Laura Bell Bundy slides into an outdoor chair at Saul Good Restaurant at the corner of Short Street and Broadway, directly across the street from the Lexington Opera House.
She’s fresh from her first rehearsal as co-director of the Lexington Theatre Company’s production of “Legally Blonde — The Musical,” which takes the stage of the Opera House July 20 to 23. The show looms large in the Lexington native’s career, as she created the leading role of Elle Woods for the original Broadway production and received a Tony Award nomination for best actress in a musical for the effort.
Now, Bundy is partnering with her lifelong friend Lyndy Franklin Smith, artistic director of the theater company and a Broadway veteran herself, to bring a locally produced, fully professional production of the show to her hometown — really a home stage, where she took some of her first steps into the spotlight.
“It’s trippy,” Bundy, 36, says of returning to the show, but from a different perspective. “It’s fun to rediscover it.
“I lived with the character of Elle for a long time. We did the very first reading of ‘Legally Blonde’ in July of 2005, and we didn’t open until April 2007.”
She stayed with the show until July 2008, and returned to it on the road for five weeks when the actor playing the part on the national tour broke her toe
When “Legally Blonde” started to unfold, it seemed Bundy’s career had been building toward it.
After getting her start in Lexington, Bundy ventured onto larger stages and screens, landing roles in films such as “Jumanji” (1995) and TV series including the soap “Guiding Light,” where she played Marah Lewis in 2000 and 2001. Still, the stage always seemed to be Bundy’s prime venue.
She made her Broadway debut in 2002, creating the role of Amber Von Tussle in “Hairspray,” following that as the stand-in for Kristin Chenoweth in “Wicked.”
Then came “Legally Blonde,” based on the 2001 Reese Witherspoon comedy about a SoCal sorority girl who chases her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School to prove she’s “serious” enough for him.
Bundy’s visage loomed over Broadway in a giant ad as the show opened, and on opening night, the red carpet included celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Kathie Lee Gifford, Joan Rivers and Corbin Bleu, at the height of his “High School Musical” fame.
The production was recorded and shown on MTV, which later presented a short reality-competition show to find Bundy’s replacement when she departed in 2008.
Sometimes, you go a long journey to come back home, to realize what fits right for you, and I think theater is that for me.
Laura Bell Bundy
That’s not the only way Bundy’s departure from her Broadway star turn was not traditional. Instead of searching for her next Broadway show or trying to parlay her notoriety into a TV series, she went to Nashville to pursue a modestly successful country music career.
The past decade has included roles on several TV series such as “Hart of Dixie” and the Charlie Sheen series “Anger Management,” as well as guest turns on shows such as “How I Met Your Mother.” Bundy is currently balancing co-directing “Legally Blonde” and filming the TNT series “Good Behavior,” starring “Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery.
Her biggest life move came last month as she married TBS executive Thom Hinkle in a ceremony at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., that, as Bundy describes it, could only have been more Kentucky if they actually wed in the Bluegrass State. It included the front of a Kentucky barn as a backdrop for the ceremony, bourbon cocktails, University of Kentucky flourishes such as the bride’s cake and a wedding cake that tasted like Derby Pie.
While Bundy’s last decade may not have made sense to some observers, she says each experience prepared her to be ready to take on things like directing and helped her find her true calling.
“Sometimes, you go a long journey to come back home, to realize what fits right for you, and I think theater is that for me,” Bundy says, getting a little choked up. “Whether it’s being on stage, being a performer, or being part of the creative process, it’s been an interesting realization, in the last week, even.”
There is a potential return to Broadway in the wings, as Bundy has been working on a stage adaptation of the 1950s TV series “The Honeymooners” in which she plays Trixie opposite Hank Azaria’s Ed. The show is slated to open the 2017-18 season at Milburn, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse with aims to take it to Broadway.
This story is so much more relevant today than I think it was in 2007, because of what women are experiencing right now.
Laura Bell Bundy
But she is really enjoying returning to “Blonde,” and helping direct a cast that includes some folks from the Broadway production, including Chico, the Chihuahua who played her dog Bruiser, and directing Emma Degerstedt, who has played Elle in Los Angeles and on tour.
“If she was a little bit older, she probably would have replaced me on Broadway,” Bundy says.
Bundy’s feeling that this is the right time to bring back “Blonde” isn’t just personal.
“This story is so much more relevant today than I think it was in 2007, because of what women are experiencing right now,” Bundy says, noting events such as January’s women’s march. “There’s something kind of alive in women right now, that we’re tired of being underestimated. A lot of women have felt this way for a long time, but there’s a movement now, motivated by a fear of losing something that we have worked so hard to claim.
“This show is about a girl who believes the end goal is to get married and have the love of this guy. Really, she sees the most important thing is to have a love of myself and prove that I can be all that I am just on my own.”
While Bundy says she is just realizing some of the feminist messages of “Blonde,” the strength of the story and Elle was obvious and impactful to her at the time.
“I started the show as a girl,” she says, “and I left the show as a woman.”