It’s our pleasure to share an interview with Simon Phillips, the director of First Wives Club – the Musical. Simon shares stories about his life and his work in the theater. He was kind enough to give us some insight into the process for taking the hit film to the stage.
Congratulations on your Helpmann nomination.
Simon: Fancy knowing that, well researched. That was for an opera I did earlier. All my recent stuff in Australia has been opera.
Are you wearing your lucky socks? I heard that you don’t wear shoes when you are working and you wear two different color socks.
Simon: That’s right. Old habits die hard.
Is that a superstitious thing?
Simon: It’s honestly so boring. It started out because when I am working, for some reason, I can’t wear shoes. I’ve always taken my shoes off to work, which means I am always snagging a sock. That’s how it started. I might have a hole and I’ll throw that one in the bin, but I’m not throwing away the other sock, so I just started wearing odd socks. Now it has become an institution in my wardrobe. People who I haven’t seen in ten years just lift up the legs of my trousers to see if I am wearing odd socks.
It’s thrilling to see the music of Holland – Dozier – Holland is such an integral part of First Wives Club, especially for those of us who grew up with their music. Even young people today still love those songs. On shows like American Idol, kids still sing the great HDH songs.
Simon: I think that is a part of the knack of it. It lasted for quite a long time, the people who were touched by that music. It’s very enduring. When I’ve done workshops for First Wives Club in different incarnations, the kids who come in to play the young people in the show all basically know those songs. They’ve all got them in their bloodstream somewhere.
What attracted you to directing First Wives Club?
Simon: My first instinct was that it felt like there was an immediate fit for the stage. So many people try turning things into musicals now. We are in a constant frenzy to try to find films and things to make a musical, but this just seemed like a no-brainer to me. I thought it had these three great roles in it – the three women of a certain age that musical theater is good at celebrating, so it had a lot going for it. It has a massive potential audience of people who are going to relate to its theme, and that’s quite a big club, the First Wives Club.
Of course I’ve seen the movie a few times, including when it came out. It was a good decision to keep the play set in the original time period, instead of making it more current. Things have changed; for instance, we have websites like First Wives World where women go to for support, but when women are going through hard times, they will always turn to their girlfriends. How was that decision made about the time period?
Simon: The thing that clinched it for me was that I wanted to include in the story some of the original music that you and I love. Just so the show didn’t become like a grab bag, I wanted the original HDH hits to belong to the period when the women were young. That meant that the play really had to live in the sixties. Once that had happened, of course the present, 25 years later, had to be the nineties. There was an imperative in this, as well, in that it had a particular feeling of being the right film at the right time when it came out.
You structured the book for this production too?
Simon: I got a script which I thought had just made some mistakes in terms of the pure narrative, so I put this story together based on another script which kept the focus strongly on the right journey for the women and the development of that journey.
We took the songs that HDH had written and we dropped some of them, applied some to different purposes based upon the new spine, and introduced the catalog songs strategically to live within the early part of our character’s lives. We then looked at two or three places where we needed to say to them, now write another song, a different song for this moment. They naturally wrote for the themes of this story, so their talent was such an organic and natural fit.
What would you say was your highest priority in telling this story?
Simon: I thought the absolute backbone of this story is that these women make a kind of vow in the beginning when they are very young to be there and be ready to help each other through difficult times. What with one thing and another, and given many circumstances (a lot of which had to do with the fact that they changed their priorities from their friendship to their marriages), they lose touch with each other. For one of them, the other three aren’t there during a particularly bad time, and so she kills herself.
The show starts in quite a dark place in this way, but it’s really about that event bringing the women together and reuniting them as a force. That friendship sees them through into a stronger, better, more self-confident place. I just think that’s a great spine to the story, and when you are putting a musical together there are so many possibilities about what could be fun. You can make wrong choices, or you can just get yourself duped by the potential fun of any given situation. There can be a fantastic song that feels marvelous, but for one reason or another, you can put it in the wrong place in the show, and it can wrong foot the show on some level.
My job as a kind of a strategist is to make sure that every kind of decoration, every high point and low point and beautiful piece of music that the show had was arranged along that theme line, and that the theme and the arc of the characters stayed true. I think that spines from a whole lot of other things that you can obviously do that are terribly enjoyable, but it kind of needs to stay true to that spine.
I’ve read quite a few movies scripts adapted from plays, but doing it the other way must be much more challenging. How does the adaptation evolve?
Simon: I’ve always thought that there is a kind of a potentially nice fit of changing a film to a musical. Traditionally a musical was a little bit more fragmented by definition of structure than a play tends to be. A play tends to take place in fewer locations than movie musicals tend to take place in. Now, the structure of film is invading everything. It is true to say that it’s maybe easier to take something with limited structural possibilities like a play, which knows the limitations of the theater and is written to that, and enlarging it out and just exploding it. It should be an easier thing.
Taking something that has had no limitations and putting it on the stage can be a trickier idea. This film is not terrifically difficult from that point of view. There is the scene where the women escape from the building using the window cleaner’s platform. It is kind of an iconic, memorable scene in the film, so that is a significantly more difficult thing to do in the theater than it is to pull off in film.
What is it like working with Linda Bloodworth Thomason? She is one of the great comedy writers.
Simon: She is such an instinctively clever comic writer. The great thing about Linda’s comedy is that it isn’t really about writing jokes. It’s about writing situations or observations, about how life works or what is prescient in people’s lives and kind of turning it into situations and turning that into comedy, which is great for a show like this. It’s terrific that all the comedy comes out of who the women are and the reality of the situation they are in. It’s not stock shtick by any means.
Linda has written a lot of strong women characters. What did you think about her view of women as a man? I asked this of Brian and Eddie and Lamont because there are three guys who wrote all these great songs that seem as if they came directly from women’s hearts. I am sure you can relate to that as well. Do you think this play will also appeal to men to because it is about relationships and human emotions?
Simon: HDH just have an instinct for tapping into the heart of the matter. I’m not sure, but there are some songs in the show that certainly feel like they come from women, but a couple of the songs are coming from the guys’ own hearts. It’s such a universal feeling that is being expressed that the music speaks to everybody.
It’s the women’s story and particular predicament we are following. Their husbands are all cheating on them, but there is an extent to which the show allows a moment for us to understand what kind of fun-fare ride that the guys are on. It does focus on the women getting revenge on their husbands because they feel that they have made their husbands’ lives and the guys have just tossed that away very easily, but it doesn’t judge the husbands for what they are doing. I think the guys will have a good time in the show.
Do you think younger people can relate to these women? I think that the younger generation deals with relationships a lot differently. They are more careful in some ways.
Simon: I think they are. The other thing I have noticed is how unbelievably committed to monogamy the young people are. That is the thing that really astonishes me. There is a continuing kind of raft of commitment problems and all those things that are ongoing, but what really amazes me is the kids of our children’s generation – a lot of them have been the children in divorced households, so they are more cautious about getting into relationships. Once in them, I think that they are more determined to stay in them.
I think it is especially true once they have children. It is a direct connection to the fact that they really didn’t like it when their parents got divorced, which is an admiral connection to make. I know kids who are not in especially happy relationships and who wouldn’t think of getting out of them on a whim. They are sticking by them because they don’t want their children to feel how they felt when they were children.
It does give me great hope for humanity when I talk to young people.
Simon: I completely agree. In a world where there are so many reasons to feel in despair, you just have to get to the individual young people that you know, and they are so great, most of them are so fantastic. I think it is very hopeful.
You did a reading in Melbourne and the workshop in Toronto – what did you learn from those efforts?
Simon: The first reading I did was really part of finding the right spine. I’d done my restructure on paper. The first workshop I did in Melbourne was part of confirming how that structure would work – the order of the scenes, how the scenes worked, what led to what. That was basically determined in that workshop and the essential content of the scenes was determined.
The second workshop in Toronto was obviously after that spine and the scenario had been fleshed out by Linda. Linda had come on board and we had a much more fleshed out script ready to go and some new songs ready to try. In any of these workshops you rework again. You are working out with the cast and you are restructuring stuff, but that second workshop was about finding a show that we could all progress with.
As in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, this could be a global success story. Everyone can relate to love, loss, bitterness, rejection, and relationship troubles. Do you agree?
Simon: There are shows that manage to touch many people in spite of subject matter that is not majorly universal. I thought Priscilla was one of those shows. It had certain things in life that were universal for everyone to respond to, but its story was about a minority group, about drag queens. That made Priscilla a harder sell. What happened with Priscilla was that it was a distinctly Australian story. Wherever we have gone in the world, we’ve always said, this is happening in Australia.
Every nation, especially the smaller nations, have certain iconic work that transcends the kind of parochialism of their environment and touches the whole world. With First Wives Club, it started out in America and America is a superpower, but more than that, it’s about women and it is so much about something that virtually everyone can respond to. There is nothing minority about it. It’s entirely about the whole world.
People like Brian, Eddie, and Lamont are accomplished and legendary songwriters used to working on their own or with other artists, but this is an entirely different world to them. It’s such a collaborative environment. I guess a lot of people involved in the production are new to theater, so you are the one who has to put it together and help them through this.
Simon: Yes, that’s the last part of my responsibility because I’m working with the songwriters and the book writer who are geniuses in their own field, but they have not done a live show before. There are just some practical rules about how these things work that don’t come naturally to them, but they are all working through that brilliantly. The dancers are also brilliant in the play. It’s a mind that is right out there, it’s amazing the way that they think.
Once a play goes live, are you there? Or, once it is up on its feet, does it practically run itself?
Simon: Well it doesn’t run itself, but it would be limiting to a director’s career if once the show was on they had to go to every performance.
What happens is it opens and you have a production stage manager and an associate director, and between those people, they take care of the show through its run.
The stage manager is running the show, but a good production stage manager will go out front and watch the show at least once, sometimes twice a week. The associate director is there, so between them they will note the actors and note the crew and make sure it is remaining in ship shape. They run the times on opening, making sure it’s not getting too long and the performance isn’t turning into an indulgence.
After opening night, do you ever have to go back and make tweaks or changes?
Simon: That’s a very interesting one. Usually a show like this, as it is happening in Chicago, will have a long preview period. You will open it and have up to a month of performances where you are tweaking things and changing things. Until you’ve got a thousand people laughing or not laughing at what you are doing, all the craft and skill in the world can’t inform you exactly about what is going to go down.
Things that you think are hilarious sometimes, for some reason, don’t impact. Things that no one realized were funny get massive laughs. You realize that a scene that everyone has found incredibly moving in the rehearsal room, when you put it in front of the public, it’s just too long, and you have to cut half of it. You get pretty ruthless at that stage about what is working for a crowd.
It’s not as easy as the filmic process, where you can solve everything in the editing phase and you can change the story. You can’t do that in the theater because it is a massive kind of technical organism. It’s nasty when you realize you have to revamp an entire scene and that requires new furniture or something like that. That’s much harder than in the movies, although versions of that have to be done.
I can imagine that in live theater anything can happen. It must be so stressful. It’s not like you can do a retake.
Simon: Anything can happen and so you have to make it safe. That’s the joy of it. That’s the reason it continues to be attractive to people. They know what they are seeing is unique and it will never be exactly the same again. It’s a living, breathing thing. It does something film can never do.
What do you think we will be surprised by when we see it?
Simon: Other people have probably said this to you because it is the thing that people most say about the play. It is surprising that it manages to be so funny and yet effortlessly touch the human heart in very moving ways. One of the empowering things behind the concept of the film and the concept that has been passed on to the show is that it is comedy that ultimately makes the film an empowering thing for women who have been or are in the situation the women in the show are in.
It’s the comedy that is the most important factor, but that isn’t to say that we aren’t taking the essential situation that the women are in lightly. Neither the book nor the songwriters have shied away from doing material that is close to the heart. There are moments of really moving material. I think the fact that they come out of comedy makes it even more powerful. Certainly you find yourself with a little tear in your eye for someone and then you move on to a lot more jokes.
Some of the nicest feeling comes from that. The audience all go, I’ve felt that, or I’ve been there. It’s kind of about mindreading. I like to get to the heart of how all people feel – that private stuff.
ABOUT SIMON PHILLIPS
Simon Phillips is an award-winning theater director best known for adapting Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to the Broadway stage. That project went on to become a global success.
Simon became interested in the theater as a young man in New Zealand. He emigrated to Australia in 1984. Simon has directed many contemporary and classic musicals and operas. His musical credits include Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Australian productions, including Love Never Dies, The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Urinetown the Musical, Company, The Threepenny Opera, Cabaret, and High Society. New Zealand productions directed by Simon include Oliver!, Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Pirates of Penzance.
Simon’s passion for theater and his skill as a director have won him numerous awards and critical acclaim. He was recently nominated for a Helpmann Award for Best Direction of an Opera for The Turk in Italy.
Thank you, Simon! We can’t wait to see your contribution to this amazing musical production.
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Playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theater
Previews: February 17th – March 10th
Premiere date: March 11, 2015
Chicago run: thru March 29th