An Evolving Friendship: An Interview with Robin Schiff and Barry Kemp

By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Education and Outreach

“The Blonde Leading the Blonde.”

This was the original tagline of the 1997 blockbuster film on which the musical Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is based. Since its premiere 20 years ago, countless fans and audience members (regardless of generation, gender or hair color) have inevitably asked themselves which of the two iconic blondes they identify with more.

Are you a Romy or are you a Michele?

When this question is posed to the bookwriter of the film and the musical, Robin Schiff, her immediate answer isn’t surprising.

“I’m both!” Schiff exclaims with a laugh. It is delightfully surprising when she begins to introduce a Freudian analysis of her two well-known characters. “They’re such naked representations of…” Schiff pauses momentarily. “Now, is it ego… or id?”

Robin Schiff with Barry Kemp

Barry Kemp, who produced the film and is a producer on the musical, can’t help but interrupt his friend and longtime colleague.

“Robin just gave you a great example of why she’s both,” he says. “Romy and Michele would say something exactly like that. Which is it, ego or id? They would use the terms, but they wouldn’t know which one was which.”

Schiff adds, “Romy and Michele like to sit indoors on a sunny day and watch a movie with a best friend. I like to do that. But they are so matter of fact about their thoughts and their desires—they’re almost like kids in that regard—they’re guileless. That is id, actually.”

Romy and Michele represents just one bullet point on an astounding list of Hollywood writing, producing and directing credits accumulated by Schiff and Kemp over the years. Yet the characters also represent a phenomenon that continues to amaze both their creator and their early proponent, especially when reflecting upon the origin of the two friends.

“They were like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Ladies Room,” Schiff explains. Her aptly titled play—which takes place in the ladies room of a Mexican restaurant called the Green Enchilada—first introduced the two loveable misfits in 1988.

“They were recognizable,” Schiff continues. “Their life started because I could hear them. And it’s the only experience that I’ve had of that—where I just heard these two characters talking in my imagination and decided to put them in different situations. And from their first entrance, they got laughter and applause—more or less as typical girls who you might encounter at a club…But they’ve evolved so much since then.”

Producer Barry Kemp, Bookwriter Robin Schiff and Composer and Lyricist Gwendolyn Sanford

Kemp adds, “One of the jokes in the original piece, and how [Robin] originally conceived of the two characters in [Ladies Room]—was that they were almost the same person. Each thought that the other one was the funniest person. They always laughed at each other—when no one else around them was laughing—and the two ladies were almost a single character. When [Robin] did the movie, she started finding what made them different. When we got to the musical—those differences became clearer—and more emotional. Not only are they different, they each have an Achilles heel that [Robin] has discovered. Now, they both have a vulnerability that they did not have in either the play or the movie.”

“We really looked to the essence of who Romy was,” explains Schiff. “She is a very insecure person who wanted to fit in. And it became clear that this wasn’t important to Michele. Michele wants to go to the reunion for fun. She goes along with all this other stuff because Romy says that it’s important.”

“For Michele it sounds like a fun time, and for Romy it’s a wake-up call,” adds Kemp.

Schiff continues, “In the movie they’re just kind of shocked that they hadn’t accomplished anything in ten years. It’s momentary. There isn’t any real panic bubbling up. But now in the musical, we get to explore this more. There’s a song called ‘Ten Years’ where we are really able to dig into Romy’s deeper fears. As a bookwriter, I find that a musical pushes you to ask yourself, ‘What’s really going on in this moment? What is she really feeling—and does that mean we’ll have a song or just a few lines of a scene?’ And we felt that that moment especially was a potential song with a lot of depth and a reason for her to sing her inner thoughts.”

With Romy and Michele now in their third iteration, both Schiff and Kemp are thrilled by the opportunity to continue discovering more of their story.

“I’m beside myself with excitement,” says Schiff. “I just think it’s going to be so much fun to go in and have time to dig in deeper and I’m looking forward to sharing that experience with the audience.”

When asked to explain Romy and Michele’s continuing appeal, Kemp offers this thought: “Everybody has an innate longing to have a best friend. Sometimes that best friend is a platonic friend and sometimes that best friend is a lover—sometimes male, sometimes female—but the fact is it doesn’t really matter. Every person wants to have somebody who gets them on a level that is not judgmental, someone who accepts flaws as well as attributes… And who see attributes that others do not. That’s what is at the core of this story.”

Schiff adds, “I think the other part of it is… they’re different. They’re weird. They’re the weird people at school and I think that’s one of the reasons for their longevity. So many of us have felt like the other. And so I think we relate to Romy and Michele. And we’d like to see them triumph.”