Amy Heckerling on the ’90s Hits That Made It — and Didn’t Make It — Into Clueless, the Musical

Justin Mortelliti as Christian, Dove Cameron as Cher, and the rest of the cast of Clueless, the Musical. Photo: Monique Carboni

The New Group’s production of Clueless, the Musical will close its two-month, sold-out Off Broadway run this Saturday. But according to Amy Heckerling, the writer and director of the 1995 teen classic movie as well as the author of the musical it inspired, that does not mean you’ve seen the last of a plaid-clad Cher Horowitz on a theater stage.

“I’m supposed to have meetings with the producers and hear what their next thoughts and plans are,” she said in a phone interview earlier this week. Though it’s unclear if the show will be amped up for a Broadway transfer or taken to other cities in its current form, Heckerling is optimistic that there’s more to come. “All the emails between us have been like, Onward, onward.

Before Cher, played in the New Group production by Dove Cameron, and in the movie by Alicia Silverstone, takes her final bow later this week, Vulture chatted with Heckerling about the songs in the play, all of which are recognizable hits of the ’90s whose lyrics were reworked by Heckerling to tell the story of a virgin who can’t drive as she falls in love and learns to be less self-involved. “Jukebox musicals tend to be about somebody’s catalogue, about one group that, here’s all their songs telling their story,” Heckerling said. “And nobody has messed with lyrics because that’s like verboten.

But Heckerling did, taking an array of recognizable tunes — “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong?” by the Spin Doctors, “One of Us” by Joan Osborne, “Beautiful Life” by Ace of Base, “Bye Bye Bye” by ‘N Sync — and translating them to suit her very-’90s update of Jane Austen’s Emma. In this Q&A she explains the logistics involved and talks about some of the songs she wanted to use but couldn’t.

You have a couple songs in the show that were in the movie: “Super Model” and “Kids in America.” But how did you start figuring out which other songs you wanted to use?

Heckerling: I mean, I’m always listening to that [era’s] music and always singing to myself different lyrics that are telling a story or making jokes, so it just kind of evolved. But in the film I always knew there were places where we had montages, where I felt like the story is brought forward through music in this place and that place. That felt very organic to what I would be doing on stage. I mean, you make somebody over, you sing a song.

I’m guessing that the process of getting the rights to some of these songs was complicated.

It’s true. There are people whose job is being in touch with all the music people, all the musicians, and working toward getting all the right clearances. We worked with somebody really wonderful, Janet Billig, and she was great at knowing people, having a sense of what would be possible and in some cases, sort of saying, “Here’s their thoughts, and here’s why they don’t want it, but maybe you could write a personal letter.” So I did that in a few cases, and in some it didn’t work out, but in some it did.

So did you wait before you even began to think about lyrical ideas for a certain song until you knew that you had permission?

No. I always just went full speed ahead with what I hoped I would get. But having gotten music clearances in movies before, I always had kind of a sense of what you couldn’t have and what you’re more likely to be able to get.

In most cases, the fact that I was changing the lyrics meant that besides the normal permissions, I had to get permission to do that. Whenever Janet would do the legal work of approaching people and explaining what it was, I also had to give them copies of what the lyrics would be, as close as possible at that moment.

Were there any songs that you wanted to use and couldn’t because of the lyrical permissions?

Let’s see … the teachers [Mr. Hall and Miss Geist] were falling in love, and I had the Chris Isaak song.

“Wicked Game”?

Yeah. And they didn’t want it to be used, but I think in a lot of cases it’s hard for me to know if it was because of how I was approaching it or if they had other imminent plans for the song. There are other groups that are trying to do musical versions of their catalogs. I think that was the case with the Smash Mouth song. Like, “We’re trying to do a Smash Mouth musical.” [Editor’s note: The Smash Mouth musical is real and actually might be happening.]

Was the song that you were trying to use “All Star”?

Yes, “All Star.” Another one was the Backstreet Boys. I had a song I really liked for when they’re trying to let Cher know that the guy she likes [Christian] is gay. It was, “I Want It That Way.” It’s like, “can’t she tell he’s gay?” and it was everybody around her singing these different things about how she should know and Christian the boy is singing, what should he do about it, and her just refusing to see any of the signs.

But they didn’t want to give up the lyrical rights?

No, I think they are looking to do a musical of the Max Martin material.

I guess throughout this whole process you couldn’t really get your heart set on anything, because you might not have been be able to use it, which is hard.

It’s very hard and also I would be like, “Can’t we get the rights first and then I’ll deal with this?” It was like, “No, you can’t. Just go ahead and keep doing things.” At one point when [Cher and Dionne] meet Tai and they’re taking her around the school, I had “Wannabe” in there.

The Spice Girls?

Yeah. Then that fell through, and it was like, well, you know what? We have a song that would start with people being in the gym class — let me just use very quick dialogue to explain the school and move on from there and not make a big scene of it. I would also have sort of my back-pocket ones — like, if this one doesn’t go through I’m prepared to use this one. But sometimes they wouldn’t want to start to approach people about the rights to something until they knew the other one was definitely not happening.

How late in the process did any of the songs fall through?

“I Want It That Way”: that one everybody sort of gave up on the possibility until pretty close to the end. The romance one fell through — “Wicked Game” — [which was replaced with] “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?” That one came pretty late in the game.

I thought “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” which is sung by Mr. Hall and Miss Geist, was one of the best numbers of the show.

It turned out to be one of my favorites. I knew what I was doing lyrically with the other song, but then I go, “Well, I don’t have that so, now I’m going to have to approach it in a different way. Let’s just go for the most romantic, slushy, wet emotional song there could possibly be.” And then you go to YouTube: “Most romantic songs of the ’90s.” That one was sort of out of that style of those [other songs in the show], and I go, “You know what, it’s its own thing and it’s a song for the grown-ups,” and it just felt to me like it could be funny.

With a couple of exceptions, these are all songs from the ’90s, but some of them came out after Clueless the movie. For all the reasons we’re talking about, I would imagine that trying to just use songs from 1995 would have been completely impossible.

Well, I just felt like I wasn’t saying, “Here we are in 1995 and this is the slang of that year and this is what’s on TV that year and this is what they’re wearing that year.” I felt, let’s take the ’90s as one year and just approach it like that.

I wanted to ask you about the Crash Test Dummies song “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” which is a solo for Travis. Tell me about how that idea came to you.

In the movie, it’s like the trick is a voice-over. Once you hear a soundtrack and you hear somebody’s voice telling you things, then you know that the movie is from inside their head. It’s a little different when you see all these people that are alive on stage in front of you. I knew that the humor of Cher and what she’s telling us in her growth in her story could be told by her having a relationship with the audience, but I don’t think you have the same feeling that you can’t see what other people are doing when she’s not there. Which you do feel in the film.

When Cher is on stage and leaves and we stay with a person, that didn’t feel strange to me. What I’m having so much fun in this show with is the boy characters. They’re just so wonderful, every one of them.

I also wanted to ask about the New Radicals song, “You Only Get What You Give.”

Thank God we got the permission for that, because as far as what I feel like saying [in the show], that’s it. That’s that song. I mean, there are multiple, wonderful, romantic songs and dancing songs, but as far as expressing how Josh feels and expressing what I want to say, I don’t know what else could have done that.

Right, and expressing the whole idea of Cher actually giving something of herself and getting something back from that.

People always say, “It was a more innocent time” about any time. When they say the ’50s were a more innocent time, well, I don’t see why everybody learning to deal with the fact that there’s a nuclear bomb and we could all die any minute is an innocent time. Certainly nothing happening around the two World Wars was innocent, you know. These are not more innocent times. But there was a feeling in the ’90s of, we didn’t know what was coming. It was all before 9/11. Not that this is what that’s all about, but the fact that there are people that will always see the light and there are people that will always see what’s wrong and in a way, we need both, but we can’t ignore the bad things that are brewing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Amy Heckerling on the ’90s Hits in Clueless, the Musical