by Loren Noveck · March 31, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #67 Loren Noveck comments on Heathers: The Musical
Maybe it’s unfair to a 2014 stage version of a 1989 movie, which culminates in blowing up a high school (a movie whose considerable violence serves as both plot and metaphor in a way that seems much more unsettling in a post-Columbine time), to criticize the musical for softening the tone of the original. But I’m not sure who the audience for the musical is if not people who love the movie--why set a high-school story in 1989 other than to be faithful to the source material, after all? And where Daniel Waters’s movie is a pitch-black comedy, creating its own candy-colored but bitingly vicious high-school world, with its own indelibly memorable idiom, the musical (book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy of Reefer Madness and Laurence O’Keefe of Legally Blonde), is cast more as a genuine coming-of-age story, one where the tribulations of high school just happen to include three murders restaged as suicides and the blowing up of a high-school pep rally. And to me, the two modes--upbeat musical theater and darkest satire--sit very uneasily together; the edge of the satire is severely blunted by giving the characters emotional journeys that we’re meant to sympathize with in a literal way, and what worked as social critique is oddly unsettling as hero’s journey.
The show does retain many of the movie’s individual pleasures on a surface level, from some of the most striking visual elements (the primary-colored matching blazers worn by the clique of Heathers and their new recruit, heroine Veronica Sawyer, echoed here by costume designer Amy Clark) to all the most memorable lines. It even uses several of those lines as hooks for musical numbers, while at the same time infusing the feel-good spirit into them, creating a paean to gay acceptance and the central couple’s romantic duet out of individual snippets of dialogue. O’Keefe and Murphy’s music is catchy; I’ve still got big swaths of the soundtrack running in my head, though I wish it drew a little more on the 80s roots displayed in the pre-show mix. Marguerite Derricks’s choreography is zippy; the ensemble lively.
The show is enjoyable, if rather conventional, on its own terms. But it feels remarkably thin; it’s lost the story’s cynicism, its ability to acknowledge some deeply nihilistic beliefs in the hearts of disaffected teenagers: that the high school world we live in is all a big fake, that we’re all being told to live up to someone else’s phony surface ideal, and that the main goal of that stage in life can be simply surviving it long enough to get out. Veronica’s victory, such as it is, is learning to wield power. The musical trades that sensibility for sincerity and soul--perhaps a laudable, and certainly a well-intentioned motive, but one that, to my mind, undercuts the power of the movie’s anti-message, its courage to admit just how much things sometimes suck. Here, the kickoff number is about how we all had beauty in our childhoods and could have it again; the curtain-dropper is an anthem to teenage innocence that asks why the kids in the show can’t just enjoy being seventeen.
The heroine--Veronica Sawyer, former geek dragged into the popular girls’ circle by virtue of a talent for forgery--becomes more of an everywoman, smart but ordinary rather than a brilliant outsider, a vicious observer of the world around her whose analysis was equally cutting when it was only in her diary. Barrett Wilbert Weed makes her likable but not edgy; she’s got a better nature that’s frequently being appealed to, and a wistful side alongside her unfailing gift for a zinger of a comeback. Here, when the school’s most popular kids, who just happen to have recently made enemies of Veronica and her new bad-boy boyfriend, Jason Dean (Ryan McCartan, also not nearly as edgy as he ought to be), start to die, the school discovers their inner lives. The ghost of head bitch Heather Chandler reveals the insecurity inside a pretty girl in a ballad; when two football players are found dead, with faux suicide notes that claim them to have been lovers, their fathers confess a shared romantic past in song.
It’s telling, then, that the most interesting, and certainly the most fun, characters are the villains/victims: Heather Chandler and the boorish football stars Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney; the “Blue Balls” duet sung by the two boys during a double-date is the funniest song in the show. And, with the best material, it’s not surprising that the actors rise to the occasion; Jessica Keenan Wynn, Evan Todd, and Jon Eidson also bring the most energy and humor to their roles. (Alice Lee, as Heather Duke, is so over-the-top that she’s sometimes hilarious, but often seems to be in a different show.)
The show also feels a little soft in portraying the bullying power-drenched social dynamics of high school: yes, its opening number is full of insults the kids sling at one another, but in almost every school scene, the goths and the dweebs are right there singing along. There’s no fractured social order--partly because there are very few defined characters on the periphery populating the school (other than the heavy Martha Dunnstock), just a bunch of costumed stereotypes singing along. It’s a kinder, gentler Heathers and that neutralizes most of its power.
Maybe it’s just not possible to create a genuine anti-hero in a trenchcoat toting explosives anymore, to create a satire that culminates in a “rebel without a cause” blowing up his high school; you can’t really make fun anymore of the idea that the only way to crack open a high school’s social order is to burn it to the ground. But I think something is genuinely lost here--something that made the movie speak to disaffected teens with a message not of reassurance, but of solidarity, of sheer acknowledgment that the dark and strange and violent emotions of late adolescence, that simultaneous desperate desire to fit in and to do something so drastic your bridges are burned forever, aren’t unique and don’t make you horrible.