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How ‘Pretty Woman’ became a head-turner

Adam Pascal (in gray suit) and Olivia Valli in the production of "Pretty Woman: The Musical."Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

One night in the late 1980s, the film and TV director Garry Marshall was up late at home, reading a script.

“When are you going to turn the light off?” asked his wife, Barbara.

Some big wheels at Disney had asked him to take a look at the script, Marshall said, and he was intrigued. It was a story about a prostitute.

What’s Disney doing with a story about a prostitute? Barbara asked.

“Well, that’s the problem,” her husband replied. “Nobody knows what to do with it, so they’ve given it to me. I’m gonna lighten it up.”

The story, of course, was “Pretty Woman” — the fairy-tale romance between a rich but unfulfilled businessman (Richard Gere) and an adorably uncultured streetwalker, in the role that made Julia Roberts a superstar. Released without much fanfare in 1990, the film has grossed nearly a half billion dollars to date.

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Barbara Marshall always felt that “Pretty Woman” would make a great piece of musical theater, and her husband agreed. But it took several years to convince the screenwriter, J.F. Lawton.

Finally, Lawton called Marshall. “I’m coming to your office,” he said. “Let’s talk.”

They were hard at work developing the musical when Garry Marshall died in July 2016. He was 81 years old. By then, the creator of some of the biggest sitcoms on television in the 1970s — “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” (which starred his sister, Penny Marshall), “Mork and Mindy” — knew that his beloved film was bound for Broadway.

Now “Pretty Woman: The Musical” is on tour, arriving in Boston on Tuesday for a two-week run at Citizens Bank Opera House. Starring as Edward Lewis (the “empty suit,” as Gere called him) is Adam Pascal, the Broadway veteran from the original cast of “Rent” and Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida.” The part of Vivian Ward will be played by up-and-comer Olivia Valli, who is singer Frankie Valli’s granddaughter. She played her own grandmother in the off-Broadway production of “Jersey Boys.”

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Kathleen Marshall, one of Garry and Barbara’s three children, is on a Zoom call with her mother. Given the fact that most of us have been masked and distanced for nearly two years, she says, the heartening fable of “Pretty Woman” is just what the doctor ordered.

“We don’t see enough of our facial expressions,” she says. “Adam and Olivia falling in love every night is just what we need right now.”

Garry Marshall, pictured in April 2016.Rich Fury/Invision/AP/File

The music for the show was written by the ‘80s pop star Bryan Adams and his longtime songwriting partner, Jim Vallance. They co-wrote “Cuts Like a Knife” and “Summer of ‘69.” The score balances the requisite story-serving ballads (“This Is My Life”) and show-tune romps (“Don’t Forget to Dance”) with a few chunky slabs of ‘80s guitar rock (“Rodeo Drive,” “Never Give Up on a Dream”). The Roy Orbison song that inspired the title makes a welcome appearance, as it did not in the original Broadway production.

Adams saw the potential in a “Pretty Woman” musical long before he got the gig, says Barbara Marshall. So did Jerry Mitchell, the Tony Award-winning director and choreographer (“Hairspray,” “Kinky Boots”), who directed the musical on Broadway and continues to do so on tour.

The Marshalls were in attendance when the musical opened for a brief run in Providence in October.

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“We just sat there and cried,” says Barbara. “The music swells, and we lose it every time.”

Since the show premiered in Chicago in 2018, she’s been hearing about multiple generations of women coming to the theater in matching dresses — the red gown, or the brown one with polka dots that Roberts wore during the movie’s polo scene.

During filming for the movie, it was Garry Marshall who chose the vintage grape-stomping clip from “I Love Lucy” that appears on TV when Vivian first spends the night in Edward’s posh hotel room. In the mid-1960s he wrote for several episodes of “The Lucy Show.” He didn’t want to do it; he was getting busier in the business, about to become a producer on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” But a colleague convinced him by asking about the Marshalls’ newborn child, their first. It was Kathleen’s older sister, Lori.

“Do these episodes and you’ll put your daughter through college,” the colleague said.

Throughout the shooting for “Pretty Woman,” Marshall used Lucille Ball’s patented brand of physical comedy as a reference.

“He saw Julia as a Carole Lombard,” says Kathleen, “but he learned from Lucy the precision of comedy. Lucy could do 12 funny things with a mop.”

Her father instructed Roberts never to sit properly in a chair. She puts her feet up. She folds her legs under herself. She perches on the edge of a dining table, her butt filling an empty plate.

“You’re a person who doesn’t sit like a lady,” as Kathleen recalls her father explaining. “Then you become a lady later.”

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Marshall, who was born and raised in the Bronx, often attended Broadway shows with his mother.

“He loved Ethel Merman,” says Kathleen. While serving in the Army in the mid-1950s, he saw a performance of “My Fair Lady,” one of the plays often cited as a precursor to “Pretty Woman.”

Years later, he and Barbara sat in a restaurant in Westwood and ordered hamburgers. They were on their way to the opening of “Pretty Woman.” Disney’s Touchstone Pictures had modest plans for the premiere. Though Marshall had buffed the rougher edges off Lawton’s script, the company was still wary of being associated with the story.

“We look out the window, and there’s a line around the block,” Barbara Marshall recalls. “And we said, ‘Oh my God, I wonder what they’re planning to see?’”

PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL

Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Jan. 18-30. Tickets start at $39.50. www.BroadwayInBoston.com

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.