In the 25 years since Robert Harling spent 10 days writing a play in honor of his late sister, Steel Magnolias has become an enduring story of female friendship told with an irresistible mix of laughter and tears. Set in Truvy’s beauty shop in small-town Louisiana, the play enjoyed a 1,126-performance run off-Broadway before Harling adapted it into a beloved 1989 film starring Sally Field as M’Lynn and Julia Roberts as Shelby, characters based on his mother and sister, who died from complications of diabetes. Harling went on to pen movie scripts and create the TV series GCB, and he has written the book for a musical version of his 1991 comedy hit Soapdish that will star Kristin Chenoweth. On December 3, he will mark Steel Magnolias’s 25th birthday at a starry benefit reading of the play at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Broadway.com caught up with Harling at home in Natchitoches, LA.
Are you looking forward to the benefit reading of Steel Magnolias?
Very much! It’s such a blessing to give back to research for diabetes, the number one cause in my book. [Director] Judith Ivey did a wonderful production of the play at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and I am so excited about this cast [Celia Keenan-Bolger as Shelby, Annie Potts as Truvy, Blythe Danner as Clairee, Margo Martindale as Ouiser and Sara Stiles as Annelle; casting of M’Lynn is still to be confirmed]. I wrote Truvy especially for Margo, and it's thrilling that she will now play Ouiser. She was the person speaking in my head when I was putting the play together way back at the WPA Theatre.
Does it feel like 25 years have passed since you wrote this play?
Oh my gosh, no. What keeps it fresh is seeing people constantly breathe new life into it. There was a UK tour recently with wonderful actresses, an Irish tour with Mischa Barton as Shelby and a West Coast charity reading with Jennifer Coolidge as Truvy. That energizes me: Each new actor gives you things you never knew were in the play.
Was the movie version a dream come true? You appeared in it, right?
I played the minister, yes. I had hair, and it was dark [laughs]. When you’re in the moment, you don’t really step back and think, “Wow, what a singular experience it is to bring these stars to my hometown and shoot a movie in the houses and churches and grocery stores where it all happened.” But for me, the play is the touchstone that keeps me close to my sister and her spirit. A very cherished memory is seeing my mother watching the [original cast] while holding my nephew, who was three or four at the time, on her lap. The play was born from a powerful family crisis. I felt like I had to convey how wonderful my sister was to my nephew, who would have no memory of her.
What is your nephew doing now?
He lives in Austin and works in hospital administration.
Are your parents still living?
Oh, yeah. M’Lynn and Drum will be 90 years old this summer. My dad is out in the yard picking up pecans right now!
The 2005 Broadway premiere of the play was not well received. Did that demonstrate how important the ensemble is to the success of Steel Magnolias?
Well, I love every production, and we had some incredibly talented people [on Broadway]. I don’t think you can single out anything, but sometimes the experience gels, and sometimes it doesn’t.
What about the recent Lifetime movie, with Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad and others?
I didn’t participate in that; I had sold the movie rights. But when they told me they were going to do it, I said, “You need to reinvent it.” I had heard of a production that Kenny Leon directed in Atlanta, and I said, “That would be an interesting way to go.” Everybody was coming to me and saying, “What do you think? This is such a big deal!” I didn’t think it was a big deal. There have been Japanese productions; there have been Chinese productions…
Did you like the TV movie?
The actors were amazing, and I love the idea that this story can exist in any world. The play is two hours and 10 minutes long, and it had to be an hour and 42 minutes for TV—I don’t like chopping up my work! But it introduces the play, 25 years later, to a whole new audience. And it was a huge ratings hit.
Steel Magnolias, TV’s GCB…how do you channel women so well?
If I tried to analyze that, it might fall apart, so I just do it. Once again, all of those women in GCB were based on people I know. How scary is that? [Laughs.] The Cricket and Blake relationship [of a woman married to a gay man]? I know that couple. As a writer, I’m like a sponge. I am always listening and cherry-picking what I hear.
Were you surprised that GCB was cancelled? Should it have had a different title?
[The networks] brought back things that had lower ratings than us. The controversy [generated by religious groups] hurt it a lot. And yes, if they had not called it [GCB, originally Good Christian Bitches], we would have been fine. But sometimes people listen to you and sometimes they don’t [laughs].
Give us the scoop on your Soapdish musical.
We had a reading/workshop a few weeks ago [directed by Rob Ashford], and it was fantastic. Kristin Chenoweth played the Sally Field role, Jane Krakowski did the Cathy Moriarty role, John Stamos did the Kevin Kline role, Cristin Milioti did the Elisabeth Shue role and Miriam Shor did the Whoopi Goldberg role, which was a wonderful twist. [Mary Poppins composers George] Stiles and [Anthony] Drewe have written great music. We’re in meetings to continue the forward motion and go to the next workshop.
When can we expect to see Soapdish on Broadway?
Finding a slot in Ms. Chenoweth’s schedule is the first thing that has to be done—she’s just magnificent. The fun thing about revisiting something is making changes. I don’t like it when people slap songs into an existing film script. I wanted to reconceive the whole thing. One of the changes is that our soap, The Sun Also Sets, is now the last daytime soap opera on the air, so that adds new dramatic momentum. But to answer your question: hopefully sometime between now and my death!