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Wheeling Native Opens In Off-B’way Production

June 8, 2014
By Phyllis R. Sigal - Design Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register
Wheeling native Michelle Duffy recently opened in the Off-Broadway production, “Heathers:?The Musical,” a stage musical adapted from the 1980s film, “Heathers.” which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. When last we wrote about Duffy in 2012, she had just made a move from L.A. to New York to perform in Broadway’s “Leap of Faith,” a Tony-nominated musical. Although the show was nominated for Best Musical in 2012, “Leap of Faith” closed after just a few weeks. However, Duffy has been quite busy between then and now. In “Heathers:?The Musical,”?Duffy plays the mother of one of the lead characters, Veronica. She also has the role of a guidance counselor, Ms. Fleming. The following is a Q&A with Duffy. PS: What have you been up to since your last Broadway show, “Leap of Faith”? Have you stayed in New York? How is living there compared to the west coast? MD: I’ve been happily pretty busy since the show (“Leap of Faith”) closed. I decided to move here (New York) permanently then, so I spent that first summer planning and then executing the major task of closing up shop after 17 years in L.A., selling almost everything, packing up my car and, with my best girlhood friend (Wheeling gal Melissa Spadefore), driving cross country for eight days and having a great adventure on the way back to NYC. Did a few commercials, went back to Laguna Beach to do a new musical and then up to Michigan last summer to do “Next to Normal.” Did another new musical at George Street Playhouse in the fall, called “Getting the Band Back Together” which probably has some legs ... and now this.  As far as east coast/west coast, there’s a lot I miss about my lifestyle in California, largely the weather, the space, and my friends and family there ... but New York has a different pace and energy that is a good change for me right now. I don’t think I’m ever going to get over the lack of closet and personal space here, though. :) PS: What’s it like doing a musical that has come from a cult film? Are there greater expectations for a musical-from-film than for a production that has not been a film? Greater pressures? MD: We are in a uniquely optimal situation with this particular film-to-musical adaptation in that our creative team and the original screenwriter (Dan Waters), producers and cast members of the film are all big fans of each other. I don’t think that is often the case, which results very often in a lot of disappointment among the fans of an original movie and the creatives, and (that) creates a disappointing product because there was dissension among everyone about the vision and therefore the execution. Our writers, producers, director and cast have extreme love and reverence for this movie and wanted to make this musical as an extension of the tone and look and story and to uphold Dan Waters’ vision. He really loves it and has trusted the team every step of the way. As far as expectation ... there are always going to be purists who only want to see their beloved piece a certain way. You’re never going to please everyone. But we have had so many diehard fans of the movie come to see this and come away ecstatic that it delivers everything they love— especially so many iconic lines and moments— and gives them so much more to love on top of it.   I actually think, unfortunately, that there is more pressure for an original project to get backing and be a success in this current entertainment market. People are more willing to put money behind an already recognizable movie title than someone’s original idea because it’s already more marketable—and thanks to the success of musicalized movies “Kinky Boots,” “Once,” multiple Disney films, etc., more and more big studios are wanting a piece of the action with properties they already own. PS: I see the show had a short initial run in Los Angeles. Were you part of that production? MD: No, unfortunately I was here doing the new show I mentioned before—”Getting the Band Back Together.” But I did the very first reading of the show when it only had a first act about seven years ago in Los Angeles! So I am technically the one original cast member!   PS: Were you familiar with the 1988 movie? If so, what did you think of it? MD: Oh yeah! I was still in college at the time, and I thought it was fantastic. I absolutely died over Christian Slater, of course. I loved the dark humor and the overall intelligent, subversive tone. And the subject matter, at the time mostly concerning the clique-y aspects of school social strata, was still very immediately affecting me.   PS: Tell me all about your character, Veronica’s mom. Also, Ms Fleming, the guidance counselor. And why two? I noticed several actors playing more than one character. What are your favorite things about your character(s)? MD: In the film, pretty much all of the adult characters served as variations on the theme that adults are pretty useless when it comes to understanding teen problems or guiding or role modeling in any real effective way. Mostly, they are either completely oblivious or emotionally damaging, or completely misguided in their attempts to help.  We three ... um ..... more “mature” cast members (myself, Dan Cooney and Anthony Crivello) cover all of the main adult characters from the film, and it’s all faculty and parents. The double and triple casting is, of course, economical, but is also a metaphorical statement that from the kids’ perspectives, the adults are all basically interchangeable.  I love getting to play two characters who are funny and a bit heartbreaking in distinctly different ways.  Ms. Fleming is the ex-hippie guidance counselor who suddenly has a purpose at the school when the “suicides” start shaking things up. She has the best of intentions in trying to get kids in touch with their feelings and work through their grief and hidden pain ... but the methods she employs completely and utterly backfire. I love Fleming’s heart and passion and the fact that her failure is both comic and tragic. And I only sing as Fleming. Veronica’s mom has ended up being more engaged and aware and tuned in to her daughter in this version than in the film ... and our Sawyer family is a little more middleclass, striving for better as opposed to the upper class Sawyers of the film. She shows up only three times, but they are pivotal moments in Veronica’s journey, and I really love what happens as a result! PS: Tell me about the songs you sing. Any favorite scenes? MD: I get to sing a good chunk of a song called “The Me Inside of Me” in the first act, which is the aftermath of the first Heather’s calamity. It’s marvelous and is part of the first attempt at getting the kids talking about feelings. In the second act I have a ridiculously fun number called “Shine a Light,” which is Fleming’s great and final push for awareness and understanding at a full-blown assembly at the school for the purpose.    PS: How is it working with this cast? It looks like many of them have L.A. roots. Have you ever worked with any of the cast members prior to “Heathers”? MD: It is a truly fantastic group of people. Extreme talent and intelligence here, plus they are good eggs, and there is honest support for one another in all areas. I’m so encouraged about the next generation of theater makers, if this young group is any indication. Surprisingly, there was only one L.A. actress that I had been aware of prior to this show, and that’s Jessica Keenan Wynn (who plays one of the Heathers, Heather Chandler). We hadn’t worked together before, but had a lot of people in common and were aware of and fans of each other’s work. I’m so thrilled this show brought us together here in N.Y. I love her. Most of the rest of the L.A. cast are pretty newly out of school or were based in N.Y., so I hadn’t had the pleasure until now.   PS: The show opened March 31, correct? It originally was scheduled to run through Sept. 7, but I see that tickets now are available through Jan. 15, 2015. Is that because of the initial success of the show? MD: Yes, March 31... which was 25 years ago to the day that the film opened in movie theaters across the country! We’ve extended the ticket sale window to January because of good projections. I'm sure the summer is going to tell us a lot about what the future holds! Barrett (Barrett Wilbert Weed who plays Veronica) and our writers, Larry (O’Keefe) and Kevin (Murphy), were nominated for Drama Desks, which was awesome. The Heathers just shot some funny promo stuff talking about the Tonys from the girls bathroom that’s going to play on the live internet feed on Broadway.com. Our cast album gets released on June 17! Exciting times....   PS: What is New World Stages like? How many seats in your theater? MD: I think it’s a really cool multiplex of live theaters! I was told it actually used to be movie houses but I haven’t investigated this ... it’s all subterranean and has a modern, concrete, kind of austere vibe to all of the connecting areas between the theaters. Great staff. We are running alongside “Avenue Q,” “Murder for Two” and “The Gazillion Bubble Show.” I know we are in the space where “Peter and the Starcatcher” just was, and I believe “Rent” also. We are in a 499-seat house. PS: How does performing in an off-Broadway show differ from doing a Broadway show? MD: Well, performing is performing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a five-seat blackbox or an arena ... you prepare and commit and invest the same. The difference between doing it off-Broadway and on Broadway primarily comes down to budget. There are less seats to have to sell in an off-Broadway house so less rent and overhead — but also, well, less seats to sell per night! So the entire budget for the show is far smaller than that of Broadway. I think our team has done a brilliant job of spending the limited money in all of the right places. We have a very minimal and functional set and really few props; each character essentially has one costume; they’ve invested in having a larger cast, which is very unusual for off-Broadway, and a seven-musician orchestra. For me, the greatest advantage to all of this is the ability to focus on the storytelling without depending on 10 million dollar hydraulic sets or lots of bells and whistles. It’s really great material in the hands of really creative, talented, capable folks without much need for gimmick or flash to justify the price of a ticket. Now, the disadvantage of course is— we don’t have production contract paychecks either, and all the perks that go along with those. But you won’t see any kind of difference in performance out of any aspect between the two.   PS: Why should people come see this musical? What do you think makes it worth seeing? What do YOU like about the show? MD: Because it is a fantastically funny, super smart, surprisingly moving piece of theater whose source material is quite beloved and iconic— and it honors and enhances that material marvelously. What makes it worth seeing for me is the opportunity to see an ensemble of this caliber truly having a ball onstage playing out a show they genuinely love and want to invest in night after night. I love so much about this show. I have been involved in bringing a LOT of new works to light over the years to varying degrees of success, and this is by far one of the tightest, cleverest, well-crafted pieces I’ve had the pleasure of helping to shape. Also, the music kicks ass.   PS: Do you have any favorite lines from recent reviews of the show? MD: I don’t read them, myself.  I’ve gone back and forth on this for years but ultimately have decided there’s just no good in it for me, whether they’re raves or pans. I will say though, that I really loved the quote from Ben Brantley in the New York Times that has been reprinted a bunch (which is the only reason I know it) ... that said this version of “Heathers” is to the ’80s what “Grease” was to the ’50s. Given how hugely influential “Grease” was on my generation and on me personally as a young hopeful in middle school, nothing could thrill me more than being a part of something that could bring MY actual era of teen/young adult life to this generation in musical form!

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