For a movie genre with huge box office appeal, the term “Chick Flick” gets little or no love from critics. Depending on their point of view, it’s either a disdainful reference to frothy rom-coms or a misogynistic put down of films about women’s lives. Never mind the popularity of “Sleepless in Seattle,” “The Notebook,” “Dreamgirls,” “Bridesmaids” and other classics. The noun that best describes them has become toxic for many, if not taboo.
But now a new voice has entered the fray, this time on an off-Broadway stage, where “Chick Flick the Musical” is opening Thursday. Written by Susan Conn, a New York-based composer and lyricist, the show is an unabashed, in-your-face love letter to the genre. It’s time, Conn says, to take back the word.
“Chick flicks tell stories about female friendship and hope, and I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that term or these films,” she says. “They’ve created a shared language of empowerment and connection for women, and it’s been my dream to bring this kind of musical to the stage — an evening where audiences can share something meaningful and laugh together.”
As Cher puts it in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” “That’s the best kind of party, little girl.”
Conn’s show presents a night in the life of four women who are close friends and have each just experienced one of the worst days of their life. They’re grappling with serial infidelity, a failed career, dead-end online dating and a sputtering marriage, and they get together to ponder what’s gone wrong. Over the course of a long, occasionally raunchy evening they drink copious amounts of wine, roast men on a spit, discover deeper truths about themselves and reaffirm their love of chick flicks. In a crazy, stressful world, it’s the Hollywood ties that bind.
“All of this grew out of the fact that my husband and I and our two daughters are huge fans of the genre,” Conn says. “We constantly pepper our conversations with quotes from these films, like some people do with ‘The Godfather,’ and at some point it just became part of our language, a shared back and forth. We couldn’t be the only people who do this, and I decided to make it into a musical.”
The party kicks off with “The Chick Flick Drinking Game,” a Chardonnay-fueled contest where the four friends drop one-liners from beloved films: “I’ll have what she’s having” (“When Harry Met Sally”), “Hello, Gorgeous” (“Funny Girl”), “You are the butter to my bread” (“Julie & Julia”) and “Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it’s marchin’ across your face” (“Steel Magnolias”). The first player to identify each line takes a belt, and the game rolls on. Conn’s bright, pop-flavored score includes beautiful ballads like “It’s Over” and “Love Will Find Me,” a sultry blues tune titled “Eat Your Feelings” and a fitting anthem, “What Would Meryl Do?”
With its portrait of modern women battling personal and professional obstacles, the show mirrors Conn’s own path to opening night. An aspiring writer who quit a successful marketing career at Procter & Gamble, she detoured into Nashville songwriting and hit her stride with musicals. But there were roadblocks along the way. In 2006 she penned the show “Plane Crazy,” chronicling the ups and downs of airline employees called stewardesses in the 1960s. Although the musical got solid reviews in Seattle, where she and her family then lived, a board member of the theater refused to extend its run. He didn’t like a show where women criticized men, saying: “We’re past all that now anyways.”
“We’re past that now?” she says incredulously, looking back. “Really? I guess I didn’t get the memo. It made me more determined than ever to bring a show about women to the stage.”
After five tough years of writing and rewriting “Chick Flick the Musical,” losing funding, regaining funding, and hiring and firing directors, Conn scored a breakthrough when she got professional representation with Frankel-Green, one of New York’s most elite theatrical managing agencies. Richard Frankel — a Tony-winning producer whose credits include “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Angels in America,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and Broadway revivals of “Gypsy,” “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” — quickly spotted her show’s artistic and commercial potential.
“There’s a direct line from the Golden Age romantic comedies of Jean Arthur, Clark Gable and Preston Sturges to those of Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and Nora Ephron,” he said, adding that a musical celebrating these films and the rituals women observe in watching them together “has great potential to become an illuminating and popular piece of musical theater.”
Boosted by that endorsement, the show began building a buzz and eventually found a home at the Westside Theatre, a comfortable off-Broadway house on the edge of the theater district. Conn got valuable input in shaping the show from executive producers Frankel and Joe Watson, but her husband, Grad, provided crucial resources and support, especially when the musical hit rough seas. At one point, it was set to open in Chicago during the week of the presidential election in November 2016. Casting was complete and an opening night was scheduled, but then Conn learned that an earlier group of producers hadn’t raised enough money to stage the show. It shut down immediately.
“This was the lowest point you can imagine, this was devastating,” she recalled. “But Grad said, ‘OK, let’s deal with the pain of this and then move on. We keep moving. We never quit.’ And he was so right.”
Over the next three years, “Chick Flick the Musical” would grow from a glimmering possibility into a show with an open-ended run that offered jobs and benefits to professional actors. Once the theater was booked, word got out and auditions began attracting a larger, more diverse pool of actresses. And that in turn helped Conn realize her dream of presenting the show with a multiracial cast.
It was an important step, says director David Ruttura, because the musical had to reflect the current state of American pop culture. While chick flicks in the past were seen as a predominantly white genre that developed exclusively white female stars, times have changed. “The genre is shifting, with movies like ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘Girls Trip’ and others,” he noted. “It’s a new world that’s becoming more inclusive, and we’re thrilled to convey this.”
With a cast including Sharon Catherine Brown, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Carla Duren and Megan Sikora, along with choreography by Sarah O’Gleby and music supervision by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle, the first week of previews drew packed audiences. Now, backers are hoping that if the show gains traction in New York there may be future runs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and other cities. At a crisp 90 minutes, it’s built to travel.
“I’m hoping we’ll strike a chord with a wide range of audiences because so many people truly love these films,” Conn says. “At the end of the day, chick flicks are honest, compelling stories about women and men. They’re about human emotions, and if anybody’s got a problem with that — snap out of it!”