‘Death Becomes Her’ gets a new life as a Broadway musical, opening in a world premiere in Chicago

NEW YORK — “So it must have been about 11 years ago and I was doing this interview,” says actress Megan Hilty, “and someone asked me, ‘If there was one movie you could turn into a musical, what would it be?’ ‘Death Becomes Her.’ Duh! That is the only movie I can think of that truly has the heightened experiences that warrant breaking into song.”

Hilty grins. “And it’s fabulous and everyone loves it.”

Breathless from rehearsing a big number, Hilty (bombshell star of the TV show “Smash”) sits with her co-star, Jennifer Simard, in a rehearsal studio at New York’s New 42nd Street studios, where musicals like “Death Becomes Her” are birthed — the show opens May 19 at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre following two weeks of previews. It’s a musical of modest scale (but that’s still a ton of money these days) and will be on a short list of double-female-lead Broadway musicals; the two stars can recite most of the others with pride: “Wicked” (Hilty was a longtime Glinda), “City of Angels,” “Sideshow,” “War Paint” (which also tried out in Chicago). At the end of the show, the two stars will come out together for the final bow in glam attire, one wearing red, one in blue.

Death appears in the title of many movies (“Death on the Nile,” “Death in Venice,” Sudden Death,” “Murder by Death,” yada, yada) but, to refresh your memory, “Death Becomes Her” is a 1992 black comedy, the early ’90s being halcyon days for the genre, that was directed by Robert Zemeckis and starred no less than Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, a hard-to-recognize Bruce Willis and Isabella Rossellini.

The movie begins with a truly awful Broadway production number, seemingly modeled on something starring Ann-Margret, wherein Streep’s actress character, Madeline Ashton (“whose popularity is falling along with her face,” as the Washington Post reviewer said at the time) gets tossed around the stage by male dancers. After her performance, if that’s the word, she gets a visit from her bookish old pal Helen Sharp (Hawn), an aspiring writer with a fiancee (Willis), a notably hairy Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, who Madeline promptly steals, sending Helen into a long, downward, depressive spiral that involves many cats and a major weight gain, only for her to turn things around by dedicating her life to revenge. She returns in newly svelte and glamorized form, determined to get her guy back and persuade him to kill Madeline. That sends Madeline into her own jealous rage, just as a mysterious rich lady played by Rossellini shows up with a potion for eternal life. Madeline drinks from the Faustian cup and, well, things comedic spiral from there. In essence, the woman morph from bitter rivals into all-too-mortal partners trying to stay young.

“Death Becomes Her” was no critical favorite on its cinematic release and, as will be clear from the summary above, hardly is a movie that would get made today. Nonetheless, the film ended up grossing more than $150 million and, perhaps more significantly for this new musical, it was later embraced for its campy special effects, many turned into TikTok clips. Over time, it came to be seen not as a film exploiting female anxieties over looks, weight, aging and the need for men, but as a meta parody, satirizing those obsessions.

“In the 25 years since its initial release, the film has become a touchstone of the queer community,” Kristy Puchko wrote in a gushing tribute to the movie in Vanity Fair in 2017. “Madeline and Helen’s looks have inspired cosplay and untold drag performances. The film is screened during Pride month, where bar rooms and theaters full of fans mouth along with every line. ‘Death Becomes Her’ even inspired a runway challenge on the groundbreaking reality competition series ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ where sickening queen Violet Chachki won for her breathless look and dangerously cinched waist.”

“Death Becomes Her” was a Universal movie and that studio’s theatrical arm, Universal Theatrical Group, is run by vice president Chris Herzberger, a former actor who cut his teeth on musicals in the suburban Chicago area and knows the city’s scene well. Herzberger, in an earlier interview in a New York bar, said that the movie had come up many times as a candidate for a musical transfer and that he’d been working on this idea for years. The musical is directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli with a book by Marco Pennette.

Among those like Herzberger who greenlight these film-to-stage projects, there is a received wisdom that blockbuster auteur movies (like, say, Zemeckis’ megahit “Back to the Future” or his “Forrest Gump”) are trickier to turn into musicals than somewhat less successful films without such an immutable imprint on audience’s minds. Titles like “Death Becomes Her” offer the current artists more leeway while still exploiting the crucial audience pre-awareness that pays dividends at the box office. That said, assuming “Back to the Future” lasts long enough to coincide with the expected Broadway debut of “Death Becomes Her” next season, Broadway will have two Robert Zemeckis movies-into-musicals running at the same time. “Death Becomes Her” won’t have a DeLorean on stage but at one point during rehearsal, Gattelli leans over to say, of the character played by Simard, “Helen’s going to be parachuting into that scene.”

“I’ve never done a show before with this level of illusions and special effects,” the director says. There are some expectations there, even though “Death Becomes Here” dates from an era when digital effects in Hollywood movies were in embryonic form. In the film, you see Streep’s head famously positioned backward on her walking body (two separate live shots were put together) and, at another moment, Hawn with a big round hole allowing you to see through the middle of her belly. Some audience members will be waiting.

Hilty is done with “Smash,” the NBC show that brought the Broadway star a whole new level of fame. “Smash,” too, is becoming a stage musical on Broadway next season, albeit with significant changes, “Smash” being another property with issues but a big recognition factor and fervent fans. “It didn’t make any sense for me to part of it, the way that it has been written now,” Hilty said, when asked. “But how great that those fantastic songs will have another life on stage.”

Both Hilty and Simard (recently on Broadway in the very unserious Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time”) say that “Death Becomes Her” has serious themes. "It hits very close to home, this constant striving for perfection and asking yourself how far you are willing to go, although I, of course, have not had to deal with aging at all,” Hilty says. “And who sets that standard and why do we do that? That is something that we’ve navigated through this process because these are things real people deal with.”

“That is the overall lesson of our show,” Simard says, dryly, clearly enjoying playing the bookish beta to a full-blown Hilty alpha. “Let Megan Hilty and Jennifer Simard serve as a warning to all women.”

(For the record, Simard is not wearing a fat suit, which was famously the case with Hawn in the movie. “I made clear that I did not think that was appropriate today,” she says.)

For the mostly unknown songwriters, Julia Mattison and Noel Carey, “Death Becomes Her” is not so much a warning as a massive opportunity. The two met as musical theater undergraduates at Emerson College and have been writing, separately and together, for close to 13 years. Mattison was an actor on Broadway in “Godspell,” but both are making their presumptive Broadway debuts here as co-lyricists and co-composers, a risky rarity on a musical like this one, coming as it does out a big movie studio.

“We’ve been writing for ourselves a lot, making each other laugh,” Mattison said. “We’ve done musical commercials and productions, very ‘Bathtubs on Broadway,’ improv and sketch stuff. So far, everyone has let us stay weird. We both are huge musical theater fans and we love to write at the top of our intelligence, but we’re actors and we also both like to be silly.”

“The score is doing that 1950s over-that drama where someone faints and it’s scored,” Carey said. “We have winks and nods to that. It certainly can’t be ignored.”

“We are leaning into that original cinematic score,” says Mattison (although this is an all-new take). Clearly “Death Becomes Her,” which (based on the models sitting in the rehearsal room) will have a lush scenic design and that Gattelli says will have an 18-piece orchestra, will sound like old-school Broadway, as distinct from 1990s pop. The aesthetic of the movie demands such.

The duo — who are professional rather than personal partners — composed the long-in-gestation show during the pandemic via the voice memo app on their respective iPhones: Mattison, who lives in New York City, mostly comes up with the melody and most lyrics, Carey, who lives upstate, does the chords, motifs, more lyrics and all the rest. Both say they like to improvise. Both say they are relishing the time-honored Chicago tryout process of trial, discovery and change.

And, aptly for a show with two stars, they also finish each other’s sentences.

“We wrote a new finale” Carey says, “last week,” adds Mattison.


Now in previews and opens May 19 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago; www.broadwayinchicago.com.