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How the cult film Cruel Intentions became a jukebox musical
When the live onstage band at (le) Poisson Rouge starts playing the opening strains of "Bittersweet Symphony" by the Verve, all the millennials in the audience go wild. That's not just because it signals the start of Cruel Intentions: The Musical, based on the 1999 movie of the same name. It's also due to the song sparking a wave of nostalgia for anyone who came of age in the '90s.
Count the show's co-creators, Lindsey Rosin and Jordan Ross, among that generation. Both say Roger Kumble's campy cult film -- a late 20th-century take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses with upper-crust New York City teenagers -- was a rite of adolescent passage. "Something about that movie has endured -- we're almost 20 years from it and we're still talking about it," says the thirtysomething Rosin, who also directs the musical. "It's the one people my age point to as a formative movie for their sexual awakening and their understanding of love and betrayal and all that stuff."
Both the movie and the musical hew close to the source material, as prep school stepsiblings Kathryn Merteuil (Lauren Zakrin) and Sebastian Valmont (Constantine Rousouli) make a vicious wager: If Sebastian deflowers the virgin daughter of the new headmaster before summer break ends, Kathryn will finally sleep with him. Along the way, many others in their circle fall victim to their sexual schemes.
Ross initially came up with the idea for the show in 2014 while watching a stage parody of another '90s movie, but he decided to avoid the spoof route. "I wanted to turn something that I loved into a musical," he says. "Something that could live onstage as a love letter to the original." He settled on Cruel Intentions that very night when he came across it on TV. The film's soundtrack of popular '90s tunes -- "Colorblind" by Counting Crows, "Every You, Every Me" by Placebo, and the aforementioned "Bittersweet Symphony" -- was part of the attraction.
Once Rosin came on board, the duo sat down to figure out the song selection, a combination of tunes from the movie as well as other hits from the era. "We went through the film on a scene by scene basis," Ross recalls. "Every song we chose had to drive the narrative. We wanted to pick the top songs of the '90s, the ones that stick with you and that you sing when you have a few too many drinks. It's an amazing library." Indeed, anyone who listened to pop radio during that time will recognize (and probably sing along to) the eclectic set list. "Lovefool" by the Cardigans, "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls, "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia, "The Sign" by Ace of Base, "Just a Girl" by No Doubt, "Bye Bye Bye" by 'NSYNC and many others are cleverly employed to further the story. "Rock of Ages was the '80s jukebox musical and this is the '90s," says Ross.
Initially, Rosin and Ross mounted three concept presentations in Los Angeles to get a sense of what they had. Buzz was already building. In fact, Roger Kumble's wife showed up to the very first performance. "I think she was sent as a spy," says Rosin. Luckily she liked what she saw, and the next night Kumble, Cruel Intentions movie producer Neal Moritz, and their lawyer attended. "I thought, this might be the end," Rosin recalls. "Luckily they saw something in it and got behind it."
And how. Cruel Intentions: The Musical ended up playing two high-profile L.A. runs. At Kumble's invite, three of the film's original stars, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Selma Blair, even attended together. Last year, Rosin, Ross, and Kumble collaborated on a Cruel Intentions TV pilot set 15 years after the movie. And while it wasn't picked up, the three have embarked upon a creative partnership, with Kumble officially coming on board as co-creator of the musical for the New York City run.
Considering the production just extended through mid-February, it's clear the movie and music have really struck a chord with audiences of the right age. "I think timing is everything," says Rosin. "There are many examples of '90s nostalgia coming back, and we have just the right amount of distance from this film and the songs for them to resonate."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Cruel Intentions: The Musical. Go here to browse our current offers.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Lauren Zakrin and Constantine Rousouli in Cruel Intentions. Photos by Jenny Anderson.