Lauren Kennedy, Anneliese van der Pol,
and Sarah Stiles in Vanities
(© Craig Schwartz)
Lauren Kennedy, Anneliese van der Pol,
and Sarah Stiles in Vanities
(© Craig Schwartz)
Jack Heifner was an unknown writer unsure of his direction in life when Vanities changed everything. The simple little three-scene story he wrote as an acting exercise for three women in his theatre company -- only his second play -- was workshopped at New York's Playwrights Horizons in 1976 before officially opening two months later at the Chelsea Theater Center's Westside Theatre. But the story of three girlfriends in Texas who go from cheerleaders to sorority sisters to independent women turned into a surprise hit that ran for five years, became one of the longest-running comedies in Off-Broadway history, and spawned a 1981 television film.

Now, after decades of resistance, Heifner has adapted the play into Vanities, A New Musical, which is now having a pre-Broadway tryout at the Pasadena Playhouse. The show features music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum; is directed by two-time Tony Award-winner Judith Ivey, with choreography by Dan Knechtges; and stars Lauren Kennedy as Mary, Sarah Stiles as Joanne, and Anneliese van der Pol as Kathy.

"I think people forget that this play was controversial," Heifner laughs. "It wasn't just a ha-ha comedy. It was about a whole group of friends who were given the wrong set of rules for life. It was really a sociological study in many respects. These three women were given this Miss America-looking good-viva sorority-get a husband message, and then the world sort of changed on them. Vietnam happened, and suddenly sorority girls were being laughed at and looked down upon. They had never cared about anything other than themselves, and they had to change.

"When I wrote the third scene," he continues, "it was definitely just me looking at my life: I always thought it was three sides of my head arguing it out. Joanne was what your parents had taught you, the sort of conservative southern upbringing that says, 'These are the rules.' Mary was the rebellious side that comes along and says, 'Wait a minute! I am going to rebel against all of that.' And Kathy -- who I always thought was the hope of the play -- was the one who stopped and said 'None of that works for me. I'm going to look at all of my past and really find what I want to make myself happy and not try to please other people.' And so it was really me arguing 'where am I?' at age 28. I didn't know the answer; I just presented the question. And the success of the play actually gave me the answer, because until then, I didn't know if I was a playwright or not."

Judith Ivey in rehearsal for Vanities
(© Chris Owyoung)
Judith Ivey in rehearsal for Vanities
(© Chris Owyoung)
Obviously, that question has now been answered; Heifner has written more than 30 works over the past 30 years. Still, he admits that re-visiting this show after three decades has forced him to consider how different his viewpoint on life was back then. "It's always been a play about friendship for me, but now I really believe that those friendships can last," he says. "The people you need will always be there. You may not see each other very much -- you may live in different parts of the country or the world -- but they're the ones you can depend upon, emotionally, because they grew up with you. They know you. The big discovery for me is that I've been able to go beyond where I was -- and where the world was -- in the 1970s, which was a very cynical time. And I was pretty cynical. I hope I'm not that cynical anymore."

One friendship that has endured has been the one between Heifner and Ivey, who have been friends for years. But it was actually Kirshenbaum who spotted Ivey's name in an ad for a show she was directing and thought she would be a good fit for the musical. "I think they felt maybe having a female director might be a good idea," Ivey chuckles. "Except that I had never directed a musical! So that part was kind of scary. But they felt that given the fact it was only three women, it was doable for someone without the experience of directing a musical. And I've been in a lot of musicals, so they're not foreign to me. It seemed like something I could do. Still, I think it's so cool that they would take a chance with me! I think show business right now is kind of a bear market. There's an unfortunate desire to always use people who have a track record."

Heifner is pleased with Ivey's focus on the relationship between the girls. "Judy's spent so much time talking about character and what's going on in the scene, which I appreciate," he says. "And I like Dan's work a lot; I think it's a good partnership between them. He does that great kind of character-driven movement, which is what we want. In a show with just three characters, there's no real possibility to do a huge dance number. So it has to be pretty much coming out of the moment."

Aside from the obvious addition of music, lyrics, and choreography, the biggest change has been an added scene. "At the end of the play, the friendships pretty much dissolve," explains Ivy. "But now, since it's a musical, we want it to be a happy ending! So there's a fourth scene where you meet them and they're 44 years old. They've all returned home for a funeral; you see that the friendships survived, and you hear about how they helped each other through various trials and tribulations. So it's a whole expansion of the story -- and the friendships, for that matter, which is what the story is about."