Jack Heifner’s Vanities, a bittersweet comedy astutely chronicling the lives of three Texas girls, remains as provocative, stimulating and hilarious as the day it was written. Premiering off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on January 15, 1976, the play had an astonishingly successful off-Broadway run at the Chelsea Theatre Center (now the Westside Theatre), where it ran for 1,785 performances. Heifner later collaborated with composer/lyricist David Kirshenbaum to create Vanities: The Musical (US/UK), which opened off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater on July 16, 2009. Both the play and musical continue to enthrall audiences worldwide.
We recently spoke to the playwright about the show’s genesis, development and legacy, celebrating the enduring appeal of Vanities nearly half a century after its creation. Here are highlights from our conversation.
For those who may not know the play or musical, can you briefly summarize Vanities?
It is the story of a friendship. It really isn’t a play about women as much as it’s about a time in the USA when we were raised in an innocent environment; then came the John F. Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, social unrest, Roe v. Wade, and many other events that changed our world into something different and far less innocent than it was in the 1950’s. We were left wondering who are we? The characters in the play were not given any game plan for the new world that was coming.
Where did the idea for Vanities come from? Did you really know a Mary, Joanne and Kathy?
It came first from the set. I am a very visual person and usually write from a setting then put the characters in it. I wanted the actors to dress and make-up onstage, to “apply” the characters and for the audience to see them change and age. It was looking into their private world as they looked into the mirror. I was the same age as the characters in the third scene of the play when I wrote it, so in many ways I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I thought I wanted to be a playwright and the success of the play told me I was one.
I knew several women named Kathy, Mary and Joanne. They all thought the play was about them. However, I had three very specific people in mind when I wrote the first scene. Then I made up the rest. It’s not a true story of three people I knew, but I did imagine three people from my high school days at the start. Thankfully, they are all still my friends and find the play amusing. None of them turned out like the characters in the play.
Is it true you wrote Vanities just a few days?
Yes, it was a day and half. I wrote the first two scenes in one day and the last scene the next day. It had taken me several years to write the first play, CASSEROLE, but the second one, Vanities, was fast. My first play opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1975 and I was shocked at the laughter, that people thought my writing was funny. I went home and wrote Vanities the next week and by that fall we were in rehearsal. I wanted to write something simple. I felt my first play tried to cover too many subjects at once. Vanities is a play about people whose lives are about nothing substantial. The characters in the play aren’t given a successful game plan for life.