Robin Schiff Talks About the Evolution of ‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion’

Roughly 30 years ago, two quirky friends first appeared on stage in Robin Schiff’s Ladies Room as two minor filler, yet incredibly memorable, characters. Twenty years ago, after some production struggles, they hit the big screen as lead characters in their own movie with Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, becoming an instant cult classic. Now, in 2017, the story has been brought to the stage in the form of a musical theater production… and it’s brilliant!

I was able to sit down with Robin Schiff and discuss the beloved characters, the show and its development:

EO: What inspired the characters and story of Romy and Michele?:

Robin Schiff: The characters originally, because they were minor characters in “Ladies Room” what happened was… the play took place in the bathroom of a pick up bar. So I decided to do it with out black outs so it would just be one long scene so when the main characters exited due to something going on in the bar, something would happen, they would come back in the bathroom to talk about it and it needed filler. So I came up with the characters of three waitresses and then I thought ‘who would go to a pick up bar?’ I used to drive down sunset boulevard and see these women standing in line to get into the club called naked players and they were wearing outfits looking like they got dressed together. They were all wearing black and the first incarnation of Romy and Michele they were all wearing black in “Ladies Room”.

I decided to base the characters on the look of those girls but I never went to clubs myself so I go to a club to do research. I went to this club called Carlos and Charlies just to do research and see what a club looked like because I’m really not like Romy and Michele except for the fact that I’m super lazy and like to watch movies and mock them with my friends on a sunny day. I go in the bathroom and I overheard these girls as they stood in the mirror at the bathroom saying, “Oh my god I hate my hair.” “Your hair? My hair. I would trade my hair for your hair in two seconds.” “Take my hair.” There’s a real musicality to it. It felt like music to me which is interesting since this has ended up being a musical.

So the first run I wrote for Romy and Michele was on the way back and I just heard them saying “That guy you were talking to was cute.” “He was cute. Really cute” “So what’s he do?” and the scene went on from there. It was like two halves of a whole and I have a lifelong best friend so I know what it’s like to have these two people who are bonded.

EO: How long did the movie take to write?:

Robin Schiff: The movie was in development on and off for 5 years so I would write a draft, I would write another draft and they wouldn’t get it. You can imagine if you hadn’t seen the movie just reading that stuff on the on the page you wouldn’t get it because there’s no jokes. Lisa Kudrow will get a laugh from saying “Okay” and Stephanie (Wall) will get a laugh from saying “and yeah”. So those didn’t look like jokes and they kept giving me notes. The essence of the script never changed but a billion details changed. It kept getting better and better and better. We kept getting notes from the studio. They wanted the ending to be bigger. And those are the kind of notes that drive you insane because it’s a relative term any way. Bigger than what? Bigger than a bread box? So, we kept writing different endings… at one point they fired me off the movie and I was off the movie for a year. Lisa Kudrow and Genine Garafolo were attached and they said they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t the original script. The thing that kept me involved with the project as much as I was, since I was also an executive producer, was my relationship with Lisa (Kudrow) because her first role was in ‘Ladies Room’.

EO: So the studios didn’t like it?:

Robin Schiff: They didn’t get it. Also the conventional wisdom is that movies with all female leads don’t do well and right before they greenlit “Romy and Michele” Lisa became a big star also “Clueless” had come out and done well with a female audience. Also ‘Titanic’ had done well with a female audience. It think there was a little window where they were feeling like there was more of a chance with female centric movies to do well.

EO: Why do you think after twenty years do you think this story continues to draw in a new audience?:

Robin Schiff: Let me ask you that first why do you think?

EO: It hits home. You want a relationship like that in your life. You want that platonic best friend in your life and I think it’s something everyone can relate to.

Robin Schiff: Yes… I think platonic love is a really under explored topic and when you look at female friend ships its usually for a lot women, even married women; although sometimes their husband is their best friend but for a lot of women they aren’t. My personal favorite line in the movie which is nobody else’s favorite line in the movie, except Winnie Holzman who is one of my two best friends, it’s in the 70 years later flash forward where she’s looking at her medal and Sandi is like “you thinking of Romy again?” and she says “yes”. Sandi replies with “Do you miss her terribly” and Michele says “Duh”. Then he asks, “Have you been terribly unhappy with me all these years?” and she replies with “No I’ve just been lonely with no one to talk to.” To me that sums up many relationships between men and women which is you love the man, you’re not unhappy but you need your girlfriends to talk to.

The other thing is I think the theme of being yourself and not trying to impress other people is a potent one. I don’t think that can explain it alone. It’s the 20th anniversary of the movie and I’ve been asked this a lot. That’s my regular answer but I also think there is a joy to be movie and it’s really positive and even the negatives in it people recognize and I took all the emotions very seriously so even though the movie is broad I tried to bring my own true emotions to it. When I went to my reunion I wanted to impress people.

EO: What was the thought behind saying ‘okay now we are going to make this a musical’?.

Robin Schiff: I was approached by one of the producers… a couple guys wrote two spec songs and they got it to the producer and he sent me the songs and I really didn’t like the songs. I was like “No if I was going to do a Romy and Michele musical it would sound like the Go-Gos and people would be changing clothes on stage” and I just sort of rattled stuff off the top of my head. The guy was like “I love that”. He knew a bunch of guys at Disney so we went and pitched it to Disney theatrical and for me it was just a lark. I’m like “this is never going to happen”. So it wasn’t like I said “Well now I’m going to turn it into a musical”. It came about in such a roundabout way and I’m so naive I thought “Well I’ve already written the script I can just dash this off…” and here we are 12 years later.

EO: Twelve years?!

Robin Schiff: Yup… 12 years. Gwen (Gwendolyn Sanford) and Brandon (Brandon jay) who are the composers have been on it for eight and half years.

EO: Oh wow! I thought this was a three-year process.

Robin Schiff: It’s been really challenging to get it to the point it is now because we wanted to reimagine it for the stage but stay faithful enough to the movie so that fans wouldn’t be disappointed and also have it stand on its own for an audience that doesn’t know the movie. We also want to show stuff you don’t get to see in the movie. One of the songs we have “You’re the Coolest Person I Know”, which is possibly my favorite song in the show, and in the lunchroom after Michele gets the magnets put on her back in the movie we see them just walk off and try to save face by laughing. In this (the musical) we see the scene that happens after that and how devastated Michele is and how Romy was there for her.

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