How Romy and Michele's High School Reunion's Scribe Makes the Beloved Besties Sing
Robin Schiff pens the book to the new musical version of her '90s cult hit.
Nearly 10 years after Robin Schiff premiered her 1988 play Ladies Room, two of its minor characters became stars of their own feature film, becoming icons of the female "buddy movie" genre. Twenty years have gone by, and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion is now returning to the stage as a musical with a book by Schiff, who has racked up three decades of experience with everyone's favorite valley girls.
Directed by Kristin Hanggi (Tony nominee for Rock of Ages) with music and lyrics by Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion is making its world premiere at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre (June 8-July 2). "There's a lot of nostalgia in the air right now for the '90s," says Schiff, who has cracked open her beloved cult hit for its musical renovation.
In the years since Romy and Michele debuted, Schiff has watched female-centric films head in a raunchier, profanity-driven direction, "almost like trying to compete with guys," she says. But a continuously growing pool of fans for her pair of lovably ditsy underachievers is reassuring her that Romy and Michele — much like the Post-It — never goes out of style.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Was it your idea to turn Romy and Michele into a musical?
No, it actually wasn't. There's a producer on the movie named Larry Mark , and he was sent two spec songs from a nonexistent Romy and Michele musical. When I heard it, I thought, "This is like bad Groundlings improv. If I was going to do a musical, it would sound like the Go-Go's and wouldn't feel like a traditional Broadway musical." It was never on my radar to do a musical, but I'm sitting here going, "Well, I've already written the movie. This should be easy." And here we are 12 years later.
Is it hard to believe Romy and Michele have been a part of popular culture for two decades already?
Who could have known? It was one of the worst-testing movies in the history of Touchstone Pictures. Everybody thought it was gonna be a big bomb. And it came out, and we got great reviews. It was decently attended but it wasn't a big hit in the theaters. It's really become this video thing .
Are you continuing to develop new generations of Romy and Michele fans?
For the 20th anniversary they had a screening at one of these beautiful old movie palaces in downtown L.A., and it was a 1,200-seat theater. They sold it out, and I would say 90 percent of the audience was 30 or under. It blew my mind. I think what must be happening is either kids catch it on TV, or when girls are young their moms show it to them. I can't figure out how else we got a theater full of 1,200 people under the age of 30. It's very surreal.
What do you think it is that's made Romy and Michele so popular?
I feel like one of the reasons why it's lasted is that the themes are universal. They're human themes told through the female lens: The message that having a friend like that makes life worth living — and also the message of self-acceptance. Even though it's heightened and it can be silly, I took the emotion seriously. The characters take their emotions seriously. What I really got from the movie's 20th anniversary was how much it's meant to people. How many times do you ever get to write something and people are caring about it 20 years later?
Have you enjoyed collaborating with a largely female creative team to reexplore what have become iconic female characters?
Totally. Theater, like most other professions, is still very male-dominated. So the fact that we have women as one half of the composing team, the director, the choreographer, the book writer, the head of construction, the stage managers, and then the cast — if you walk into that room there's maybe three guys and just a billion women. Two of the actors in the show are saying they've never ever worked with a female director, and the choreographer's mostly worked with men. Kristin is in a handful of female directors and she's a very specific kind of person who not only is a talented director but a very spiritual person . She brings people together in very unexpected ways and I think that that's very female.
Which parts of the story have you worked with her to open up more in the musical?
Michele is bullied in the schoolyard — she has scoliosis and the mean kids put magnets on the back of her back brace — and in the movie they sort of walk off trying to save face by laughing along with everyone else. In the musical, we follow them. Michele goes into the girls' bathroom. Romy comes in and Michele is crying and Romy bolsters her in probably my favorite song in the whole show. It's called "You're the Coolest Person I Know." It was a title that I came up with for a song because I really wanted a platonic female love song. That was a moment that you didn't get to see in the movie, but it's a reason to sing. We were looking for things like that all through the story. By the same token, we have the song "I Invented Post-Its."
I'm glad Post-Its are holding their place in the Romy and Michele musical.
There's a wall in the rehearsal room where they left out big Post-Its and a marker, and people write sayings on it and put it up on the wall. They're in every room and every single one of them is positive. I'm just having the best time. I think you can hear that. Every so often in life you have a peak experience where you come together with like-minded individuals, with people who have the same values as a creative person. I just feel like it's one of those peak experiences in my life and I'm beyond grateful.