BWW Interview: How Composers Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay Will Make Us All Have a ROMY AND MICHELE Day

BWW Interview: How Composers Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay Will Make Us All Have a ROMY AND MICHELE Day
Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay
and the creative team of
Romy and Michele's High School Reunion
at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit: Jeff Carpenter

I was fortunate enough to have a quick chat with Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay, the composers of the new musical version of the film "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion", about to make its world premiere at the 5th Avenue Theatre.

Why "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion"? Why this show at this time?

BRANDON: It feels like the timing is perfect for R&M the musical. It's the 20 year anniversary of the movie, it's about girl power, and most importantly in the wake of more awareness of bullying , R&M is about being true to yourself and standing up to oppressive people.

GWENDOLYN: And, yeah. Also, so much has changed since 1997. For one, it's way harder to get away with lying! Information is at the tips of everyone's fingers these days. And I think there's a welcomed delight in stepping back into a time before the massive tech boom - and watch these silly girls try and fabricate a story of how they invented Post-Its in order to impress people they went to high school with - it's hilarious! And yet, there are some truly meaningful themes woven throughout the story. Romy and Michele are simple and relatable but they're also kind of deluded. It's a lot of fun trying to watch them balance their perception of the world with the way the world really is.

Were you fans of the movie before you took on the project?

GWENDOLYN: Oh, big time. It was one of those movies I'd rent at the video store again and again, usually whenever I was solo. Of course, I'd get a bunch of junk food and popcorn and suddenly, I was in my happy place. It was cathartic but I also appreciated how bizarre the film was. And of course, Romy and Michele are just so lovable.

BRANDON: It's such a cool unconventional comedy - way ahead of its time. When the opportunity came to us, we immediately started specking songs. We did a couple that were general style ideas, but the third one we did ended up getting us the job. It was for a specific scene with Heather Mooney and it's now her big solo number.

How has it been working with Robin Schiff, the original screenwriter for "Romy and Michele"? Does it help having that connection with the original?

GWENDOLYN: It's everything. She's been a tremendous guide. A real mentor.

BRANDON: Robin is super creative, very quick witted, and also not too precious about throwing out ideas to make room for new ones. But most importantly, no one knows the world of Romy and Michele better than her. It's been invaluable to work directly with her during the writing process to make sure we're capturing exactly what the characters are feeling and saying. Early on we would come up with a clever rhyme and she'd let us know we were using words that were too sophisticated for Romy and Michele. She's very specific about their vernacular. For instance, Michele would never use the word "dweeb". Details like that keep the songs true to identity of the characters.

The movie has quite a following, do you feel any kind of pressure or obligation to the fans?

BRANDON: Of course! But because we're such big fans of the movie, we feel really confident people are going to lose themselves in the story and enjoy the songs, whether they're familiar with the movie or not.

GWENDOLYN: Most importantly, I want Robin Schiff to be happy. Because if she's happy, I know many of her fans will be, too.

BWW Interview: How Composers Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay Will Make Us All Have a ROMY AND MICHELE Day
Cortney Wolfson as Romy and
Stephanie Renee Wall as Michele in
Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

How do you get into the mindset to write for voices like Romy and Michele?

BRANDON: First we'd lay around watching Pretty Woman, eat a bunch of junk food (gummy bears, jelly beans and candy corn). Then we would procrastinate for a while, maybe dress up and go dancing, then... wait, what were we talking about?

GWENDOLYN: Haha! That's pretty much it. I'll just start acting them out. Start talking like them. They're so specific. These characters will show you the way.

Have Lisa Kudrow or Mira Sorvino seen or heard any pieces of the show? What were their reactions?

BRANDON: Not yet, but we've heard them in interviews talk about the musical and that they'd like to see it. It would be such a thrill for us to have them in Seattle.

GWENDOLYN: I know. How cool would that be?!

BRANDON: Fingers crossed!

Who were you in High School? Outsiders like Romy and Michele? Angry like Heather Mooney? A nerd like Sandy Frink? Or part of the popular crowd like Christy Masters and Billy Christianson?

GWENDOLYN: I felt like an outsider. I think many artists feel this way. Even in the company of artists. But I was friends with a lot of different groups. I still am!

BRANDON: I felt like I was an outsider along with my core group of eclectic weirdos always hanging at the same spot by the brick wall across from the cafeteria in the quad. We were a cross section of drama nerds, Goths, swim jocks, yearbook staffers, and band geeks in my little group.

But in hindsight, I was part of a more non-elitist group of kids that others looked up to for our individuality. I was voted best personality along with my best friend Julian and we had our photo taken together with both of our heads sticking out of the same sweater.

I actually had a funny reunion moment myself at my 20 year reunion where the star of the football team and most popular guy at our school came up and was totally talking to me like we were old friends. He never said one word to me in school and I didn't think he even knew who I was!

GWENDOLYN: You were that guy with the great personality!

BRANDON: Oh yeah, you're right.

Will we see the dance routine to "Time After Time" at the reunion?

BRANDON: Our lips are sealed.

GWENDOLYN: I see what you did there.

Are you still friends with people from High School?

GWENDOLYN: I am. And I cherish them! And then, of course there's the extended group of friends I only see on Facebook. But that's nice, too.

BRANDON: I'm lucky I'm still friends with my core group of friends and the five of us still see each other and get together whenever we can. High school is such a rite of passage. You go through such big changes. The bonds you make can last a long time.

You've both done some excellent work creating the music for shows like "Weeds" and "Orange is the New Black". How has this translated into taking on adapting a Romy and Michele musical?

BRANDON: It's been similar in ways and then totally different in others. Working in television we learned how to be a part of a bigger picture and collaborate with other departments and creative artists who, although they don't write music, have a clear idea of what they want to achieve with music. Working on a musical, you really have to be open to changes and notes so you can re-write and ultimately make the book writer, director and producers happy while still delivering music that is true to your vision and identity.

There are a number of songs in the show that were reshaped, edited, even given to a different character than originally intended. Our first impulse would be to start fresh and write a new song, but Robin would love our initial melody so we'd have to work within that structure and adjust the song accordingly. That kind of deconstruction was something we'd never done before as songwriters and it was challenging, but it's helped us grow in our songwriting.

GWENDOLYN: Writing a musical is so complex, it really takes a broader understanding of tone, character and story to make it work. Luckily, I have a background in theatre. And it's helped me in my years of composing to picture - but this project has taken it to a whole other level. It's really called upon my inner-dramatist.

This being our first musical, we had no idea what we were getting into. And it's been such a learning experience! It's much harder than it looks.

Do you use Post-Its while writing?

GWENDOLYN: Ha! No... but I use them to bookMark Pages in cookbooks.

BRANDON: We use apples.

GWENDOLYN - Apples?

BRANDON: You're using one right now.

GWENDOLYN: Oh , that kind of Apple. I get it.

And finally, I ask this of all my interviews, everyone has someone they really geek out about. What is your geekdom?

BRANDON: My geekdom is Frank Zappa. There's never been another musican/songwriter/band leader like him. He had such a clear and unique vision for his music and it left an indelible impression on me as a kid and still continues to do so. The whole process of gathering performers together and executing a vision for a live performance is something he had such a masterful grasp of. He was the director/producer/songwriter/band leader/performer all in one. I ditched high school with a few of my friends and we got to meet him a book signing. That was a thrill!

GWENDOLYN: I suppose I would say "nutrition". In my early 20s (ahhhh - flashback!), I worked at a health food store for a few years. It was a super sleepy mom-and-pop place. This was before Whole Foods. Needless to say, there was a lot of free time between customers. And I read every book they had on the shelves cover to cover. It was a little weirder back in the day. Nobody knew what "gluten" was... Now health food is everywhere. Turns out, 20 years later - being geeky is cool... And, yeah!


The world premiere of "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre June 8th through July 2nd. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.

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