They even order the same dinner. After finishing a performance of Legally Blonde, the Broadway show they are currently performing in, Andy Karl and his wife of five years, Orfeh, sit down for dinner. Without even looking at the menu, they both order the same thing – burgers and fries.
They’re hungry, and rightfully so. Legally Blonde is a full-length, high-energy musical with a large cast that never seems to stop moving. Directed by veteran choreographer Jerry Mitchell, the scenes are peppered with elaborate song-and-dance numbers that look like they would tire out even the most devoted dancer. But these two are calm and cool and ready to talk – and eat.
Between bites, the couple discusses their careers and their relationship, two topics that have constantly overlapped throughout the years – just like their conversation. They take turns answering questions, giving each other ample time to talk. Both are effusive with praise for each other and the show, which marks their Broadway debut as married couple collaborating onstage. After meeting on the set of Saturday Night Fever, the two have worked on five major productions together before Legally Blonde. Based on the hit movie, the play tells the story of Elle, a California beach babe who, after being dumped by her boyfriend, follows him to Harvard Law School in hopes of winning back his affections. Orfeh plays Paulette, a down-on-her luck hairdresser who is befriended by Elle, and Karl doubles as her sleazy ex-husband and Kyle, the UPS man who becomes the object of her affections.
Since taking the role of Paulette, Orfeh has received critical acclaim as well as a Drama Desk nomination Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical. Pretty nice recognition for someone who was not originally considered for the role.
“Nobody knew what to look for with Paulette, because Jennifer Coolidge had done such a great job in the film, making it her own,” says Karl of the casting process, during which the directors saw numerous actresses. “And then Orfeh came in and showed them that she herself had the personality and the ability and voice to carry out exactly what they wanted.”
Carrying that out was a challenge for Orfeh, due to the status Coolidge had achieved with the role. “I had to start with a really blank slate,” she says of her work. “Jennifer Coolidge is so inimitable, she’s so specific, she’s so brilliant. If I had taken it anywhere in that direction, no matter how good it was, it would have been a pale imitation of her. That wasn’t fair to her.”
To develop the character, she pretended that she had never seen the movie and worked to give Paulette a history and background for the woman she is when the play begins.
“I kind of feel like if some of our bigger pop stars had never made it and just wound up as downtrodden crazy eccentrics who once had a really promising future – that’s kind of where I found Paulette. I felt like she was someone who had a lot of promise and was really funky and maybe wanted to be in the music business or was a hot groupie or something like that and she just fell on hard times with the wrong guy and everything went south from there.”
The character of Paulette is very different than Orfeh herself, a fact that the actress enjoys.
“She has a heart of gold, is very giving, is just this gregarious creature,” she continues. “She’s very open with her emotions, very out there, no filters as far as emotional highs and lows. As a human being, I’m very even keeled. I really have fun with it.”
One of the aspects of Paulette’s character that is enhanced from the film’s character is her dream of Ireland. Although she has never been to the country, she idealizes it and fantasizes of traveling there and falling in love with a redheaded Irish man. She shares this with Elle while convincing her to not maintain her natural hair color instead of dying it brown to appear more serious.
“She sees it as a way to Elle this story about her life and saying, ‘I can help you out of this. You can’t dye your hair brown. Let me tell you why.’ And then she goes off on this tangent,” says Orfeh of the scene. “It’s really a way to engage Elle and to not let her do something rash. It’s just the way Paulette operates. It’s just a little out there.”
The song, which was crafted at one of the last conceptions of the show’s readings, was performed for the first time by Orfeh, who describes the dream as taking Paulette out of her rut and loneliness and dreaming of something better in her life.
The Irish theme is revisited near the end of the show, when Paulette learns that her hunky UPS crush is Irish and named Kyle B. O’Boyle. This realization takes place during a parade dance number in the second act, which segue ways into an Irish dance number that the entire company participates in. The cast was doubtful about the effect of the Irish dancing, according to Karl, but their opinions soon changed.
“At rehearsals with the producers and in the rehearsal room, we were dancing this Irish dance that comes out of nowhere, and no one was really laughing and it wasn’t really landing,” he says. “And finally we got to the preview in front of an audience. They had scheduled the next day that they were going to cut the Irish dancing. They were not going to have it in this show. We finally get out there and I’m like, ‘You know what? We’re just going to sell this. Orfeh, let’s sell this Irish dancing. The audience is either going to get it and love it, or they’re going to hate it.’ And the audience went ballistic.”
Orfeh and Any share another favorite with the audience, which are the dogs that are featured in the show. Elle’s and Paulette’s dogs both received wild cheers when performing with the cast, and Orfeh and Karl can frequently be found backstage with the understudy dogs between scenes.
“We fight over the dogs. We really do!” Orfeh says, laughing, after Karl describes the understudy dogs as “bitter and talented…like real understudies.”
The two value their time together, whether onstage, backstage with the dogs, or at home, recognizing that it can be a rare thing in a marriage of two actors.
“Actually working together, and being in the same room together, is like being on vacation for us,” Karl says. “It’s like, ‘OK, now we can actually see each other!’ She’s usually out of the house at 8 in the morning to go do a voiceover for someone. Then I’m off to rehearsal for this. Working together and maintaining that – that’s our best time. And it makes it much more fun of a time just being together. Actors are constantly working – even when they’re not working, they’re working. They have to spend several hours just dedicated to auditions and just getting themselves out there. So this is sort of a paid vacation in that sense.”
The constant humor in the show also makes it an enjoyable endeavor for the entire cast, even if maintaining a straight face during some of the funnier scenes can be a challenge. Fortunately for her, Orfeh does not fall into that category.
“I am really, really, really gifted at the poker face thing,” she says. “I am the hardest person to break up on stage. More than anyone I’ve ever known, if I do say so myself. Someone can fall over and crack their head open and people would be hysterical.
She said her secret is to be invested in the moment of her character, and if Paulette wouldn’t laugh at it, she won’t either.
“And he tries – he tries every time to get me,” she says, pointing across the table at Karl. “Every single night. And I’m just poker faced.”
To demonstrate, Karl cracks a joke, and Orfeh barely blinks.
“All right – you win,” he says.
However, the rest of the cast isn’t quite as lucky as Orfeh, and Karl admits to having caused a few of them to crack up onstage.
“Even the director told me I can’t ad lib stuff now,” Karl says of his Dewey character, which is Paulette’s ex-boyfriend. “It’s too easy to come up with gross, off the cuff strange things I could say. I had this idea of him wearing a thong on his way out, showing his belly. I actually wrote stuff on my belly – ‘Hi’ – when she’s standing right at belly level. Laura Bell lost it completely. It took a good minute to get her back without laughing and the audience was there with us. I love those times.”
There are plenty of those times in the show, especially when Karl plays Kyle. By walking across the stage, he causes the audience to break into laughter and wolf whistles, and, upon seeing him, Paulette gasps to Elle, “The new UPS guy is like walking porn!”
“He’s like the knight in shining armor who walks in the door, only he’s in brown,” Karl says of Kyle. “He’s probably had all of those sexy jobs. He was probably a masseuse at one point, either that or he comes from a long line of UPS package people. He’s got pride in what he does. I didn’t want to be the smarmy guy who walks in, and that’s important because Paulette’s character needs her in her life. She needs a guy who is there to fall in love with her. Paulette also has her duty, she’s in her shop, she takes care of not only just the hair but the emotions of the women who walk in. That’s something that he sees – that pride in her work.”
Karl said he enjoys being mischievous when playing Brandon, winking at the audience while strutting across the stage. “It sort of calls for that,” he says. “The whole show, we give the audience this great ride, and at some point, in my head, you have to really let them into the experience to make the show a part of their lives. It makes the audiences feel like they really genuinely had a good time with the people onstage. It’s difficult, a fine line to ride. But when I wink at the audience as the UPS guy, it’s a really brief moment of letting the audience in on the good time that we’re having.”
Elle proves to be a vital aid in helping Paulette catch the eye of the UPS man, perfecting her “Bend and Snap” move that, in a surprising twist, causes the two of them to spend hours together in the emergency room. Paulette gives Elle love advice as well, constantly telling her that that her classmate and mentor Emmet is the right guy for her. Orfeh describes the friendship between the two women as them championing each other, saying, “Elle hadn’t had those kind of really gregarious zany friends. Her sorority sisters are very different than Paulette.”
The development of the two characters delivers a strong message to the audience about self-confidence and self-empowerment. “It’s saying it’s OK to be who you are without trying to be someone else to make other people like you,” says Orfeh. “I think that is the all encompassing message of Legally Blonde. It’s really about the fact that if you really are yourself, people are going to like you, because you’re not putting on some odd hat that doesn’t fit.”
Citing the young girls who are drawn to the story of Elle, Orfeh says, “That’s what the kids need. They get to go, ‘I just need to be who I am, I don’t have to be like this person or like that person. And if they don’t like me, well, then that’s tough. I’m going to still be who I want to be.’ That’s what is striking the chord. It’s without compromise, without the Extreme Makeover, in an Extreme MakeOver generation.”
The story, and the motivation that comes with it, is why Karl believes audiences are drawn to Legally Blonde.
“There is so much invested into the hearts and the change of personalities,” he says. “And in the essence of being in this musical, that is what we do to the audience. We take them to this ride of these happy pink sugary bubbly girls that have so much more to offer than just all that materialistic crap. She ends up being the blonde that goes to Harvard Law and can do anything.”
“I think Paulette’s character is like Elle’s character but she got hit by the negative wave of some crappy guy,” he continues. “That’s why Elle is drawn to her, because Paulette is such a positive person. Even though she had somebody in her life for ten years and told her she had a fat ass but she was Elle in her day. But Paulette sees now in this girl that comes into her shop, that Elle is me, when I was happy once in my life. And then it all turns around for the better, for the positive. The secret is correct – you keep the positive thinking and things will manifest itself.”
So maybe it’s the positive thinking that keeps these two going strong. Or the respect and admiration that they have for each other – and the laughter that results from it.
“Oh, he’s just saying that so he won’t have to clean his closet!” Orfeh says, after Karl compliments her yet again.
“It’s clean, baby,” Karl responds. “It’s fen shuied.”
Or maybe that’s the secret there.