PRH Interviews Buck County’s Jordan Ross- Co-Creator of Cruel Intentions the Musical

-Brenda Hillegas
(cast photo by Jenny Anderson)

Cruel Intentions was released in theatres on March 5th, 1999. Cast members Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, and Sarah Michelle Gellar (just as hot now as they were then) were stuck to my bedroom wall during my high school years as they graced the Cruel Intentions poster hanging above my bed. Twenty years later, the movie is still a reminder of my time in high school, crushes that would never amount to anything, and awesome music that only the ‘90s and early 2000s could produce. And I bet Bucks County’s Jordan Ross can relate.

He’s a 2010 Temple University grad and the co-creator of Cruel Intentions: The Musical, a ‘90s celebration full of fun and nostalgia, and currently on tour (the last stop will be here in Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center, May 29th to June 2nd). The show follows the same plot of the movie- based a bit on the 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses- as two step-siblings set out to destroy an innocent girl. Yes they’re cruel; they find themselves tied up in secrets, temptation, and of course love. The stage version is a jukebox musical, so you’ll hear all of your favorite artists from that decade too- Boyz II Men, REM, *NSYNC, Britney Spears.

Ross talks about why he wanted to adapt the teen drama, how the film’s writer/director Roger Kumble joined his creative team, the success of the stage version (which just turned four), and why the movie’s themes are still relevant today.

Q: You’re from the Philly suburbs- what area specifically? What schools did you attend?
A: I was born and raised in Bucks County. Holland for the first 15 years and then Richboro through college graduation. My mom lived in Doylestown for a hot second, but I have family across the greater Philadelphia area: Wynnewood, Plymouth Meeting, Lafayette Hill, Conshohocken, etc. I’m a Council Rock South alum and proud Temple Owl.

Q: Favorite Philly spots while growing up?
A: Is Wawa an acceptable answer? There are some days where I miss Wawa almost as much as I miss my friends and family. I’m not kidding. In the ever popular “Geno’s vs. Pat’s” debate, I’m a firm Jim’s guy. I’d like to shake the hand of whoever made the decision to put Chickie’s & Pete’s at the airport so I could have crab fries before any flight back to Los Angeles, no matter the time. Anywhere I can get a Yuengling because it’s practically impossible to find it out here.

Growing up, I fondly remember my dad taking us to the Please Touch Museum and, as we got older, the Franklin Institute- followed by a stop at Levis’ Hot Dogs & Sandwiches (now closed sadly) or Old Original Nick’s Roast Beef. I also spent many a summer at my grandmother’s house in Margate, NJ, which essentially becomes Philly every summer, so, for me, it’s almost impossible to talk about home and not mention early mornings on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and late nights at Ventura’s Greenhouse.

Q: What inspired you to move to Los Angeles and/or become a writer?
A: Honestly, there are many answers to this question, but I’m going to give you two.

1). My dad. Not sure if he knows this, but his bedtime stories played a major role in guiding me towards writing. He’d use his imagination to craft moon-dwelling characters and encourage us to do the same. And I keep a copy of Stringbean’s Trip To The Shining Sea, a children’s book he bought me a long time ago, on my desk in LA as a reminder of those stories.

2). My Twitter bio says that I’m “unapologetically living in The WB-era of television” and it’s 100% true. No need to rescue me. I’m fine right where I am. Shows like The O.C., One Tree Hill, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jack & Bobby, etc helped me find my voice, in the storm of adolescence and my parents’ divorce. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t dreamt of telling character-driven, coming-of-age stories like the ones that inspired me in the first place.

Q: Why did you decide to turn Cruel Intentions into a musical? What does the movie mean to you personally?
A: At the time, I was between jobs and the freak-out about what I was going to do next was in full swing. Looking back, the Cruel musical was definitely born during my own personal quarter-life crisis. I was 25, with my toe in the TV door, not even close to a full foot — and that’s when I got some advice from fellow TV writer/friend, Evan Bleiweiss (The Vampire Diaries, Rosewood, The Shield). He told me to do something that would set me apart from everyone else chasing the same dream because, in Hollywood, aspiring writers are everywhere.

I’ve always had a love for musical theatre. Tried my hand at acting up through high school, but never really saw it as something I’d seriously pursue. But I came home from seeing The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Scream at LA’s Rockwell Table & Stage incredibly inspired, thinking: “I going to create a jukebox musical.”

Lindsey Rosin (my co-creator/director) and I never set out to parody anything. To quote her: “It’s easy to make fun of something. It’s much harder to proclaim you love something.” Cruel Intentions: The Completely Unauthorized Musical (as it was originally called) was, from day zero, a love letter to the movie- Roger Kumble’s brilliant script, the iconic performances, one of the best soundtracks of all time- and the ‘90s. It has been in my top five since before I even really knew what it was about. Hilarious, sexy, heartbreaking, and true to its title, so very cruel. And there’s nothing crueler than falling in love, especially when you’re 17. Everything about that time is its own special kind of bittersweet symphony.

Q: How did Roger Kumble come on board?
A: In February 2015, Roger came out to our second performance ever with Neal Moritz (the movie’s producer) and their lawyer — and I vividly remember Lindsey and I turning to each other in the sound booth and going: “Well, we had a good run.” The show was labelled “unauthorized” because we didn’t have the rights and neither of us imagined a world where Roger would go on to become the musical’s biggest champion…

But, he did, and together with rock-star producer Eva Price, we took the little unauthorized musical that could and turned it into Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical.And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Roger’s become a friend, a teacher, and it’s been an honor to get to know him on set and off.

Q: How long did it take to see this show come to life- from the idea to create this musical up to the opening night performance? And were there any obstacles along the way?
A: The musical officially turned FOUR this past February. We started with three-night-only concept presentation at the Rockwell Table & Stage, which was followed by our freshman run from April 2015 – July 2015, a five-show reunion in November 2016, a completely sold-out off-Broadway pop-up in February 2017, and, most recently, our off-Broadway run at (le) poisson rouge from November 2017 – April 2018.

We got extremely lucky on the obstacles front. They were few and far between and mostly had to do with music rights. We only had to replace two songs for the off-Broadway run and all credit is due to the amazing Janet Rich, who fought hard to clear everything so the musical could showcase the best of the ‘90s.

Q: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Selma Blair, and Reese Witherspoon saw the show. Did anyone else from the movie cast/crew come to the show? What were their thoughts?
A: So, SMG, Selma, and Reese actually came to the 05/28/15 performance in LA — which also happens to be Roger Kumble’s birthday. He was there too with his wife, Mary. That whole night still feels like someone else’s fever dream because, while we knew they were coming, it didn’t feel real until they were actually there, in the room, singing along with everyone else.

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly for the movie’s 20th anniversary, Reese called the musical “fantastic” so I think it’s safe to say she loved it. I’ll never forget when she shouted out one of Annette’s lines, mid Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn, to laughs and applause. SMG’s seen it three times — twice in LA, and once in NYC. Both Ryan Phillippe (Sebastian) and Sean Patrick Thomas (Ronald) saw the show in LA too. And Eric Mabius (Greg) saw it for the first time when it opened in NYC last winter. The cast really has been so supportive.

Q: Why did you decide to take the show on tour?
A: Taking the show on the road felt like the obvious next chapter for the show. There’s been no shortage of excitement on social media from people across the country dying to experience it for themselves. And I think that’s a testament to the movie’s legacy. Whether you’re a diehard Cruel fan, ‘90s lover, or just enjoy musical theatre — Cruel has something for everyone and so much nostalgia to spare.

Q: I know many of songs on the cast album are on the original movie soundtrack, but you also feature some that weren’t. Why was this particular group of songs chosen?
A: “Every You, Every Me”, “Lovefool”, “Colorblind” and “Bittersweet Symphony” are all featured in the movie and we couldn’t (and wouldn’t) do the musical without them. Those four tracks aside, Lindsey and I tried really hard to choose songs that sampled the best of the ‘90s and drove the narrative forward — and because Cruel Intentions came out on the precipice of the millennium, we had a broad catalogue of hits on hits on hits to choose from. But, we never wanted a song to feel like a needle drop for the sake of audience recognition. It had to be about the story always, about the emotional arc, and thanks to Zach Spound, our music director/arranger/nostalgia maestro, songs once reserved for karaoke, the shower, or alone in your car, seamlessly merged into Roger’s tale of love, seduction, and revenge.

Q: Cruel Intentions is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Why do you think the movie or certain themes in the movie are still relevant today?
A: Roger’s script alone is so sharp, funny, and heartbreaking — then you add Ryan, SMG, Reese, and Selma’s performances, the killer soundtrack, and you have something few movies ever truly become… and that’s iconic. Something cemented in pop culture forever. Fact: You cannot hear “Bittersweet Symphony” and not see Kathryn Merteuil being exposed on the steps of Manchester Prep.

But it’s movie’s universal themes — desire, morality (or lack thereof), love, jealousy — dating all the way back to its source material, Les Liaisons Dangereues, that continue to keep Kathryn and Sebastian’s story relevant. You don’t have to play their kinds of games to relate to the ups and downs of adolescence.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the musical (song, scene, etc) and why?
A: It’s so hard to choose…but Placebo’s “Every You, Every Me” will always have a special place in my heart. It’s the first song in the movie, first on the soundtrack, and just had to be the first song in the musical. Unlike the original version, Zach’s arrangement is higher-energy, full of teen angst, and introduces/re-introduces audiences to all the key players of the story.

Q: Since you’re from this area- what are you looking forward to seeing/doing in Philly (if you have time of course) while the show is here in May?
A: I’ll definitely be swinging through town when the tour does in May and I’m so stoked for all my friends, family, and the entire city of Brotherly Love to see the show. I’m not sure how much time I’ll have but I’m looking forward to checking out the new Wawa in Old City, which sounds silly, but like I said, I love Wawa.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I wanted to take the opportunity to shout out each and every #CruelIntentionsMusical cast member past and present for their dedication, passion, and mind-blowing talent. We all built this show together and each production has been another chapter in what can only be described as the adventure of a lifetime. Special thanks to Eva Price (our executive producer), Carl Flaningan, Josh Altman, and everyone else at Maximum for working tirelessly on behalf of the show. To Roger Kumble for allowing us to play in his sandbox and be part of his film’s legacy. To Kenneth Ferrone (our touring director) and Zach Spound (our music director), both legends in their own right. And, to my partner-in-crime/co-creator/director, Lindsey Rosin — sucker love really is heaven sent.

Happy hunting, America.

Visit www.cruelmusical.com for more information…although I think we’ve said enough. Just go buy your tickets.

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