Actress Laura Bell Bundy was sitting with five women and all of them wanted her job, playing Elle Woods in the Broadway production of Legally Blonde: The Musical.
For most of the chat, which was shown on MTV’s reality series Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods, Bundy was the sage Broadway veteran. But then she got reflective about what the experience of playing the perky SoCal sorority girl almost every day for 11/2 years has meant to her.
“I became more true to myself,” the Lexington native said. “I get emotional thinking about it. ... It’s been the best experience of my life because I grew as a human being, because of my character, because of my connection to her and my openness.
“And the fact that I got to express emotion and not hold things in was good therapy for me, and I grew as I was finding her.”
At the time of that conversation, which took place in March but wasn’t televised until earlier this month, Bundy was still several months away from leaving the show. But it was already clear that walking away from her breakout role — one that earned her a Tony Award nomination and made her a marquee name on Broadway — was not going to be easy.
But she needed to do it.
“I’m leaving at the right time,” Bundy said in an interview the week before her final performance, last Sunday. “I’m leaving when the show is still fun for me. I’m still learning, I’m still growing, I’m still making new choices.
“But I’ve been in this show a long time — longer than your health would have you be in a show like this. My body is tired, my voice is tired. I need to go on some serious R&R.”
On July 20, Bundy took her final bow, had a really good cry and then went to a post-show party with current and former cast members to share memories and farewells. Then it was off to an all-night diner with family for a bacon cheeseburger that gave her indigestion, she said. But no worries. She didn’t have to be concerned with going on the next day, or even later in the week.
Bundy is getting to work on other aspects of her career she wants to explore.
But first, only eight days after her last bow as Elle, she is coming back home to Lexington and bringing Legally Blonde co-star Paul Canaan, who was one of the judges on the MTV show. Together they’ll present their Take It From the Top musical theater workshop on Monday and Tuesday at Bundy’s alma mater, Lexington Catholic High School.
“I’ll teach them everything I know in four hours,” Bundy, 27, says with a chuckle.
The sessions, which Bundy and Canaan have already presented in New York, are designed to give students a quick overview of the triple threat — singing, acting and dancing — from performers who have mastered them.
Each day, there are morning sessions for middle-schoolers and afternoon sessions for high-schoolers. There are also audition sessions each evening for people seriously pursuing a musical theater career.
“It’s all about having fun and learning something new without pressure,” Bundy says of the classes.
The educational partnership started when Bundy was invited to perform and present a master class at Michigan State University, and she asked Canaan to come along. Now, they are presenting workshops in several spots around the country and helping develop arts eduction programs for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines for kids on the ships.
It’s an outgrowth of Bundy’s Kreative Kids charity, which she launched before she started rehearsals for Legally Blonde in the fall of 2006. The intent of the program is to provide arts education opportunities to kids who are finding them increasingly hard to come by as schools cut arts programs.
In her own career, Bundy is pulling up her New York roots and moving to Nashville. In the midst of her Blonde run, Bundy released a traditional country album, Longing for a Place Already Gone, which got airplay across the country, including locally on WUKY-FM 91.3.
But the time commitment of Blonde kept Bundy from wholeheartedly pursuing her music career, she said.
“I will be settled in Nashville in the beginning of September, and I am going to start working on an album and some other television projects that are country music-related,” Bundy says. “There are projects with people in Los Angeles as well, so it’s sort of this L.A.-meets-Nashville coming together.”
None of this should be interpreted as an abandonment of Broadway.
“I have to have a full career,” she says. “I want to do 20 musicals.”
But “another Broadway musical is the last thing I would want to do right now. I am absolutely, 100 percent exhausted. You cannot go from one musical to another. I don’t know how some of these people do it. I couldn’t do a role like Elle Woods. I could do, maybe, a smaller role.
“But I need a break. I need my life back, I need a social life. I need to see my family. I can’t live like this.”
That’s understandable because Elle Woods wasn’t just any Broadway role. Legally Blonde clocks in at around 21/2 hours and Elle is on the stage for most of the time, often singing while dancing.
On the reality show, competitors had to sing while riding exercise bicycles to simulate the stress of the part. The role was so physically demanding that some of Bundy’s costumes stopped fitting because she lost so much weight.
Then there was the emotional investment of the role. When she wasn’t dancing, she was playing a broad range from comedy to emotional turmoil.
And that was eight times a week.
The demands of the role meant Bundy focused all her time on the show, even when she was not on stage. She often spent her days in silence, resting her voice for the show. Her travel was very limited, as was her time off.
Hitting the road and touring with her own music “is the kind of live music I want to do now,” says Bundy, who says she has “major label interest” in her next album.
“I know Legally Blonde like the back of my hand,” Bundy says “I know this life like the back of my hand. Now, I’m ready to live a life that I don’t know, and I don’t know what to expect.
“Sitting in a room and writing music, compared to what I have been doing, is going to be like having a cocktail on the beach — and I’m looking forward to doing that, too.”