The stage show is based on the 1997 movie about the plucky pair, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” It’s at the 5th Ave through July 2.
Underachieving fashionistas. Junk-food junkies. Unemployed and barely employable. Creative, unique and triumphant over the smug mean-girls clique that mocked and hazed them during their 1980s adolescence.
All the above applies to the two SoCal gal pals chronicled in the 1997 movie comedy “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”
But Broadway heroines? Well, it’s possible, given a same-titled new musical about the pair’s flamboyant adventures leading up to and during their 10th high-school reunion. It’s premiering at the 5th Avenue Theatre, with designs on later reaching Broadway.
‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion’
Now in previews. It opens June 15, and runs through July 2 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle; tickets from $29 (206- 625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
That’s no shabby fate for a pair of ditsy, determined besties who first emerged in a 1980s skit by the influential Los Angeles group The Groundlings.
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Over a recent lunch near the theater, affable writer and Groundlings alum Robin Schiff considered the lasting appeal of the twosome. “One of the reasons the movie has endured is that Romy and Michele are kind of endearing,” she suggested. “They love and support each other, and transcend people calling them dumb blondes. Even if they aren’t really smart, they have a certain wisdom. And they tell the truth.”
An overheard conversation in a Sunset Strip nightclub bathroom inspired Schiff to create the characters. “One woman was saying, ‘Oh my God, I hate my hair,’ and the other said, ‘I’d trade my hair for your hair in a few seconds.’ There was a kind of musicality to their banter that I liked.”
After their Groundlings debut, Schiff gave Romy and Michele minor roles in her play “Ladies’ Room.” Lisa Kudrow (a future star of TV’s “Friends”) was cast as the ultra-ditzy Michele. Then in the 1990s, Disney’s Touchstone Pictures engaged Schiff to whip up the script for a female buddy pic that would again feature Kudrow as Michele and Oscar winner Mira Sorvino as the more resourceful Romy. The result was rather like a kinder “Absolutely Fabulous” crossed with a trashier “Clueless.”
“I wanted to write about female platonic friendship,” declared Schiff, a veteran TV writer-producer for such series as “Party of Five” and “Are You There, Chelsea?” “For a lot of women, the key relationships in your life are with your girlfriends. Romy and Michele’s friendship is tested, they break up, but they get back together. One thing I consciously did was not make them fight over a guy.”
Then there’s the revenge-of-the-geeks angle. Romy and Michele try to impress their nasty peers at the reunion in Tucson by spinning a ludicrous lie (about inventing Post-it notes). But they eventually outshine their ex-crushes and snobby classmates simply by being their weird and wacky selves.
Despite memorable comic turns by Kudrow, Sorvino, Alan Cumming and Janeane Garofalo, the movie flopped at the box office. “It was one of the worst tested ever for Touchstone,” noted Schiff. “But it’s had a new life on DVD and streaming. At the 20th anniversary screening in L.A., it was really cool that there were all these young people in their 20s and 30s there.”
The stage musical took 12 years to come to fruition — enough time for 1980s pop-culture nostalgia to intensify, and the film to be hailed by one critic as a “feminist masterpiece,” and by another as a precursor to the audacious comedy of Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham.
The film soundtrack featured ’80s hits by the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Culture Club, but the musical has an original score by Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay. Co-stars Cortney Wolfson (Romy) and Stephanie Renee Wall (Michele) “have real chemistry together,” according to Schiff.
An advocate for women filmmakers in male-dominated Hollywood, Schiff is also pleased the show has a female director, Kristin Hanggi (“Rock of Ages”). “We have a female choreographer, a female composer, set designer and sound designer, too. Women need to show up and support each other.”
If “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” makes it to the Great White Way, it will be part of a wave of female-centered movies-turned-musicals looking to head that way, including in-the-works adaptations of “Clueless,” “Mean Girls” and “Beaches.”
There’s also talk of a film sequel to “Romy and Michele.” “Mira Sorvino is dying to do one, and Lisa would do it,” commented Schiff. “But I’d only want to do a sequel if I had an idea that was worth the energy…. If anyone told me I’d be writing about Romy and Michele after 30 years, I’d say they were crazy!”