The creator of "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" talks to us about the movie's musical adaptation
2017 is a special year for any ~true~ cinema fan, as it marks the 20th anniversary of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since we were first introduced to their iconic world of club dresses, impromptu choreography, and everlasting friendship, but Romy White and Michele Weinberger will live forever. That’s why this year also marks the opening of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the musical.
Running from June 8th-July 2nd (it’s the closing weekend, so get your tickets!!!), the musical adaptation of Romy and Michele can be seen at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. But if you’re not in Seattle, never fear — the producers anticipate a national tour and a Broadway production.
Diehard Romy and Michele lovers will be thrilled to know that Robin Schiff — the genius who created our Post-It queens and wrote the movie’s screenplay — also wrote the book for the musical, and had a hand in nearly every element of the show.
The musical was helmed by a nearly all-female team. In addition to writer Robin Schiff, the show is directed by Kristin Hanggi (Rock of Ages) and the score is composed by wife-and-husband team, Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay (composers for Orange is the New Black). Taking on the legendary roles of Romy and Michele are seasoned stage performers Cortney Wolfson (Romy) and Stephanie Renee Wall (Michele).
We spoke to creator Robin Schiff, director Kristin Hanggi, and composer Gwendolyn Sanford about working on the musical, collaborating with creative women, and revisiting these beloved characters 20 years later.
HelloGiggles: As every Romy and Michele devotee knows, the movie was inspired by your play, Ladies’ Room. Since the characters of Romy and Michele had been born on stage, did it feel natural to adapt the movie into a stage musical?
Robin Schiff: It felt like it was right for it to wind up back on stage. When it started, it wasn’t like I said, “Oh, I definitely want to do a musical.” That wasn’t on my radar. That came about because a couple guys wrote some spec songs for the imaginary Romy and Michele musical, and sent them to the producer Larry Mark, who had produced Romy and Michele [the movie] with Barry Kemp and me.
So these two guys wrote the music, and I really didn’t like the music. I called Larry and I’m like, “If I was going to do a musical, it would sound like the Go-Go’s. People would be changing clothes on stage.” (laughs) Because I’d been in the Groundlings Comedy Group, I’m like, “Let’s make this fun. Let’s do a play that’s for the same people that go to the Groundlings.” And that’s actually how Ladies’ Room was born — from a Groundlings sketch. So yeah, the whole thing really originated on stage.
HG: What has it been like to revisit these characters after 20 years?
RS: It’s surreal because there was no way to know that this was going to endure, and that this was going to mean something to people — even if it was just, “I want to get together with my best friend and watch this movie, and laugh and eat popcorn.” I’ve had other people say other things to me that were amazing and not what I expected to hear: A woman who had severe depression would watch the movie and it would help her. So I’m going, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting to hear that.”
And there’s something so lovable about the characters. I love being in their brains and in their world. I did go to college, unlike Romy and Michele. I’m driven, unlike Romy and Michele. I have insomnia, unlike Romy and Michele. (laughs) So to be in their world and in their heads is really fun for me and relaxing for me. At the same time, I really identify with their emotion. To be completely honest, I wanted to impress people at my reunion, and I didn’t even care about anybody. I still wanted to impress them.
HG: Kristin and Gwendolyn, how did you get involved with the musical? Had you already been fans of the movie?
Kristin Hanggi: I was a HUGE fan of the movie! I remember when the trailers first came out and getting excited about even seeing the movie. So, it was a huge thrill when I got a call from Robin Schiff — I think it was five years ago — and asked if I wanted to read the script for the musical. We met and I think there was just the energy of being on the same page. As I talked about the emotional connection of the girls in the show, she was like “Yes! That’s what I want!”
Gwendolyn Sanford: This is my first musical. Although I have a background in theater, I left to do music. Through that, I met Jenji Kohan, started working with her on Weeds creating a score for her show. And she had done a writer’s panel with Robin, at the Writer’s Guild, and they had gone to dinner and she was saying, “Hey I’m looking for this new composer.” It was really Jenji who recommended us for the job, put us in touch with Robin. And I’ll be forever grateful, because [Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion] was one of my favorite movies. And so when Robin called me, I was like, “Oh yes. Yes, yes I want to work on this! Right up my alley.” So we did a few demos, and they liked what they heard, and we got the job.
HG: The story of Romy and Michele is one that uplifts female friendships, and the crew of this musical is mostly women. That’s so rare in the entertainment industry. Can you talk about what that experience has been like?
RS: I couldn’t be more excited about this whole thing. The other day I was in this room [with the crew], and so much of the crew were also female. I looked down a row of people and it’s Kristin, and me, and Gwen, and her husband, Brandon — who was an honorary woman. (laughs) Peggy Hickey who’s the choreographer, Amy Clark who’s the wardrobe designer. Both of our stage managers are female. It’s just fascinating, and it feels right.
I [previously] worked on one show where, in the writers’ room, there were more women than men, and the women in the room were much harder workers. Like, if you gave [women] a job, they’d stay up all night, and come in with four ideas. It’s very rare to have female directors historically — in Hollywood and in the theater world. That was something that I really wanted.
KH: There is something on this project that feels like a tribe — a family — and I think that comes from the maternal, female energy. We truly feel like we are all in this together and every voice is valued.
GS: I’ve just been very lucky to work for women [for a lot of my career]…working for Jenji Kohan, and then working with Robin Schiff, and now Kristin Hanggi as the director. It’s a rarity, and yet it’s been a constant for me…I hear these statistics: there’s this percentage women directors, and this percentage women composers, the percentage of women who are able to really forge ahead and make an impact in our industry…and it’s dismal. We all just need to be working together more.
HG: The movie has such a cult following, but you also have this opportunity to breathe new life into the story after 20 years. Can you talk about how you’ve brought new style into this adaption, while also staying true to the original story? Did you change any elements of the plot?
RS: One of the things that was interesting that I really resisted — and didn’t realize I was resisting — was how the characters had to evolve from the movie to a musical for a number of reasons…You can’t tell a story with faces. You have to tell a story with bodies and language and music. We don’t have Lisa [Kudrow] and Mira [Sorvino] playing the parts. [But] I think the people who liked the movie will love it. I have their favorite lines in it.
Although this is going to ruin a surprise for fans and they may not like it — mainly for structural reasons, we had to cut The Cowboy out. Even in the movie, it was like, “Oh, my God. This movie has eight endings.” (laughs) One thing leads to another: they tell off the A-Group, and then Billy, and then [Heather kisses] The Cowboy, and then [Romy and Michele get the] boutique.
Also, in a musical, we can get more in Heather Mooney’s head — sort of a little more empathetic towards her.
[In the musical] we have Heather and Sandy wind up together. Although Michele and Sandy are together at the reunion, they immediately discover they have nothing in common. Because, seriously? (laughs) So that’s one thing that we changed, but I think it’s super satisfying. In all honesty, when I wrote the movie — which I started writing 25 years ago — I just wanted to say “Fuck you” to conventions. I just see the world from a different perspective now than the person who wrote the movie. You know, I am a different person.
KH: There’s such a wonderful whimsical tone in the movie that is so playful, and we wanted that in the spirit of the musical. And I know that heart is very important to me — that’s why I connect to characters, and I think we were very mindful in creating real, honest moments — amid all the fun and playfulness!!
GS: Having grown up in all those periods [the ’80s and ’90s], I was pretty familiar with the sound of the [original] soundtrack, and all the songs on the soundtrack. We knew we wanted to create a unique sound for Romy and Michele, the musical, and each moment, we looked to the soundtrack for inspiration, looking to the ’80s and ’90s for inspiration…I have to say we approached it in a way that put story and character first, rather than trying to be derivative. It’s the essence of the time period.
See more information about “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” the musical, here.