It’s been twenty years since Romy and Michele became pop culture icons.
Since its release in 1997, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion has remained a cult classic. This summer, the outrageous film comedy about a pair of best friends who take a road trip to their ten-year high school reunion is coming to Seattle in the form of a brand new musical.
This stage adaptation boasts a book by the film’s original screenwriter, Robin Schiff, and music and lyrics by Orange Is The New Black composers Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay. With sights set on the West End and Broadway, Sanford and Jay spoke with me about bringing the movie to life, writing music from the perspectives of these zany and beloved characters, how the musical expands on the film, and more.
NAGORSKI: What makes Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion the perfect candidate for a movie to musical adaptation?
SANFORD: The story has a lot of heart. The characters are super relatable. They’re archetypes we’re familiar with and yet our main characters are so quirky and fun. They live in their own form of reality – to musicalize the world from their perspectives can be quite fantastical. It lends itself well to the stage.
JAY: It’s so perfect that we are making our world premiere on the 20th anniversary of the release of the movie. It’s a fun uplifting story with positive female role models about being yourself and standing up to bullies.
The movie has a few iconic music sequences, including the unforgettable dance to “Time After Time.” How much did the ‘80s and ‘90s soundtrack of the film influence the score of the musical?
SANFORD: The genre style came so naturally to the two of us. The ‘80s and ‘90s soundtrack of the film is much like the soundtrack to our lives. But in approaching each song, the focus was always story and character first. Story and character decide the tone. And we would write. And rewrite. It wasn’t until later that we would reference particular songs, more for orchestration ideas than anything else.
JAY: We used the soundtrack as a jumping off point, but we went even further into 1980’s/90’s musical references like Eurythmics, The Cars, INXS, Til Tuesday, Psychedelic Furs, Joe Jackson, Billy Idol to name a handful. Together with our amazing orchestrator, Keith Harrison, we’ve chosen synth and drums sounds that match the particular style we want to emulate.
How faithful is the stage version to its movie counterpart? Are there any characters or plot points that are being cut and/or expanded for the musical?
SANFORD: I feel like everything has expanded. And yet, we were very mindful to keep the story focused on Romy and Michele’s friendship.
JAY: We did make a few cuts and lost a couple minor characters, but we think fans of the movie will be surprised how much they enjoy it. It’s not the film, of course… but it’s the same story they love.
Were you fans of the movie before becoming involved with this show? If so, what is it about it do you think that has allowed it to stand the test of time so well?
SANFORD: Oh, big fan! You know, there aren’t many films about female friendships. Women have very close, meaningful, emotional relationships with one another – and it’s completely platonic. We support each other in ways that aren’t often represented in films. Too many films portray women at odds with each other. This is a love story about two best friends. It’s timeless.
JAY: As well as the fact that it’s a story that everyone can relate to. Whether you were an outsider, a cool kid, a drama geek, a jock or whatever your school social status, everyone can relate to the high school experience. And the absurdity of the movie! The offbeat comedy helps make it one of those movies you can watch again and again for fun.
The show will be enjoying its world premiere in Seattle this summer. What are the plans for it after this run ends? Will there be any more out-of-town runs or workshops? And when do you plan/hope to bring it to Broadway?
SANFORD: I think every musical hopes to be on Broadway someday.
JAY: The movie has a huge following in the UK and we think they would love the musical there.
SANFORD: We’re still discovering what it all means. There’s a bunch of possibilities. The first thing is to get it to the fans in Seattle.
SANFORD: One of the main concerns we had as a creative team was finding actresses who could fill the shoes of Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino.
JAY: Those are some pretty big shoes!
SANFORD: But both Stephanie and Cortney have managed to make the roles their own without doing an impression. The emotion is real for both of them and the choices they are making support the story. They’re both delightful to watch.
Did either of you attend your 10-year high school reunions? If so, how did those experiences inform your creative approaches to working on this show?
SANFORD: I didn’t go to my 10-year reunion. It was a casual get together at the beach, if I remember correctly. I remember feeling ambivalent about it. And then I heard so-and-so had had four kids already and I remember thinking “Whoa. How is that possible? High School seems like yesterday.” I think that line made it into a song.
JAY: I went to both my 10 and 20-year reunions. It seemed like people were trying to impress each other more at the 10 than the 20. As a strange coincidence, we had a Romy and Michele work session at the same hotel that my reunion was held a few weeks later.
The film has such an avid cult following. What type of pressure does this add when developing a new adaptation of it?
SANFORD: Instead of focusing on that, I worked very closely with the creator, Robin Schiff. If she is happy, I trust the fans will be.
JAY: Plus, we’re such big fans of the movie! And we feel really confidant theatergoers will enjoy the songs and get caught up in the story whether they’re familiar with the movie or not.
One of the things the movie is best known for is its signature and unique humor. Was it a challenge to inject this same tone into the show’s lyrics?
SANFORD: Some of the funniest lines in the movie were turned into lyrics. Some lines we discovered were funnier in dialogue.
JAY: My favorite part was looking for new humor to bring to the songs. But the material had to be at the same level as the existing jokes.
SANFORD: I had a blast acting out the characters and improvising new bits. Sometimes I’d dance around auditioning lyrics for Robin. She would either shake her head no or clap her hands with a big smile on her face. Both Robin and our producer Barry Kemp are very funny and have been with these characters since their debut in a play Robin wrote thirty years ago called Ladies Room. So they know when lines are working. And have been a big support throughout the process.
JAY: Politics are so heavy all over the world right now, and people are looking for an escape. We could all use a good laugh. This show is a wacky good time and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus bullying has become such a hot button topic as well as self-image and we tackle both of those head on.
SANFORD: It’s also a reminder of how different the world was 20 years ago, before the giant Tech Boom. The Internet was just being born. There were no smart phones. There wasn’t even DVR! People had to take you for your word. There wasn’t a way people could fact check whether you invented this or that. There was no LinkedIn. There was no Facebook.
You also serve as resident composers of the Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black. When the show returns next month, it will be tackling uncharted territories by having the prisoners in charge of running the prison. How does this shift in the story impact the music that will accompany it?
SANFORD: There’s always a power struggle. And it needs underscore!
JAY: There’s one episode where we got to do a totally different genre of music, so that was a fun challenge.
Previously, you’ve also composed the score for Weeds. As musicians, what have you found to be the biggest differences between composing music for television versus theater?
SANFORD: In scoring to picture, you’re main objective is to support the action and emotion that’s already there on the screen. In creating a musical, your job is much bigger. By writing lyrics, you’re creating the action and emotion within the song. There’s a journey that takes place within a number that moves the story forward. And you’re collaborating with the rest of the creative team in a larger way.
JAY: We do have luxury of time and perspective, which you don’t get nearly as much of when working on a television series because it’s a fast turn around.
SANFORD: Yeah. Theatre is more of a long game. In TV, you get a week and that’s it. Film, perhaps a few weeks or months, depending. We’ve been working on Romy and Michele on and off for the last eight years. That’s a lot time for do-overs.
You have also recorded several albums of children’s music under the moniker, Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang. Do you have plans to release any more albums for kids under this name?
SANFORD: I don’t know. The last album we recorded was when I was pregnant with my first child. And a lot of the energy I used to write children’s songs has been diverted into spending time raising her. And now we have another little one. There’s a lot going on in our family right now!
JAY: We’ll probably pick it up again once they move out.
SANFORD: That’s right. Although, I might skip the pigtails and knee socks at that point.
SANFORD: It’s helpful to have our partner Scott Doherty with us on Orange Is The New Black. If we ever need to step out for personal reasons or other projects, he’s capable of holding down the fort. We work-shopped the musical in NY for four weeks and he was able to do a couple episodes on his own. He’s been a great support.
JAY: We’ve learned to keep regular business hours as much as we can. We stop working at 6 P.M. and have family dinner. After bath and bedtime, one of us might sneak into the studio and finish up any loose ends.
SANFORD: A lot of Romy and Michele songs were recorded in the middle of the night.
JAY: And we have date night every Friday where we mostly talk about work and kids.
SANFORD: Or sometimes we don’t talk at all.
Thank you so much, Gwendolyn and Brandon! Is there anything else that either of you would like to add that we didn’t discuss?
SANFORD: It’s worth seeing the musical just for the shoes!
JAY: Prince would approve … of the shoes, at least.
PHOTOS | Mark Kitaoka and Blake Kaiser