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January 11, 2022

The Story of a Friendship: Jack Heifner on Vanities


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.

You mention in the play’s foreword that the play’s title has several meanings. Did you have the idea for the title first, and then create the concept of women at their dressing tables? Or was it the other way around?

It was the other way around. The setting came first. The title came last. The play was called something else when I was writing it, then later I took the name Vanities from a line in the play and it also seemed appropriate with the women making up at vanities onstage. The line was in the third act: “we were only involved with our vanities.” I cut the line in rehearsals and took Vanities as the title.

Vanities captures the changing relationship of three women at different stages of their lives. Many women have said the play accurately reflects their relationship with their own girlfriends. How did you, a man, capture this nuanced portrait of female friendship?

I have never thought it was a play about women. It’s a play about friendship. I wrote it about women because theatre in 1975 had very few plays with a cast of all women. In fact, I was told by producers then “you can’t put three women onstage together and sell tickets.” Seventies plays were very “male dominated.” I decided to prove the producers wrong. Also, plays being written about that time were dealing with Vietnam and the effects of war mostly on men. I decide to write about the people I grew up with, who really cared nothing about the war (like too many Americans) and only cared about themselves. By the second scene of the play, the world is changing due in large part to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the loss of innocence in the United States as a result. In the second scene, the friendship of the three characters is evolving in the same way the world was changing. The play could have been about men, but I was interested in writing about women because very few plays were being done with women.

The play was controversial when it opened. It made some people angry. I wrote about characters who thought about themselves first and the world second. Also, it was at the height of the women’s movement and many people found them on different sides in that argument, like the women in the last scene of the play. One must remember, the play came along before the plays of Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Marsha Norman and many women writers. I think the play’s success opened doors for those women’s voices to be heard. There hadn’t really been too many successful women writers in decades before Vanities opened. Men were the people writing plays then and the lead characters were usually men. I tried to change that.

These young women are from Texas, and you’ve mentioned that their accents and patterns of speech are crucial to the play. How so, and why?

Only because I thought they were from a small-town environment and have a small view of the world. I always said Mary and Kathy begin to lose their accents in the play, but Joanne does not, mainly because Joanne does not grow. In the beginning they talk alike, they look alike and they think alike. That is why they are all dressed the same in the first scene. The second scene shows them beginning to develop separate personalities. In the last scene, they have grown apart in their lives and in their thinking.

How much of you is in each of these women? Which character most closely resembles yourself?

I am all three characters. I was born Joanne, I became a rebel like Mary and then I became a person searching for an identity like Kathy. I am closer to Kathy because when I wrote the play I had many unanswered questions about life (as she does) and I was trying to figure out what I wanted. Kathy is “unfinished” on purpose and that was intentional on my part. She is the character people talk about when they leave the theatre. When I first wrote the play I gave all the answers (like who she’s living with, what is her sexuality), but in previews I began to remove information about Kathy in the final scene. I wanted some mystery to her. She is to me the hope of the play because she is looking for meaning in her life.

I recently reread the play and I was laughing out loud as I read it. Was some of the humor born in the rehearsal process, or was most of it already on the page?

Most of it was on the page when we started rehearsal. Because I had such wonderful actors and such a brilliant director, we played with a lot of things in the final scene. It had many endings before we found the one we liked best. I could not have had better collaborators than the people who first did the play. It’s always a blessing when everyone involved is “doing the same show.” It’s important in the evolution of a new piece because it’s a fragile process. It’s so easy to get things wrong and so hard to get things right. Garland Wright and Kathy Bates had gone to college with me. Ours was an old friendship, and I had known Jane Galloway and Susan Merson for years in New York because we were members of the same theatre company, The Lion Theatre. We were friends putting on a play about friends. I remember at some point in the preview process thinking, “It’s finished.” I haven’t had the thought many times when working on a new play.

The humor also changes as the show progresses, from broad laughs in the first scene to harsher, more sardonic commentary in the third.

I think I was more cynical in the 1970’s than I am now. I didn’t understand that friendships can last despite people being different and growing apart. Now I know that friendships can last a lifetime. I put some of that in the musical of the play since there’s a final scene when the women are in their forties. Old friends know one another very well because they were there from the beginning. I think forgiveness is something the women in the musical learn in the final scene and, despite changes, their love is based on knowing each other for such a long time. To me, the play and the musical are different journeys. In the play we think the women may not see one another ever again. In the musical, they do.

Vanities works in sets of three; we see three women at three different points in their lives. How does this relate to the show’s themes?

Three is always a better idea to me than one or two. You can have people take sides (two against one) and visually a triangle is more interesting than a straight line. There’s much more variety. However, I think I chose three characters because one represents what we were taught growing up, one is the rebellious side of us that challenges what we were taught and the last is the voice of reason that hopefully comes into our lives in our late twenties. What do I want, rather than what do my parents want or what does the world think of me? Who am I?

Of the three women, Kathy seems the most unsettled and directionless in the end. What does her arc, as compared to conservative housewife Joanne or sexually liberated urbanite Mary, say about women and America at that time?

I do think Kathy is the “hope” of the play and closer to where many women were going in the 1970’s. She is examining her life and her past and she is unsure what she wants, which is good. She is not satisfied with her existence and that makes her an explorer. Joanne and
Mary are straight lines (they will change later) but Kathy is already evolving in scene three. She has gone through a liberation of sorts and has a long way to go. She invites her best friends from growing up to get together to see if they have changed or if they are feeling anything similar what she is going through. They are not. It is part of Kathy’s process of “letting go” to see what her best friends from high school and college are like now. She sees they can’t understand at all what she is feeling. They have the past in common, but very little ties them together in the present. Kathy is exactly where women’s movement was when the play opened. She is liberating herself from the cliched ideas of women’s roles in society. She is going through a journey into understanding who she is and not what society tells her to be.

More than 30 years after the play premiered, you collaborated with composer/lyricist David Kirshenbaum to create Vanities: The Musical. Had you always hoped to create a musical from your play?

Not really. I had been approached several times by people about making it into a musical. Some famous Broadway composers and directors had talked to me about it. I didn’t see how making it a musical would add much to the story. Then I met David and he asked if he could musicalize a few ideas as an experiment. He did and he showed enormous love and respect for the play and the characters. I began to see the musical journey was different from the play and it was a wonderful way to express some new things about these people. David knew that I didn’t want the musical to be like Grease. It’s not really about high school. It’s about three people who are trying to navigate life in a changing world and have no idea how to do it. They were given the wrong set of rules in life.

Which moments were easiest to musicalize? What changes, if any, did you make to the play when you revisited it as a musical?

I am not sure any moments were easy to musicalize. As David will tell you, there were many songs written for the show that are not in the show now. I think the hardest part of any musical is collaboration. We did four productions of the show at major theatres in the USA until it finally came together in Seattle (which was the production after New York). We restored some of the book that had been cut, cut some songs and added new ones, new transitions and a new finale.  Finally, the best production of the musical was in London. It was amazing. We knew when we saw it that there was no more to be done, finally. It all worked and got amazing reviews.

Though the songs evoke an earlier era, the music is not pastiche. How would you describe the show’s musical style? How did you and David decide on the sound and structure of the musical?

David would really be better to answer this question. He is a wonderful composer. The style of the music goes with the time period we are in in each scene. We go from girl groups to Burt Bacharach to more of the sound of musical theatre songs. A few of the songs have become very popular with singers. Renditions of “Fly Into The Future” and “Cute Boys With Short Haircuts” are all over YouTube and, of course, the recording of the show’s musical numbers is available to purchase.

When the play premiered in 1976, it was looking back at fairly recent history, from 1963 to 1974. Over half a decade has passed since the events of the first scene, set in November 1963! Do you have a different perspective on that now? If you wrote Vanities today, would you portray these three time periods differently?

No, I would not. I think I got them right. Change was happening. The women change onstage in front of us and the world changes. It was part of Garland Wright’s brilliant direction that the play had a surreal feeling. Sure it was funny, but it was pretty and pretty serious, too. We based a lot of the look on the windows at Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel. The fashion looks in show windows displayed an image that magazines and the media thought women should have – a glamorous look which sometimes had nothing to do with who the people were. It was and still is a facade, a layer of protection, an armor to face the world. So much of what women think of themselves, especially back then, was controlled by how they looked and how they saw themselves in the mirror.

You’ve written three fantastic roles for women, and some amazing actresses have played these parts. Which performances in particular do you remember or cherish?

The original cast was brilliant with Kathy Bates, Susan Merson and Jane Galloway. The Los Angeles cast opened with Sandy Duncan, Stockard Channing and Lucie Arnaz and they were dazzling. They broke all the box office records at The Mark Taper Forum. Then the show moved to another theatre and ran another year and half. It was same with long runs in Chicago, Dallas and other cities. Some of the other wonderful actresses to play the roles were Sally Field, Elizabeth Ashley, Priscilla Lopez, Kelly Bishop, Annie Potts, Cybil Shepherd, Tyne Daly, Barbara Sharma, Annette O’Toole, Valerie Bertinelli and almost every woman of that age at that time played it somewhere. It was the most produced play in the USA for several years and there were productions everywhere including other parts of the world. It was a huge success in Japan, South America and Europe. My biggest surprise came when we got photographs from the Amsterdam production, after it had been running a long time, and discovered it was being performed by men in drag.

Have you seen any of the many regional or amateur productions over the years? Which ones were most successful?

I’ve seen many productions of the show. The best ones are the ones where they take the characters as seriously as the characters take themselves. Also, the best productions realize this is a sociological study of three women given the wrong set of rules for life. Pretty and popular were not enough to guide them all the way through. If you play the play as a broad comedy, it’s not as meaningful. The play has a “falling through life” quality. The characters, despite all their planning, really have no plan that goes beyond the superficial. As Kathy says in the play, “We were simple girls without a single cause.”

What makes Vanities so popular and successful around the world? Why do you think it’s so appealing to amateur and regional theatres?

The play has always been easy to present. It is also not a huge show in terms of budget. It’s hard to find many musicals these days with only three characters. The show should focus on the characters and not the setting. I’ve seen it done with realistic scenery and, to me, it doesn’t work as well. For example, I don’t like the HBO production because it lacks imagination in the design of it. The fact that the play and the musical only have three characters allows the audience to focus on the actors and see their progression from one age to another. The play works just as well today as when it was originally done. We all were young, we all had to grow up and make life choices and we all had problems along the way. The journey of the characters from teenagers to adulthood is a journey every person takes. We’ve all had friends and your best friends from high school will always be your best friends from high school, but maybe not your best friends for your entire life.

What do you hope theatre makers and audiences take from Vanities today?

I think, as I said, it’s a play about friendship and is also a play that takes place in an age of innocence we no longer have. It’s important in the play that you fall in love with the characters and yet, at the same time, dislike them for their decisions. There is a warp in the play, in the second scene, when the audience has had just about enough of the girls talking about trivial things. The chatter is broken when Kathy seriously says, “I really hate my life.” The girls have no idea how to deal with anything serious. To them, serious has been being cute and popular and dating the right guys. Suddenly, the girls are faced with something meaningful and t
hey have no idea what to do to help Kathy. We used to call the play, “The girls you love to hate.” It came before some projects like “Mean Girls” and “Heathers” but there’s a part of that way of thinking in these characters. Hopefully we also begin to feel sorry for them and the fact that their education and their environment growing up stressed popularity over learning.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Vanities and Vanities: The Musical?

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have had this show in my life. The journey goes on and on, and it’s been a great source of joy. I am also happy that so many people love the show and I hope many more will in the future. I also enjoy that people who love the play and were in it as actors many years ago, are now presenting and/or directing the play or musical in their communities and schools.

Thank you so much for your time, Jack, and for bringing Vanities into the world!

For more information about licensing Vanities or Vanities: The Musical (US/UK) visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.