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Mystic Pizza Trades Smelly Fish for Melissa Etheridge, as the Musical Gods Intended

Sandy Rustin explains how she turned the hit romantic comedy into a celebration of women's stories and '80s power ballads.

"I think I would have likely fallen into the Jo category," says actor-playwright Sandy Rustin, imagining the role she might at one time have liked to play in the Mystic Pizza musical she has penned, and which is now having its world premiere through October 2 at Maine's Ogunquit Playhouse. "I was always sort of the Meg Brockie character in Brigadoon, and I think our Jo character is probably the closest," she adds laughing. "But I'm perfectly happy to stay in the writer's position for Mystic Pizza."

Fresh from adapting the 1985 film Clue for the stage, Rustin is shifting gears from murder mystery to pizza mystery to craft a stage version of the 1988 rom-com that made pie slinging romantic and Julia Roberts's coiffure famous. Being a pandemic project, Rustin and director Casey Hushion (teaming up again after their Clue collaboration) set up shop in Rustin's garage, heated through the winter by propane floor lamps, and set about dramatizing the small-town trials of Kat, Daisy, and Jojo – three young women sorting out life and love while waitressing at a Podunk pizza joint with the world's most heavily guarded recipes.

With their orchestrator and music supervisor Carmel Dean joining Rustin and Hushion by Zoom from Australia at odd times of day to pick the perfect '80s hits to go into the score, Mystic Pizza has been an exercise in resourcefulness, joy, and nostalgia. Rustin and her collaborators are finally able to see what they have up on its feet. And while the recipe may require some tweaking, there's a good chance an '80s-themed pizza party will chase away the quarantine blues.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sandy Rustin
(© Theo & Juliet Photography)

You're officially in a theater with a brand-new musical! What's the feeling among the cast and creative team now that you've all made it back to the stage?

It's been really special to have an opportunity to make a new musical at the tail end — or what we hope is the tail end -- of this pandemic. For most everybody working on the show, this was our first big back-at-it. And the score to Mystic Pizza is entirely comprised of hits from the '80s, [which is] so nostalgic of this pre-pandemic, teenage fun zone. So there's definitely been an energy of joy throughout the whole thing. And the Ogunquit Playhouse here in Maine has created a humongous, 25,000-square-foot outdoor tent in order to keep audiences and casts safe. It's a little bit like a circus tent, but then it has all these technical capabilities. My sons stopped by tech rehearsal and were like, "This feels like NASA." It's very cool.

Before this project, where did Mystic Pizza sit in your own movie-watching universe?

I was in middle school when Mystic Pizza came out, and it was rated R, so I was not allowed to see it. I saw it on like a Blockbuster video at some point in the '90s, and I remember loving it at the time. And then I set it aside. When it came back into my life, obviously I rewatched the movie. There are a million things that are relevant and pertain to a 2021 audience. But there were also some things in the film that needed a fresh look through a 2021 lens. We still very much have set the play in 1988. There's still '80s through the roof through the whole show. But we also wanted to be mindful of the growth that audiences have done in the last 30-plus years – be mindful of the #MeToo movement and present these three young women as more than just characters seen through the male gaze. I really felt like that was my task as the person adapting the show to the stage.

How do you balance three romantic storylines with the women's own stories as individuals as well as the friendship that ties them all together?

I consciously wanted to maintain the rom-com component of this. I think it's central to the film. And I didn't feel that you could successfully adapt Mystic Pizza for the stage without having summer romance as part of what these stories are. That said, I think what is hinted at in the film, but is now more in focus in the stage play, is the ambition of these three girls beyond their relationships with men. Female friendship and empowering other women is certainly a focus. But even more than that is — what else did these three women want other than love? Which isn't to say that wanting love is bad or that wanting love isn't worth telling a story about. I think it is. But I also think it's important to show that you can want love and pursue love and also want other things in your life. All three of these women have really clear wishes beyond love, which happen simultaneously with the pursuit of love. So I think that was the fine line to toe in this.

When you were doing your first Mystic Pizza rewatch, what was a moment in the movie that made you confident that this property was suited for a musical?

There were a lot of moments, actually. But the one that stands out when you ask that question is where the character of Daisy mistakenly thinks that her boyfriend Charlie has lied to her and cheated on her when really he's just at a country club dancing with his sister. In the film, she dumps a pick-up truck worth of smelly fish into his Porsche. It's one of those classic moments from the film. That felt to me like the kind of heightened energy that is worthy of a musical, so we've done that through song in our show. When that happens in our show, her fury takes her to a Melissa Etheridge whaling song. I think it does the dump-of-the-fish-truck justice, which obviously we couldn't do onstage.

I think it's important to note that Mystic Pizza has an all-female creative team – which is wonderful on an industry level but complicated to celebrate without implying that it's some kind of gimmick or anomalous phenomenon. How do those moving pieces sort themselves out in your own mind?

Here's what I'll say. When Casey and I are given the opportunity to build out a creative team, our first goal is to always find the very best people for the job. That is really our guiding principle. While we're doing that, we're simultaneously looking at, Are there women that answer that question? And we have been really fortunate to say, "Yeah. She is the best for this job." So that's what I rub up against. It's like, yeah, it is an all-female creative team. Not because we went out to seek women, but because these women were the best for the job. I do think for Mystic Pizza, the focus is on three strong ambitious women, and so to fill the room with people who exude that same energy did feel important to us. But also we got kick-ass ladies to do the job.

The creative team of Mystic Pizza. Bottom: Carmel Dean, Casey Hushion, Sandy Rustin; top: Liz Ramos, Kristin Stowell
(photo courtesy of Ogunquit Playhouse)
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