The video starts with an enthusiastic preteen girl stampeding onstage in a jewel-toned V-neck to an infectious pop beat, inexplicably holding a jumbo-sized pencil. “Dear Elle, he’s a lucky guy/I’m like gonna cry/I’ve got tears coming out of my nose,” she belts off-key, before she’s immediately followed by a bevy of other preteen and teenage girls, also clad in jewel-toned T-shirts, all grabbing the comically oversized pencil, belting out the lyrics of Legally Blonde: The Musical‘s opening number, “Omigod You Guys,” with varying degrees of volume, pitch, and enthusiasm. After stumbling through what exists of the choreography — mostly, walking around in circles and forming a row — a girl wearing a blonde wig and a bright pink cardigan struts out, playing Elle Woods, the character originated by Reese Witherspoon.
After a salesgirl tries to hoodwink Elle by getting her to buy “last year’s dress at this year’s prices,” the first enthusiastic preteen, now inexplicably dressed in a lab coat, comes out to apologize: “Elle Woods, sorry our mistake/Courtney, take your break, just ignore her, she hasn’t been well” she sings before handing Elle another garment. “It’s a gift from me to El-llle,” she bellows in what is perhaps one of the most spectacular failed belts of all time.
If you are ensconced in the world of Musical Theater Twitter or TikTok, you’re probably familiar with the above clip. Over the years, it has been taken on and off YouTube, and has gone viral under various titles: as “Illegally Blonde: For Your Consideration,” or “Omigod You Guys Feat. All-Star Cast,” or simply as “WORST Legally Blonde Musical Production EVER!”.”
“Everyone who was ever an artsy theater kid kinda knows about it,” says Kathleen Morris, aka “Delta Nu Chorus Girl #3,” a tiny red-haired girl who appears in the video in a purple shirt. It has spawned an Saturday Night Live parody, a Buzzfeed quiz, and so many YouTube amateur musical theater fail production compilations one starts to wince; the role of Salesgirl #2 has ascended to iconic status, with “Courtney, take your break” becoming something of a meme on Gay Twitter. “The mistakes in it are so innocent and it’s funny. There’s so many small things you can pick out while watching it and rewatching it,” says Taya Seaton, one of the members of the original production (she played the girl in the blue shirt, who fans lovingly refer to as “Jewish Queen” for her line “Dear Elle/honey, mazel tov.”)
And while the clip has attained such notoriety for being, yes, objectively bad, it transcends typical cringe content status by offering nostalgia to viewers with fond memories of being involved in amateur musical theater. “You watch these videos and you hear a janky pit band or a set half falling apart, but ultimately you still see the passion of these performers and kids,” says Ryan Bloomquist, who created the “Courtney Take Your Break” meme when he made a compilation of the solo from various amateur productions. “I know how important theater was and is to me growing up, so to see that shine through in those videos warms my heart.”
Despite the immense virality of the clip, up until now the identity of its young actors has been unknown, as has the history of the production. Numerous misconceptions have circulated about it, such as that it was a college-level production (it was an amateur children’s theater company production, staged at a theater at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada); or that the actor playing Elle was actually an adult teacher (they weren’t; they were just tall). Rumors have circulated about an elusive full version of the production being unlisted on YouTube (it is not), and former cast members told me they have been harassed at length to post it. It has, improbably, ascended to legendary status, albeit within a small sphere of musical theater-obsessed internet denizens.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the original Legally Blonde movie, Rolling Stone tracked down the original performers and crew members behind what is perhaps the most notorious YouTube amateur musical theater clip of all time. Many were thrilled to talk about what it was like to go viral for a cringe childhood memory; others, not so much.
“I have received hundreds upon hundreds of emails about this stupid video, hundreds of phone calls, read thousands of disgusting comments on YouTube and more,” says Manda Chelmak, the producer of the original production. “And, truthfully it’s boring. It has made me realize how empty and soulless most people are. It’s sad, really.” Another former performer in the production, now 25, burst into tears when Rolling Stone informed them the video had been parodied on SNL. “That’s some of the most devastating news I’ve ever received in my lifetime,” they say. “I’ve been ashamed of that performance for years.”
This is the story of how a five-minute promotional clip for a small-town Canadian community theater production became a viral sensation — but perhaps more importantly, in an era where it has never been easier for someone to achieve instantaneous internet fame, it’s the story of what it’s like to go viral at a very young age for all the wrong reasons.
Since it premiered on July 10th, 2001, Legally Blonde has become permanently integrated into the cultural lexicon, spawning countless memes, fashion trends, and homages, perhaps most famously in Ariana Grande’s music video for “Thank U, Next.” It also spawned a musical adaptation, which had an underwhelming Broadway run in 2007 but enjoyed a second life when a junior version was licensed to be performed in schools and community theaters all over the world.
Because of the success of the original movie, there was a time when Legally Blonde was frequently selected to be performed by amateur middle school theater production companies; it also helped that the show has a sizable female cast, and most young theater companies tend to skew female-heavy. One of these companies was Red Room Studio Productions, a small performing arts company in Nanaimo, Canada, a small city located about two hours off the coast of Vancouver by ferry. “There are a lot of metaphysical shops that sell crystals. There are a lot of vegan restaurants,” says Joshua Holloway, who played Emmett in the Red Room Studios production. “It has a really cool little artistic community.”
What Nanaimo did not have was many options for aspiring performers looking to hone their acting, singing, and dancing chops. Red Room Studios — which mounted two productions per year starring kids 11 to 17 — was one of the few options available in the city. Founded by Eliza Gardiner and Manda Chelmak, Red Room Studios (now rebranded as Headliner Productions) offered kids the chance, for $500 a head, to put on a show per season. It was “about building camaraderie and confidence via the performing arts,” Gardiner says, and to teach crucial developmental skills: listening to others, refining coordination, etc. “I don’t put them through a very rigorous audition process because I’m trying to build their self-esteem,” says Chelmak. “It’s not about putting on a perfect show.”
This goal was reflected in the tight-knit group of kids who returned to the program year after year, appearing in productions like The Little Mermaid, Grease, and Chicago. “Nanaimo theater kids were a lot of people who had a hard time finding community in other places,” says Ben Loyst, who was not involved in Legally Blonde but starred in many future Red Room Studios productions. “I’d done sports in most of my early childhood and none of those worked out for me. I didn’t find the community I needed.” In Red Room Studios, “I found pretty quickly people were more accepting and more interested and more willing to have sensitive connections with other people, I suppose.”
Alex, whose name has been changed to protect their privacy, was one of those kids who was going through a hard time when they landed at Red Room. They were a scene-kid — with a half-shaved head who was a regular presence at raves and metal shows in Nanaimo (their father was also sick, and would pass away shortly after this production of Legally Blonde was mounted). Nonetheless, they loved performing. “At that time I wanted to be on Broadway,” says Alex, who now uses they/them pronouns. “I had the passion for it in my heart.” When they found out Red Room would be doing Legally Blonde, they set their sights on Elle Woods, landing the role after singing “Popular” from Wicked at their audition. As a 17-year-old, this was their last year at Red Room, and they wanted to make the most of it. “I had a really optimistic feeling,” they say.
For months, the cast of Legally Blonde rehearsed with a choreographer (a local Zumba instructor) and Gardiner as their director. The kids brought in their own costumes from home, and learned harmonies from an instructional CD. “We weren’t given sheet music which is why the harmonies don’t appear or function, really,” says Alaria Northard-Lessup, a Delta Nu girl. “A few rehearsals before the show, they kind of realized nobody in the chorus was picking a note. They tried to get us to do it but it was too late.” As one can see in the video, the blocking is also awkward. “Most of us had no dance experience so it was more us walking around in formation than actual choreography,” remembers Holloway.
Because Red Room prioritized self esteem-building over high-quality casting, many of the performers were given solos to flex their vocal chops, regardless of whether they had any chops to begin with. In that vein, most of the cast of Red Room’s Legally Blonde had fond memories of Salesgirl #2, the enthusiastic yet seemingly tone-deaf young woman wearing a lab coat who arguably has the most memorable solo in “Omigod You Guys” (“it’s a gift from me to Ellll-llle”). “She’s a great example of an actress that cracks onstage that doesn’t lose their focus and recovers instantly,” says Chelmak. “Some people would be embarrassed, but not her. She was balls to the wall always.”
To promote the production, Chelmak asked a local news station cameraman whose daughter had been in Red Room to film the dress rehearsals for a promotional spot. The end result was a short YouTube clip spliced together from multiple dress rehearsals — hence, why the costumes and props inexplicably change at various points during the video. Seaton remembers the cast being “so nervous” about recording the opening number. “It was our first time performing that onstage and the first time doing it with the props everyone had set up. And that’s very obvious when you watch it,” she says. Nonetheless, she remembers everyone afterward feeling like they had done a great job. “I remember thinking ‘I’m gonna be famous after this. This is my breakthrough moment,’” she says, echoing the sentiments of the kids in SNL‘s parody version of the production.
Alex, however, has an entirely different memory of the production. As an alto, they struggled to hit the notes in many of Elle’s songs, which are largely written for a soprano; to make matters worse, they had strep throat at the time, and could barely talk, let alone sing. “I was so ashamed that was on camera and I was so angry they brought in local news to film that. I was like ‘why do they do this to us? It’s a dress rehearsal. This is the day we fuck up,’” they say, barely holding back tears at the memory.
The clip was uploaded to the Red Room Facebook group for parents and family members, and no one associated with the production thought much about it for years. But a few years later, Chelmak started to receive phone calls from young people with bizarre requests for a full video copy of the production; some offered her money. Others pretended to be Broadway actors or producers, saying they were disgusted by how bad the production was. She asked her staff members to investigate. That’s when she found the video had been posted to YouTube, where it received hundreds of thousands of views and comments skewering the production and its young actors. Chelmak asked the cameraman who had made the original video to take it down, and he complied but, 24 hours later, she claims, it was back up. Bloomquist’s “Courtney Take Your Break” compilation, as well as the 2015 SNL sketch, only brought more attention to it. “Just when you think it’s over, it starts back up again,” she says.
On behalf of the young performers in the production, Chelmak tried to rush to protect them from any online abuse. “I was so close to these kids,” she says. “Discovering they were being mocked on this level was hard on my heart. If it was me getting mocked, I’d step up into it and own it, but it’s not. It’s a 12-year-old girl getting laughed at.” But she also admittedly was personally wounded by seeing her work cited as an example of one of the worst musical theater productions of all time. “I was sad, ashamed, embarrassed, thought it was funny, didn’t think it was funny,” she says. “Lots of people think it’s cool. I don’t.”
Additionally, some of the performers involved in the production admit to having been traumatized by the video. In discussing seeing it on YouTube, Alex says it’s a major contributing factor as to why they don’t perform anymore. “My voice used to be the one thing I was proud of,” they say. “So having the one most-viewed recording of what I sound like when I sing be that god-awful dying sheep noise that I was making, it was humiliating.” They didn’t even know about the SNL sketch that their production of Legally Blonde had inspired. “That was one of the most humiliating public experience of my life,” they said, crying. “SNL did a fucking sketch about it? Oh, my God.”
But for the most part, many of the performers I spoke to associated with the video have gained enough distance from their their time in the production that they see it not as a humiliation, but as a quirky, endearing artifact from their youth. “I saw it when I was 16. At the time of recording I had been 12,” says Morris, the little red-haired girl in the video. “I had been taking classical choir lessons for four years since then. I knew my singing wasn’t super good in that video but it didn’t make me feel embarrassed really at all. It wasn’t what i looked or sounded like anymore. It was easy to separate myself from it because it’s not who I was anymore. So I could kind of look at it a little bit objectively and realize it was hilariously bad.”
Melissa, a.k.a. Salesgirl No. 2, says she was also unaware of the video going viral until one of her friends told her about the SNL sketch (“if they would want the real girl on their show, I wouldn’t say no to being a guest star ;-),” she wrote). She says she has made peace with it: “I will say that it makes me ‘happy’ that SO many people are laughing, and enjoying the video with me.” She also credits the video with helping to inspire the resurgence of Legally Blonde in the form of an homage in Ariana Grande’s “Thank U Next” music video and the recently announced Legally Blonde 3, out in 2022. “I couldn’t help but make all these connections… Like the video going viral is what made Legally Blonde 3 happen,” she says. “Of course I’ll give credit to Grande and SNL, haha.”
Perhaps most notably — and as a testament to the formative powers of Red Room — many of the young actors involved went on to pursue some sort of training in the performing arts: Holloway, the young man who played Emmett, studied drama in New York City; Seaton is an accomplished musician; and Morris performed for years in a children’s choir. “The first step in getting good at something is falling in love with it,” says Ben Loyst, who is studying opera and classical voice at the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto. “Red Room gave me a community of people who were very accepting and happy to see me. People paid attention, which for a performer means a lot, I suppose. I do see it as very formative and I look back on those years fondly.”
Part of the reason why Red Room Studios’ production of Legally Blonde resonated so strongly with former theater kids on the internet — and why the SNL parody resonated as well — is because it evoked a very specific feeling in any former theater kid’s life: the steadfast belief that whatever production you were doing was the best and most important thing you would ever do for the rest of your life, even when hindsight (and YouTube footage) later proves that was not the case. “With any former theater kid there’s always that joy and also cringe aspect of watching tapes of yourself when you were in middle school as a Hot Box Girl in Guys and Dolls, and it’s like, ‘Who allowed us to do this?’,” says Bloomquist. “But there’s joy in looking back too.”
Unlike most internet ephemera that achieves a certain level of virality, most of the young stars of Red Room’s production of Legally Blonde have remained relatively anonymous, save for the occasional YouTube commenter amateur sleuth sliding into their DMs to verify their identity or request a copy of the tape. Some, like Alex and Chelmak, are still struggling to come to terms with garnering the internet’s attention for all the wrong reasons; others have started to lean into it. “Initially I was so embarrassed and I tried to hide it,” Morris admits. “But I decided not to hide it because it always ends up coming up and it has become a funny anecdote I can tell at parties or dates.”
But for many former theater kids who watch Red Room’s production of “Omigod You Guys” on repeat to relish in its many foibles — the blundering choreography, the spectacularly failed Salesgirl #2 solo, the inexplicably giant souvenir pencil prop, the clearly human dog-barking noise coming from offstage (actually from an assistant director) — the clip doesn’t just spark a sense of schadenfreude. It’s a relic of a former era when you didn’t shrink from the spotlight, when you had the verve and the guts to go for that note you maybe couldn’t quite hit or that costume choice you couldn’t quite pull off, and just be yourself without fearing censure from trolls or Snarky Musical Theater YouTube, to truly dance and sing like no one was watching. Holloway perhaps puts the appeal of the video best: “It was a perfect blend of ambition, confidence, and lack of inhibition,” he explains. “I think it’s reminding people of what it feels like to be that uninhibited.”
From Rolling Stone US