Review: Heathers The Musical

March 18, 2014

Back when Heathers was released in 1988, I didn’t see it–pretty much no one did, because it was a flop. But, starting about a year later, I would see it a lot. My older sister and her friends would hold Heathers-themed parties, where they would eat spaghetti (lots of oregano) and corn nuts, and drink blue Kool-Aid (a stand-in for the drain cleaner that killed Heather Chandler) and Perrier (the drink that cemented Kurt and Ram’s homosexuality). 

Eventually, they let me join in. I was three years younger than my sister, and this was huge. It meant that I wasn’t being seen as the annoying little sister anymore–at least not always. I would have watched Heathers with them every time even if I hadn’t loved it–but I did, and that made it so much the better. The movie was dark and funny satire, bringing life to all the stereotypes of high school. Even though the characters were totally campy at times, they weren’t entirely cartoons, but somehow perfect representations of late 1980s teen angst bullshit. 

So, when I heard that a Heathers musical was in development, I wasn’t sure which elements of the film would translate well. Camp? Yes. Teen angst bullshit? Maybe not. The thing that worried me the most was that the genuine, teen angst core at the heart of Heathers‘ satire would get lost in a haze of 1980s nostalgia–I couldn’t see how that particular ache would survive the translation to musical numbers and the streamlining that musical theatre always necessitates.*

Now, I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Heathers the Musical does amp up the camp–there’s a super-catchy number called “My Dead Gay Son”–but it doesn’t lose the core of genuine feeling. In large part, this is due to Barrett Wilbert Weed’s portrayal of Veronica, which offers a more sympathetic, less jaded, and more nuanced characterization than in the film. The lack of jadedness in the musical is, I think, a result of our collective ’80s nostalgia: no one quite wants to admit just how jaded the late ’80s were (cf The Goldbergs), so productions that draw on those memories somewhat smooth them out. I might have a problem with how Heathers the Musical sometimes makes Veronica more innocent (and less complicit) than the film did, except for the fact that Weed is so damned good in the role.

Weed is a very different Veronica than Winona Ryder was. When we meet HTM‘s Veronica, she’s still a nerdy outsider, planning a weekend of movie-watching with best friend Martha Dunstock (the musical collapses Betty Finn and Martha into one, a change which both makes sense and gives the excellent Katie Ladner a larger role in the production). Veronica’s transformation from outcast to fourth (maybe third) most popular girl in school gives Weed a chance to portray a greater range of feelings, from guilt to ambivalence to glee at finally being popular, than Winona Ryder’s jaded Veronica, who has already been absorbed into the Heathers’ world. At times, this difference is a pretty major reconstruction of character: Weed’s Veronica excitedly loses her virginity to J.D.; Ryder’s Veronica schools Betty Finn on how sex is really not that exciting. At other times, it gives Weed a chance to shine, especially through musical performance. In the song “Dead Girl Walking,” Weed’s voice powerfully conveys the sense of anger, fear, and frustration that only getting kicked of the most powerful clique in school can inspire.  

Another place where Veronica’s innocence comes to play is with J.D. When we first meet the dark horse prom contender in the film, he points a gun at Ram and Kurt; in the musical, no gun, just some (admittedly amazing) choreographed fighting. Was a gun too much in this day and age? Or is it just so unbelievable that our more innocent Veronica would fall for a dude who appears at least a little psychotic in his first scene? Also, I’m not sure I would believe that film Veronica ever thought she was in love with film J.D., but the more wide-eyed stage Veronica declares her love quite easily. Again, I don’t think this would work if Winona Ryder played Veronica this way, but with Weed, it makes more sense.

The Heathers themselves start off a little more vicious and a little more cartoon-y than their movie versions (well, except for Heather Chandler, who was always vicious). Last night, Charissa Hoagland stood in for Heather Chandler, the queen bee of all queen bees (usually portrayed by Jessica Keenan Wynn). Hoagland’s Heather was the strongest performance of the three, especially in the first act song “Candy Store.” Hoagland brought a palpable bitchiness to the role, which made it a shame that, well, she’s the first Heather to die. (But it’s also nice that she gets to return as a ghost.)

Other stand-outs in the cast are Evan Todd (Kurt Kelly) and Jon Eidson (Ram Sweeney), who spend most of the second act as ghosts in their underwear, and Katie Ladner (Martha). Kurt and Ram’s song “Blue” is, well, the best song about blue balls I’ve ever heard (not that I listen to that many of them, but…) HTM gives a little more insight into Kurt and Ram than the film, giving them both aggressively macho dads (who have their own, er, moment in “My Dead Gay Son”). Katie Ladner infuses Martha with Betty Finn’s innocence and an eager boy-craziness all her own. Even though a very bitchy guy behind me suggested that her second act solo, “Kindergarten Boyfriend” wasn’t necessary, I disagree: it was worth it for the opportunity to get a few more minutes of Ladner on stage, especially since she gets to show off her wide range.

While Heathers the Musical isn’t the Heathers of my youth, it still captures the fear and dread of high school in a campy, yet resonant, way. Oh, and the music is fantastic–if they release a cast recording, I’ll review it here. 

A final note on nostalgia: while I enjoyed the music before the show, it was of a certain ’80s style that no one would have been listening to in 1988/89. This lack of historical specificity always bothers me, but most people will just revel in the catchy pre-show tunes. But, occasionally this happens in the show, too. For example, in the party scene, the Hipster Dork is wearing a Depeche Mode Violator t-shirt. That album was released on March 19, 1990, making it unlikely that anyone would wear said t-shirt to a party in 1989.

*Mind you, this streamlining isn’t necessarily bad. I have a great deal more sympathy for the Sally Bowles of Cabaret than the Sally Bowles of Goodbye to Berlin.  

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