gulp it down like a MacDonald’s milkshake, without a thought to its ingredients.
Step One: See the fairytale in every story
Tell it right and every story can be beautiful. Yeah, superficially the plotline of Pretty Woman is pretty grim. But we’re not superficial! We’re gonna see the inner beauty of this unattractive, makeover-worthy narrative.
An economically distressed woman is selling sex on Hollywood Boulevard: she has no other options in a country that offers no minimum wage and minimal social security net. A stranger cajoles her into going back with him to his luxury hotel and pays her to be his girlfriend; the kind that’s financially prevented from criticising him in any way. He breaks down her independence of spirit with gifts of clothes and etiquette lessons, and breaks her one ground rule (‘no kissing’). She falls in love with him, or having money, it doesn’t matter which. He offers to set her up in a luxury condo with her own car; in her one moment of true agency, she refuses to be a ‘kept woman’ and instead demands the security net of the title ‘wife’.
Ugh, okay, what a depressing mess. But let’s fix our attitude! A spritz of hairspray, a dash of Hollywood glitter, and we’ve got:
A beautiful-but-scruffy damsel-in-distress is plying her trade on Hollywood Boulevard, where she offers directions to a lost billionaire. Her fairytale reward is a week with him in the unimaginable opulence of a luxury hotel. She learns the ways of the wealthy and the pleasures of shopping. He learns the importance of ‘normal people’, and of love. He ditches his bad job selling on distressed companies for a beautiful and good job selling large cruise liners. She ditches her bad job selling sex for a beautiful and good job selling her whole self in return for the title ‘wife’. The birds sing, the songs of Bryan Adams play, we all live happily ever after.
Step Two: Buy into the aesthetics
Yes, we touched on this in the intro. But trashy romcoms are primarily an aesthetic exercise. The clothes! The palm trees! The shiny surfaces of expensive places! These stories are all about pushing you to that heightened place of see-but-can’t-touch yearning. Jerry Mitchell’s production of Pretty Woman is at its best when it’s leaning into the plushiest implications of this capitalist fairytale. The first act’s shopping scene is a fevered, satisfying swirl of navy-blue clad assistants and impressive gowns. It’s outdone by the second act’s trip to the opera; not the real opera of dandruff-strewn suits and stretch-waist velvet palazzo trousers, but a fantasy Disney version of pretty ladies wearing sequinned masks. It’s beautiful because it’s familiar, calling back to images that get replicated on greetings cards and made-for-tv-movies. It’s hard to get those well-known outlines wrong. Designer David Rockwell gives us JUST enough to work with here, no more; the twinkling palm tree or ritzy hotel backdrops have the flimsy cut-out quality of wedding photo booth props. Squint through smize-ing eyes to make them sparkle.
Step Three: Let yourself fall in love
Romcoms like Pretty Woman are nominally targeted at women, something that’s weird when you consider Vivian’s almost-complete lack of agency or inner life. But they make sense when you consider the ways that women are raised in the male gaze; stained by surprisingly hard-to-shift heterosexual narratives of being the small-waisted, pouting-lipped princess, leaning against the ham-like biceps of a taciturn prince. It’s a small step from auto-objectification to turning that feeling outwards, to taking aesthetic and emotional pleasure in another woman’s successful fulfilment of an idealised role.
The weird thing about Pretty Woman (in movie form) is the location of its eroticism; the sex its premise suggests isn’t found in perfunctory clinches, but in Julia Roberts’ eyes and lips and her ecstatic reactions to the twin delights of money and romance. This is a sublimated, queer kind of sensuality, one that makes female viewers complicit in the fantasy of possession; not of square-jawed nonentity Edward (god no!) but of Vivian, and of everything she becomes. In theatre, it’s a harder effect to replicate. As Vivian, Aimie Atkinson tries to romance the audience, but it’s harder to romance 1000+ half-drunk strangers than a single camera. She’s got a kind of kittenish quality, lolling on the hotel room floor eating strawberries; the child-woman that even a 23-year-old Julia Roberts wasn’t. She woos you with the wiggling walk of Betty Boop and the cartoonishly disastrous table manners of Paddington Bear (she dismembers her breakfast pancake with the sugar tongs); to enjoy this show, you must fall for her charms.
Step Four: Purchase a pint of wine at the interval
I don’t feel this needs any explaining; but if you don’t drink, a few bags of Minstrels will have a very similar effect.
Step Five: Contact your inner child
Look I know I said that thing earlier about letting it slip down like a synthetic milkshake but that was at least partly bravado – I don’t even drink milk! Some trashy romcoms really do romance you into their ridiculous world but it’s so subjective; I can’t deal with Love, Actually but know loads of queer people who bathe in it like a mulled-wine scented bath; I love Bridget Jones Diary but its fat-shaming and relentlessly white-English-upper-middle-class glibness justly appalls many. I think you have to come to these things at just the right time, like that Jesuit maxim on indoctrination; “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Give yourself to Hollywood romcoms in your tender years and they won’t let you go, quite. Vivian wants the no-doubt-Disney-inspired knight in shining armour she dreamt of as a kid; and in turn, she inspired god knows how many kids to want a rich man to buy them nice hats.
There’s very little that’s directly erotic about Pretty Woman; the realities of sex work are basically invisible, bar the suggestion of a blow job, which Vivian prepares for by laying down a hotel-branded cushion like it’s a kneeler in church (shudder). This story relies on an innocence; an inability to see the fear or discomfort or insecurity Vivian might feel as she surrenders her autonomy to this stranger, and a Snow White-primed ability to appreciate the romantic climax. Certainly, anyone with the polluted mind of an adult might be tempted to giggle at the sight of Edward riding (essentially humping) a park bench like it’s a noble white steed, before scaling a modest piece of scenery with red rose in hand, where his swooning damsel awaits.
Step Six: If that fails, experience it all as a political allegory/insight into the all-American psyche
The thing I said about this being the whitest, straightest, most American thing I’d ever seen; don’t think I don’t acknowledge a dark side to that. I often faltered in my efforts to enjoy Pretty Woman, disconcerted by an almost-entirely white cast depicting this uncomplicated dream of social aspiration. So I tried to read it as an allegory, an insight into the values of an alien culture. This is a world where money and being good and being right are the same thing. There’s something undeniably Trump-era about Edward’s pivotal decision that he’ll manufacture cruise ships, to provide American jobs for American workers. He’s got no inner life, because he can afford to buy people to deal with and accommodate all his needs, Vivian included. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the hotel concierge who teaches Vivian how to dance would, if need be, cover up her murder with the same twinkly-eyed professionalism.
This is (however unwittingly) a story about the myopia that comes with wealth and privilege. Edward’s rosé-tinted gaze alights on this ‘pretty woman’, and transforms the grim world that surrounds her into ‘local colour’, a chorus of cartoonishly joyful hobos and hookers (to use in-world terminology). Like the wealthy couple in Parasite, who are innocent and uncreased by knowledge of the poverty their house is literally built on, Pretty Woman is obscenely innocent.
Step Seven: Go out singing into the night, safe in the knowledge that this show is one big, huge, anachronism You won’t be left singing this show’s new songs, necessarily, which are mostly pretty forgettable ’80s tinged Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance ballads – the most memorable song is easily the movie’s ‘Pretty Woman’, which only cheekily appears at the curtain call, like a lace thong falling out of last night’s jeans. But something to make your heart sing in a more metaphorical sense is the thought that Pretty Woman feels massively out of step with a changing West End. Musical theatre producers have largely raised their game, have understood that even exercises in retro nostalgia need to exist in the 21st century: & Juliet is a shining, if flawed, example in how to make ’90s kitsch feel fresh. I’m not totally sure why the producers of Pretty Woman saw fit to bring it to London after universally terrible reviews on Broadway. But in a way I’m grateful for it; it’s a reminder of what the West End could so easily be, and a warning to future generations of producers: restitch, fix up, and febreze that old story like it’s a hand-me-down prom dress. Because retro aesthetics still have their magic, but retro politics don’t.