On Nov. 22, 1963, tragedy befalls a trio of teenage girls at their Texas high-school cheerleading practice. Over the PA system comes word that the president has been shot in Dallas, meaning their rah-rah routines in front of the Friday Night Lights is fur sure doomed to be doused. One saucer-eyed lass can't imagine how the president of the student body could have been shot in Dallas when she just saw him in algebra.
To say the "Big Picture" eludes these clueless cuties is like calling the Johnstown Flood a slight drizzle. And their self-absorbed, microscopic worldview continues unabated (if more accessorized) as Southern Methodist University (SMU) sorority girls.
By the time they take stock of themselves again, they're a decade deep into the real world after high school; they've individuated and grown so far apart they can't find themselves emotionally with a compass. What were they thinking — or not thinking?
These are the ladies of Jack Heifner's Vanities, who racked up one of the longest Off-Broadway runs ever — 1,785 performances, from 1976 to 1980 — at the Westside Theatre (then the Chelsea Theatre Center). Now, they're baaack, singing songs by David Kirshenbaum (Summer of '42), for a musical second-coming at Second Stage. Unlike Virginia Slims, who've "come a long way, baby," Heifner has in 33 years come one whole block on West 43rd Street for this musical reprise — but it is a block closer to Broadway, where this tuneful retread was intended to arrive (and may yet).
"I'd been approached many times about doing this as a musical," Heifner admits. "Some big-name people wanted to open it up and add men and the other girls and make it Grease or something. Only David really understood the play, wanted to keep its integrity and knew how to do it. One nice thing about a musical is you can go inside people's heads and sing their thoughts. This was always a play about shallow people, so it's interesting to hear what they're thinking. It's a difficult play for actors, and for directors, because it's 90 percent subtext — what they're not talking about."
Initially, Heifner covered the ages of woman in three scenes. "I based the first scene on three women I knew in high school, and I was so naïve that I named the characters after the Kathy, Mary and Joanne I knew — it was only the second play I'd ever written — and then, when I went to SMU, I took those three girls and turned them into some sorority girls I knew. And the last part was totally made up."
If these gals were empty vessels, so was he as a freshman. "I wanted to be a business major, then completely rebelled and went into theatre and became a hippie — all this while the Vietnam War was at its height. Then, Martin Luther King came to the campus and spoke and totally changed my life. I think what it was, was that I didn't have a social conscience — which these girls don't. They didn't know what was going on in the world. They didn't care. I started out like them but changed and marched on Washington and all that. I think those years were really important in the country.
"I always felt this was a sociological study of women who were handed the wrong game plan for life. If you bought into that sorority girl/Miss America mentality — especially in the late '60s and '70s — you found yourself isolated. Sororities at SMU became a joke. People were laughing at them. But it all came back, full-circle, later.
"When the play opened, we were in the cynical '70s and what was happening on stage was current. I didn't understand what long friendships are about, but when I started working on this musical, I realized the ending I had in the '70s I didn't believe anymore, so I wrote a fourth scene that brought them up to age 40.
"I think it's a play, now, about friendship and forgiveness. You may not talk to old friends all the time, but when you do see each other, you pick up right where you left off. That comes from a built-in history of what you went through together. I now believe friendships can weather storms. It's a different ending. I think they're wiser, they've lived longer, and they've learned how to forgive themselves and each other."
Proof of his new philosophy is that the members of the first Vanities cast are still his friends: Kathy Bates (Joanne) found "Misery" and the Oscar; Susan Merson (Mary) and Jane Galloway (Kathy) still act as well, but Merson now writes books and one-person shows, and Galloway is the minister of a church in Long Beach.
Judith Ivey was the obvious choice to direct them for reasons unrelated to her two Tonys for acting. "I thought it was really important to have a woman director — someone from Texas — and also someone who had lived through that time," Heifner says. Plus, there's a PS: "She was a cheerleader and can still do a few of the yells."