NEW YORK — Bailey Hanks has yet to stage her Broadway debut, but already she's got an entourage worthy of Patti LuPone.
Surrounded by a team of publicists, family members and plates of sandwiches, the 20-year-old sorority girl from Anderson, S.C., is preparing to take over the role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde: The Musical at the Palace Theater.
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Last month, Hanks was a nobody. Today, she's a leading lady, little more than 24 hours away from playing the pink-loving heroine in a show beloved by teen and "tween girls who, like, seriously know all the words to the songs.
”It's so great to be Elle Woods,“ says Hanks, sitting pretty in a private party room at the legendary restaurant Sardi's, where the theater world goes to see or be seen. ”It's not a stretch for me. It's just like second nature.“
She's not kidding: Every inch of Hanks shouts ”Elle Woods!“ — from her fuschia party dress and platform heels to her long blond hair and unfailingly sunny disposition. In Hanks' Southern accent, which she has to drop during the show, she compliments this reporter's skirt and asks where to get it — just as her character might.
Hanks was hand-picked by director Jerry Mitchell out of a group of 10 aspiring Elles on the MTV reality show Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods, which premiered in early June. The finale aired Monday night. Hanks replaces Tony-nominated Lexington native Laura Bell Bundy on Wednesday night, and runner-up Autumn Hurlbert will appear as one of Elle's Delta Nu sorority sisters.
In a life-imitates-art moment, a bunch of girls from Hanks' real-life sorority — the Gamma Phi Beta chapter of Coastal Carolina University, where she studied musical theater until her big break — will show their support from the audience.
”I am more excited than nervous,“ she says. ”Nerves usually don't hit me until the moment I get into place to get on stage. And it's that butterfly feeling where I'm so excited, I can't wait. It's an exciting nervous. It's not like, "Omigod, I don't want to do this!' I feel so at home when I'm on stage.“
Hanks, the daughter of a pastor, had never seen a Broadway show — heck, she hadn't even flown on a plane — before moving to New York for the MTV show.
As a little girl, she began singing in church and performing in school and local productions, including Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, The Wizard of Oz and Gypsy.
Hanks was a fan of the 2001 Legally Blonde movie starring Reese Witherspoon and had dreamed about starring in the stage version when she heard about the MTV casting call.
”I literally had a panic attack,“ she recalls. ”I started boohooing. My parents were, like, freaking out, and we were in the car the next weekend on the way to the audition (in Nashville), totally prepared and excited and not even looking back. I was focused. I was like, "This is my future. This is my chance. I'm going to give it my all.'“
Hanks had been a front-runner throughout the eight-episode series, in which contestants were weeded out through a gauntlet of challenges testing their skills in singing, dancing, acting and all-around Elle-ness.
Hanks says she'll bring a different vibe to the character than the multitalented Bundy, who originated the stage role in April 2007.
”I feel like I may bring a younger spirit to Elle,“ Hanks says. ”I also think that everybody's comedy is different. Her comedy is totally different from mine. And so I feel like I may bring comedy to where people didn't see it before. ... They're going to laugh at parts that they never thought (about) — like, "Omigod, that was funny, I would not have suspected that.'“
And Hanks relates to Elle's blonde ambition.
”Elle Woods has been literally my dream role,“ she says. ”It's been the role that if I was offered every role on Broadway right now, it would be Elle Woods. I would choose Elle Woods hands down. This is a role that I totally "zen' with. But my goal in life now — since I've reached this ultimate goal — is to be successful on Broadway and to continue having a career on Broadway.“
Break a leg, Bailey.