American Idol meets Clueless when a Valley girl auditions for the lead in a top Broadway show.
As if reality shows don’t have enough drama, imagine one that involves 10 young women living together while they compete for the chance to star in the girliest show on Broadway— “Legally Blonde: The Musical”.
That’s the scenario for the MTV reality show “Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods”, and one of the top 10 finalists chosen from thousands of young women competing for the role of Elle Woods is Natalie Lander, a Valley girl who has been performing since age 11 when she was cast as Michael in a children’s production of “Peter Pan”.
An Early Start
Lander grew up in the Hollywood Hills, then moved to Calabasas where she and I both attended A.E. Wright Middle School. We were in the same circle of friends, some of whom performed with Lander in plays and musicals at a local youth theater. I still have pictures from my 13th birthday party when they all performed songs from “A Chorus Line” alongside the pool. Lander loved the spotlight even then.
She earned a theater degree at Pepperdine University in Malibu, performed in various LA shows and did the requisite Disneyland stint— in “High School Musical” — before moving to Los Angeles. Hard-earned college degree aside, she’s doing what many “between acts” actors have done: waitressing (at Jones in Hollywood) and doing voiceovers while she waits for all the MTV episodes to air.
“‘Legally Blonde’ was my first New York audition and it felt like being in the live version of ‘A Chorus Line’,” Lander says. “I’ve never been on an audition like this but I’ve had nightmares where I am on this crazy audition and they’re cutting people left and right, and I actually lived that when I auditioned for ‘Legally Blonde’.”
Dancing, singing and acting auditions for the three judges — Broadway casting director Bernard Telsey, “Legally Blonde: The Musical’s” Tony Award-nominated book writer Heather Hach, and original “Legally Blonde” cast member Paul Canaan — took their toll on the girls physically and emotionally, and in the second episode Natalie broke down and cried in anticipation of her upcoming acting audition.
“I cried a lot on the show, surprisingly, which is funny because before I left I thought ‘I am not going to be that girl on reality TV who is always bawling her eyes out,’ and sure enough I was,” Lander says. “Sometimes you just can’t help what you feel and it’s so high stress. You want the part but you also don’t want to go home because you love the people and you love doing the entire process so it becomes so part of your life [that] you don’t want that taken away from you.”
Despite the high pressure, Lander says, “It was great practice and some of the best training I have ever gotten. This process has really restored my faith in myself as a performer because my dream is to be on Broadway, but did I ever actually think I could hold my own with some of the best? No, not at all, but going through this process, I know I have more to learn, but I know I can do this and I can get out there and shine on stage.”
“The Soup” on E! poked fun at Lander’s crying, but her acting audition in the second episode gave no cause for tears. In the audition, the girls played opposite Nikki Snelson who portrayed Brooke Wyndham in the musical. Snelson was told to forget a line so the judges could see the girls’ reactions and after a pause, Natalie continued the scene, incorporating Snelson’s line.
“Of course I was confused when the line was dropped,” Lander says. “We rehearsed so hard like crazy, like 24 hours a day we were rehearsing that scene, so when that line dropped I think everyone had the same reaction. I covered [Snelson] because as an actor you never leave another actor stranded onstage. It was her mistake but if I skipped over it I didn’t want the audience to know it was her mistake, so I picked up her line as well.”
Throughout the competition, contestants shared a New York apartment — complete with pink décor and lots of high-pitched squealing — that felt a lot like Elle’s Delta Nu sorority house.
“It was hard to adjust out of my comfort zone and all of a sudden give up my privacy and share a room with nine other girls,” Lander says. “We all became each other’s support systems in a lot of ways and ended up having so much fun. I think my abs look better from how much I laughed when we were shooting the show.
“We got along really well considering the circumstances,” Lander continues. “Of course we all had moments when we snapped at each other, when you have 10 girls and hormonal cycles are all over the place. Everyone was really honest, which was amazing. If I was in a bad mood and someone was bothering me I would just say, ‘I’m in a bad mood; it has nothing to do with you; I just need my space’ and everyone really respected that. Even when tensions rose we thought it was easier to be friends than enemies, so we resolved things pretty quickly.”
Valley Girls Are Fun
In the first episode, Lander admits she is “a Valley girl through and through” and is honest about living up to some of the stereotypes.
“Valley girls are fun, bubbly, California girls and we like the mall, but what girl doesn’t?” Lander says. “I will drive 20 feet to a Starbucks and I feel like a mall can be considered a holy place of worship, so I think that’s the Valley girl inside of me. I think every girl has a little bit of Valley in her.”
However, Lander also possesses some of Elle Woods’ traits that put a spin on the typical Valley girl image.
“I’m like Elle Woods in a way because I am fun and outgoing, but I am also smart and driven and have a passion for life and learning, and Elle Woods is a great model for young women,” Lander says. “She is not just Malibu Beach Barbie. She is Malibu Beach Barbie with a brain and goes after what she wants.”
Like Elle Woods, Lander made good friends along her journey and she says that she and the girls e-mail each other every day.
“We all went through this really bizarre, unique experience together and only the 10 of us know what it was like so it makes for some really special friends,” Lander says.
The winner of the competition will make her Broadway debut as Elle Woods at The Palace Theater in New York City on July 23rd. “Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods” airs Mondays at 10 pm on MTV, and full auditions and extra scenes can be seen at www.mtv.com/ontv/dyn/legally_blonde_search_for_elle_woods/series.jhtml.