The strong, vivacious women of First Wives Club the Musical are standing on the shoulders of other powerful women. Linda Bloodworth Thomason has written the book that dances Brenda, Annie, and Elise out of the pages of Olivia Goldsmith’s novel, off the movie screen and onto the stage.
Linda embodies the essence of these women. She is best known for the memorable female characters she created for the hit TV series Designing Women. Like the women she has brought to life, Linda has a feminist spirit and a generous soul. She made her mark in Hollywood when women writers weren’t given their due. Her transition to the stage is a gift for all of us who are looking for stories that focus on female friendship. First Wives Club is pleased to share Linda’s personal story and insight into the characters she brought to life.
First Wives Club marks your Broadway/theatrical debut. Can you tell us how writing a stage production is different from writing for television or film?
Linda: The main difference for me is that doing a stage production requires a much more complex collaboration. For example, if it’s a musical, it’s not just about the writing. It’s also about the music. There’s a sort of delicate, creative feng shui that has to occur, so it’s very exciting when it finally begins to take flight.
Also, once you complete a television episode, it becomes a stationary piece of art. It’s been very interesting to see all these diverse talents merging to create a kind of theatrical kaleidoscope that will be magically different on any given night. Obviously, that doesn’t happen in TV or film. That fluidity and the possibility of ever-changing art is something I haven’t been exposed to and, uh, I suspect might be habit forming. Then, the music comes in and the production soars to a level you hadn’t even imagined. Now you have all that and comedy, too. It’s a pretty irresistible package.
You are a great role model and one of the great comedy writers of today and the first woman (along with ex-writing partner Mary Kay Place) chosen by Larry Gelbart to write for MASH. Can you speak about how comedy informs your work?
Linda: I am first and foremost a comedy writer, but I’m not good at writing jokes. I would say that all of my scripts are character driven.
I work in comedy because I believe humor is the best weapon for championing a specific point of view. When I created Designing Women, I went in search of four, great looking, comedic actresses because I wanted to send a feminist message out into the atmosphere. Also, in order to counter all the man-hating, feminist stereotypes, I wanted those women to look fabulous when they were standing on their soapboxes. They said a lot of stuff that was controversial. I got a lot of hate mail, but it was so much fun. I considered the hate mail to be a badge of honor.
You usually write solo. What are the strengths of collaborating with other major talents to create this musical?
Linda: I have definitely been inspired by all of my First Wives producers—the unfailingly supportive and innovative Daniel Choueka and Jonas Neilson, the irrepressible Paul Lambert and uber Broadway producer and my dear friend, Elizabeth Williams, who have all shown me the kind of super human tenacity required to get a show like this off the ground.
Also, the composers, Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, with their incomparable score, have brought such emotional weight to the characters and story. As a kid, I sang along with all of their incredible songs—usually using a deodorant bottle for a microphone in my parents’ bathroom. I could never have imagined that I would someday be working with them.
And it has been such a pleasure collaborating with the lavishly talented Simon Phillips (the director). The only downside is that he is able to crush all of your artistic arguments with his unassuming and ever-charming, Aussie nature. He is truly the heart and soul of this production.
There’s also someone else I’m working with who sadly isn’t here. And that’s the late Olivia Goldsmith, author of the novel The First Wives Club and creator of this iconic franchise. I’ve been allowed tremendous free rein with the musical, but the plot and basic engine for Olivia’s characters are still intact. I have nothing but gratitude and respect for her. It has been an honor for me, as a writer, to be able to embellish and color Elise, Brenda and Annie in my own way.
In what way will the characters be the same or different from the movie?
Linda: Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler created such unforgettable female characters. The power of their friendship and the voltage of each woman’s personality is already well ingrained in the moviegoer’s imagination. The challenge for me, was to be respectful of what has gone before, while also making it feel new and different.
And yes, the characters and plot are similar, but most of the dialogue is new. The book I’ve written for First Wives is definitely informed by all the female characters I’ve written before. If you loved Designing Women, you are going to love the First Wives Club—their raucous, female spirit, unbreakable camaraderie and “I’ve got your back, girl” loyalty to one another. Like Designing Women, the First Wives are men loving feminists. But the men come and go and female friendships are forever. That’s really what First Wives Club is about.
A lot of people, including young women have told me that they loved and still remember Designing Women. How are today’s women different from the women of this time period of that show and First Wives Club?
Linda: Well, Designing Women is still in syndication and I appreciate that women continue to embrace the show. I must tip my hat to those sinfully gifted actresses who inhabited those characters. Like Goldie, Bette and Diane, I think Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, Jean Smart and Delta Burke burned an image in the collective imagination of women all over the world. They were the first smart, Southern women on television. They didn’t coast on their beauty. They were never sex objects. And they were never afraid to claim their rightful place in the world.
First Wives Club depicts a feminist trajectory that is, uh, quite similar to that of our culture. In the late sixties, women were becoming much more fully realized. They demanded to be treated equally in the workplace, as well as in their personal relationships. The sky was the limit. But by the nineties, the women in First Wives, like many of their real-life sisters, had lost some of their early rebel spirit. In the musical, Sarah Lawrence graduates Elise, Brenda and Annie discover that they have been beaten down by life, by their husbands’ infidelities and societal expectations. First Wives is about these women recapturing the power of their audacious, younger selves.
I have a hunch that, like me, there are millions of women out there who are not fans of our current, over-sexed, under-read, underfed, dumb girl culture. Today, even our most talented young actresses feel pressured to keep proving, over and over that they are indeed hot and bootylicious. And our most prominent “celebrity girl” sends out, never-ending snapshots of her colossal ass, while getting paid ten-thousand dollars for writing tweets like, “I’m obsessed with those little, colored sprinkles on cupcakes.”
For me, First Wives Club provided a rare opportunity to stand in opposition to all of this. The First Wives lived in an era when women commanded a great deal of respect. Shallow and demeaning depictions of females were, uh, routinely disparaged. There was a feeling of solidarity and sisterhood. I hope I have brought a little of that spirit to this musical. I hope that feeling might seep back into the DNA of today’s young women.
One of my great joys has been using the money I earned writing big-shouldered, opinionated females to put 150, under privileged girls through college. I kind of enjoy the subversive symmetry of that. I know there are a lot of wonderful young women out there, but I still encourage them to tweet less and read more. I worry that they have no idea whose shoulders they’re standing on and seem to have only one adjective, “ah-mazing,” which is used to describe everything from the Aurora Borealis to a big wad of gum. As a former English teacher, this is very disturbing to me. I want them to be better than that. I want them to read books. I want them to have dignity. I want them to stand up for other girls. In the musical, the First Wives regain their bravado and their self-respect. I can only hope that it’s contagious.
You’re so well known for writing strong female characters. Both the book and the film versions of First Wives Club came out in the 1990s. Why is this story and its emotional journey still relevant today? In First Wives Club, there is an emphasis on “real” women — plus size women, women in pain, women who are stunned, shocked, and vulnerable — and women who vow to take matters in their own hands and make a difference. What do you hope some of the “real” messages and subtext will be of this show and ultimately say to today’s women?
Linda: All women should be valued, regardless of shape, size or color. We make a big point in the musical that the average, American woman is a size fourteen and owns three-fourths of the wealth in this country, making her part of a nineteen trillion dollar shopping cartel. And yet, when she actually goes shopping, she can only find a lone pair of shabby, velour warm-ups in the farthest corner of the store. All the really great clothes are made for women who are the same size as toddlers. This becomes Brenda’s issue as she attempts to lose weight in an effort to, uh, you know, reclaim her husband. We wanted to challenge the whole concept of why women should be held to this ridiculous notion that everyone must be a size four.
I think the over-riding theme of First Wives is that we, as women, cannot lose ourselves in society’s definition of how we should look and behave. I don’t believe there is a female who can see this musical and remain unmoved by its message. The First Wives Club really is the biggest club in the world. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Think of all the billions of women who are no longer married and you get some idea of the size of this sisterhood. Yes, there is no meeting place and there are no dues, but there is an indomitable, female spirit that exists in this musical that the women in the audience can take home. Maybe when you leave, you love your girlfriends a little more. For sure, you are going to experience a lot of laughter. And if you have been recently left behind by a man, you are going to find this musical very empowering.
Can you describe Brenda, Annie, and Elise?
Linda: Well, first and foremost, Elise is a diva. She is wickedly funny, alternating between whimsical and hard-ass. I think the fact that she’s had a fall from grace is a huge surprise to her. Out of all the characters, Elise is the one who would never see the train coming. Some might say her big ego is unhealthy. But I enjoy that about her. There are so many women who are unsure of themselves and not capable of her kind of female swagger. When she enters wearing her giant sunglasses, entourage in tow, I want to celebrate that. At the start of the musical, her career has fallen and she has lost her way due to alcohol. But she is still pretending to be the star she once was. By the end, she discovers that she is even better and stronger than the person she was pretending to be. That’s the great arc of her story.
I think Annie represents every woman – all the insecurities each of us has to fight within herself, many of which have been imposed by society. Annie has accepted a more traditional, subservient role with her husband. She, uh, she has diminished her own gifts, so that her husband can be more than. Annie is the perfect example of a woman giving up the greatest parts of herself so that she can gain approval, be loved and desired. Eventually, she learns that it’s essential to be loved for who you are and not who he wants you to be.
Brenda also represents a large section of the audience. She is the kind of wisecracking woman who, uh, keeps emotionality at bay. She has lived her life with seeming confidence, but underneath there is massive insecurity. Instead of diminishing herself, like Annie, Brenda lords her Ivy League education over her blue collar husband. She does this in order to feel better about her weight and her own attractiveness. Brenda believes it’s always better to strike the first blow. One of the most touching stories in the musical involves how Brenda and Morty attempt to save their relationship. She discovers that a real love story is not just about what has been enjoyed, but also what has had to be forgiven. When love is deep, forgiveness can occur on both sides. It is a very hopeful story and as the book writer, I wanted to have that balance. Falling in love with my own husband (TV and film director, Harry Thomason) has been the greatest gift of my life. So for me, it was essential to show that, in the middle of these women emerging from hapless marriages, a killer romance can also survive and even flourish.
I think a lot of women will go see the play with their girlfriends, just as they did with the movie. What are your thoughts about the ultimate theme of the show and “the power of girlfriends” as sung in Shoulder to Shoulder?
Linda: That particular song is very rousing—the perfect Holland/Dozier/Holland style anthem about female solidarity. It’s emblematic of everything we’ve been talking about. By the way, I do want to point out that First Wives is not just for women. Boyfriends and husbands, gay and straight will also, I think, be wildly entertained.
However, I would say to all the women out there that they need to get a busload of their best girlfriends, coworkers, sisters, mothers, daughters, cousins and come see First Wives. In Chicago. Or on Broadway. Truthfully, I’m the last person to sell anybody anything. My mother had to buy all my Girl Scout cookies. But I will say First Wives is pretty damn funny. And if you come, you’re going to have a blast. The music will lift you, the ballads will break your heart and the anthems will have you on your feet, cheering. What more can I say? Long live girls!
Get YOUR TICKETS here!
Playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theater
Previews: February 17th – March 10th
Premiere date: March 11, 2015
Chicago run: thru March 29th
About Linda Bloodworth Thomason
Linda Bloodworth Thomason, creator of the highly lauded series Designing Women, Evening Shade and Hearts Afire, is among the most prolific writers in American television. She has written over three-hundred-and-fifty scripts and received multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. She is also the director, producer and writer of the 1992 landmark political documentary The Man from Hope, the 1996 Democratic convention film for President Clinton, A Place Called America, the 2000 Democratic Convention film for President Clinton, Legacy, the introductory film for the Clinton Presidential Library, the Senator Hillary Clinton campaign film, Hillary 2000 and the 2008 Hillary Clinton Democratic Convention film. Her debut novel, Liberating Paris, made the New York Times Bestseller list. Bloodworth Thomason has received the prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt Freedom of Speech Award, the Lucy Award from Women in Film, the GLAAD Media Award, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund Annual Award as well as the Silver Satellite Award, the highest honor bestowed by Women in Radio and Television. In 2013, the marriage equality documentary, Bridegroom, which Bloodworth Thomason wrote and directed, won the audience prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. Actress, Lupito Nyongo recently presented Bloodworth Thomason with the GLAAD Award for Best Documentary film and comedian Lily Tomlin presented her with the Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of GLSEN.