Local Arts

‘Cruel Intentions’ turns 20 — with a nostalgic song in its cold, spoiled heart

“Cruel Intentions: The Musical” comes to McGlohon Theater for four performances next week.
“Cruel Intentions: The Musical” comes to McGlohon Theater for four performances next week. Courtesy of “Cruel Intentions: The Musical”

When director Robert Kumble was making “Cruel Intentions,” he never could have predicted that — over the next 20 years — the modern adaptation of 18th-century French novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” would spawn sequels, TV pilots and a touring jukebox musical that begins a three-day run at McGlohon Theater next Thursday.

“It was special, since it was the first film I wrote and directed. I knew the script worked, but that was it,” Kumble says via email, while filming overseas.

Set at a New York City prep school and starring Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar, “Cruel Intentions” was a modest, slow-burner hit in 1999, tripling its production cost in the first month of release.

“Everything clicked. The script, the casting, the style,” Kumble says.

It didn’t hurt that the source material had already inspired two award-winning films in the previous decade: 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons” and 1989’s “Valmont.”

“It’s one of the greatest novels ever written,” Kumble says. “It has the ability to be modernized, much like Shakespeare.”

Much as Kumble was inspired by novelist Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ work, Lindsey Rosin and Jordan Ross were so inspired by Kumble’s film that they resurrected it on stage using nostalgic songs from the decade that spawned it. The musical originally debuted in Los Angeles in 2015, and when Kumble got wind of Rosin and Ross’ “completely unauthorized” parody, he went to check it out.

“I loved it, and gave them the L.A. rights for a dollar,” he says. “I started my career in L.A. theater, so I thought it was a sign from my higher power to pay it forward. From there, we got the song rights and brought in Eva Price, who’s a brilliant producer.”

(Songs used in the film — like Placebo’s “Every You Every Me” and the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” — bookend the show, but there are also hits by TLC, the Cardigans, No Doubt, Christina Aguilera and others.)

“Cruel Intentions: The Musical” eventually made its way to off-Broadway status via sold-out shows at Manhattan’s (Le) Poisson Rouge in 2017.

Meanwhile, the film version returned to cineplexes for its 20th anniversary last month.

“The more time that passes, the more people seem to connect with the film,” he says. “I don’t remember this much love when the film turned 10. Enough time has passed where it feels like it happened to someone else, and I’m the guy getting all the credit — which I’m happy to take.”

He doesn’t think “Cruel Intentions” would work now.

“It would feel erratic. The first scene with Kathryn and Sebastian is incredibly long. The ADHD mentality would never allow that for a teen film,” he says. “There’s a timeless element to ‘Cruel.’ We had cellphones, but we tried to avoid it as much as possible.”

‘Cruel Intentions: The Musical’

When: 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday (April 26) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (April 27).

Where: McGlohon Theater, 345 N. College St.

Tickets: $25-$44.50; $59.50 for VIP.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.

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