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‘Their most important love is for each other’: Inside the lifelong female friendships of Beaches the Musical

iPhoto caption: Jessica Vosk and Kelli Barrett in Beaches the Musical. Photo by Trudie Lee.
/By / May 24, 2024

Theatre fans hungrily awaiting the Wicked film this November might want to consider a trip to Calgary in the coming weeks.

The world premiere of Beaches the Musical, opening at Theatre Calgary ahead of several planned international engagements, stars two Wicked alums, one of whom has a TikTok tag dedicated largely to her riffs in “Defying Gravity” and “No Good Deed.” 

Jessica Vosk (a former Elphaba) and Kelli Barrett (a former Nessarose) play Cee Cee Bloom and Bertie White, respectively, in the theatrical adaptation of Iris Rainer Dart’s novel Beaches, which was also adapted into a cult classic film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in 1988. (Coincidentally, another adaptation of the story hit the small screen in 2017, starring another former Elphaba: Idina Menzel.) 

Beaches follows Cee Cee and Bertie through decades of friendship, from their time as childhood pen pals through their various rivalries and successes as adults. With music by pop royalty Mike Stoller (songwriting credits include “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”), lyrics by Dart and a book co-written by Dart and Thom Thomas, Beaches the Musical promises to be a faithful adaptation of the beloved tale.

“Cee Cee is an extremely demanding role, both book-wise and music-wise,” said Vosk in an interview. “You’re telling a story for people who love the movie, or the book, or both. It’s a huge journey for both characters, but vocally, Cee Cee’s all over the place. She’s belty, and she’s croony like Judy Garland. There’s a little head voice in there, but it’s also a lot of old-school musical theatre belt, which is fun. I haven’t gotten to do that in a long time, but I’m also doing my best to throw in a Vosk riff wherever I can.

“Truth be told, I’m a Bette Midler superfan,” she continued, reflecting on endless rewatches of the 1988 film. “I think she might be God.”

“When I got the role I of course read the book,” said Barrett, whose temporary lodgings in Calgary are steps away from Vosk’s. While rehearsing, the two have become fast friends, with frequent dinner dates and hangout sessions. “I think what we’re doing in the musical is much closer to the source material than the film,” added Barrett. “Both are equally great in their own right, but I feel this is a better translation of the book.” 

“I think sometimes people assume that musicals adapted from films are always going to be a jukebox musical,” mused Vosk. “I grew up with the film and its soundtrack, and it’s nice to be part of something completely new, and not a jukebox. Yes, it’s based on a novel — so is Wicked, there are plenty of novels that are adapted to stage. We’re doing something completely new here, while also being true to the book. It’s awesome to have Iris be a part of this journey.”

The new adaptation of Beaches comes at a perfect time — stories of female friendship, or even girlhood more broadly, seem to be in vogue at the moment. Hot on the heels of Barbie’s summer reign last year, the story of Beaches speaks to a female audience candidly and without dumbing down the complex emotions that can come up throughout lifelong friendships between women.

“Female friendship is in the zeitgeist in a different way than it’s ever been,” said Barrett. “Maybe it’s the pandemic, or maybe women in the U.S. are coming together right now because of everything happening with women’s rights. But it feels like people are starting to understand the life-or-death nature of these friendships, and how they really sustain us. My female friends have kept me alive.

“Usually, when we put women on the stage,” she continued, “we either pit them against each other for the affections of a man, or we see them in a romantic love story. Those queer stories are equally important, and wonderful to see onstage. But a platonic female friendship that is still a love story is very rare — not since Wicked, and even then, Glinda and Elphaba are mortal enemies for a long time.”

“We’re in a moment in time where people are seeing themselves onstage in a different way, because of what friendship means,” agreed Vosk. “I have friends from childhood who I can not speak to for six years, and then we pick up the phone and have a conversation and it feels like no time has passed. That’s what this story is. It’s women who, like it or not, are each other’s most important relationship. Their most important love is for each other. That’s the anchor in their lives, and we seldom get to see that onstage.”

Barrett mused that part of what makes the central friendship of Beaches feel so vital in this moment is its portrayal of long-distance love — something plenty of friends around the world had to get used to during the pandemic.

“Cee Cee and Bertie aren’t in the same space, really, until they’re older,” she said. “They’re pen pals for the early stages of their friendship. That’s very much speaking to COVID, when we were all trying to stay so connected. There’s a message that you don’t have to be in the same space to share the same heart and feel like you’re not alone.”

Beaches has aspirations well beyond Calgary. Crossroads Live, a global theatre producer, is involved with the project to get it to Broadway and the West End, as well as “throughout North America and around the globe,” per a Theatre Calgary press release, following its world premiere this spring. 

It’s a risky time to be eyeing Broadway: this year’s pool of Tony Award-eligible shows was a crowded mess, and new musicals seem to be tripping over each other to get to the Great White Way. Look at The Great Gatsby — two adaptations of the book are currently in play, one on Broadway and one just a few months away from it, both with starry casts and promising scores.

“Broadway’s in a moment of ADHD at the moment,” said Vosk. “As am I. There’s a million things going on in my brain, and I would only assume that Broadway is like the Amazing Technicolor Tony Coat. So much is going on.”

“There’s a tendency in our community to be like, ‘what makes your show the best show?’,” agreed Barrett. “Obviously this season has been crammed full of stuff — that’s a result of the pandemic, where so many shows were on pause and they all wanted to come in when we came back. But that’s extremely exciting to me. We’re all chomping at the bit to get onstage. I think there’s a place for everything.

“That said, this show is special,” she continued. “The target demographic for a Broadway ticket buyer is women between the ages of 30 and 65. And that’s what Beaches is doing. Not only is it based on a book and film that people already love, but you get to see yourself represented onstage, which doesn’t always happen.”

Beaches the Musical runs at Theatre Calgary until June 16. Tickets are available here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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