“Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” The line is not only one of the most quoted quips from the 1989 movie Heathers, it also accurately describes my reaction upon hearing they were remaking the film into a 2014 Off Broadway musical (book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe, best known for composing Legally Blonde, and Reefer Madness author Kevin Murphy). Don’t get me wrong; I loved the idea. After all, the morbidly dark comedy about high school peer pressure starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater was one of my teenage favorites. Plus, the story was so over the top and campily surreal that a musical treatment seemed not so much a remake per se but rather a fabulous addition practically cried out for in the original story.
So why the profane toolshed surprise?
I just couldn’t believe that such a glaringly politically incorrect story could find a place on a public stage in these times. I mean, c’mon, this is a story rife with present-day no-nos. There’s teenage suicide, bullying, homophobia, slut shaming, fat shaming, sexual assault, eating disorders and blowing up of a school full of kids. And none of these issues are given anything close to a sensitive treatment. Instead, they’re laid out for us to gleefully point and laugh at. Sure, the comedy is used in service of sarcastically skewering the high school ecosystem and its surroundings. And yes, it’s meant to make us pause and look at what we’ve become. But when it comes to Heathers, the message is very much at the mercy of the maligning.
At the heart of the story is the high school clique, with its power to include and exclude and the resulting emotional (and in this case) physical trauma it causes. Our heroine, Veronica, is part of the popular group of four girls (three of whom are named Heather) at Westerburg High. But while Veronica is part of the clique, she’s also secretly appalled by their sadistic and pointlessly cruel behavior toward each other and everyone around them. So much so that when she meets J.D., a rebel who's just moved to town, she joins with him in a plot to murder her friends and disguise the killings as suicides.
How very, as the Heathers would say.
So let’s get this out of the way first. Heathers the musical is not an exact replica of the film. But then did we really expect that it would be? Remember folks, Heathers was made ten years before America’s first massive school shooting and in an era when teens weren’t being bullied to death on social media, rape was something that happened to other people and homosexuality was still a tee-hee moment for many folks. The good news is that much of the un-PC stuff we loved about the original is still there. Sure some sharp corners have been rounded off (gone is the scene where a teen is forced into a sexual situation with a college guy), but it doesn’t take away from our guilty enjoyment at watching teens behave very badly.
Smartly, O’Keefe and Murphy start the show before Veronica became friends with the Heathers to give us insight on why this smart and decent girl was driven to become popular and how that drive led her to murder. On a two-story stage simply but effectively clad in rows upon rows of lockers, the strong opening number “Beautiful” sets up the horror that is the high school experience for anyone who isn’t popular. Rather than suffer further loser hell, Veronica (a splendid McKenna Marmolejo) uses her note-forging ability to woo her way into the Heathers gang.
But life at the top isn’t all that much better. Leader of the clique Heather Chandler (Kathryn Porterfield, having the bad-girl time of her life) wields a nasty rule over Veronica and the other two Heathers, Heather Duke (Chelsea Stavis, nicely channelling a miss bossy wannabe) and Heather McNamara (Natalie Coca, with a voice like an angel). In “Candy Store,” a raucously delicious mean-girl number, Heather Chandler puts the girls in their place and boastfully crows of her supreme school-wide dominance.
Enter J.D. (Mason Butler), the new, mysterious, brooding kid in school who immediately gets into an uproarious slo-mo cafeteria fistfight with the school’s resident lughead jocks, Ram and Kurt (played with excellent frat-boy idiocy by Andrew Carson and Thomas Williams). Full props to director Marley Wisnoski for providing us with such terrifically rakish visual laughs here and throughout the show.
But while J.D. still looks like the role Slater made famous (a James Dean-esque teen clad in a long black trench coat – a look I wish they’d changed up because of the now infamous image of the similarly dressed Columbine shooters), this is a different J.D. than was presented in the movie. Gone is the upfront malice and intensity that Veronica was both attracted to and scared by. O’Keefe and Laurence instead give us a J.D who is more of a broken soul, lovesick for Veronica and willing to do anything to make her happy. When Veronica tells J.D that she hates her friends, especially Heather Chandler, who has recently shamed her in public and kicked her out of the clique, J.D’s suggestion of murder disguised as suicide is more mettle than malevolence.
Still, the dynamic between them works, albeit it's not as much fun as watching Veronica come under the seductive spell of a true mind-game-playing bad boy. “My teen angst bullshit has a body count,” writes Veronica in her diary after the duo poison Heather Chandler and later shoot Ram and Kurt for spreading false rumors about their sexual escapades with Veronica.
In the new musical version of Heathers, it’s the Ram and Kurt plotline that steals the show. The remaining Heathers call Veronica out to the cemetery late at night in order to avoid date rape by offering her up to the drunken Ram and Kurt. In the resulting number, “Blue,” the boys’ pleading for sexual gratification with a side of attempted rape shouldn’t make us laugh. But with a chorus of “You make my balls so blue, what did they ever do to you, please make their dreams come true,” accompanied by Carson's and Williams's great physical antics, our serious resolve quickly turns to belly laughs.
Even after Veronica and J.D. kill Ram and Kurt, making it look like a gay suicide pact (Veronica thought they were shooting blanks at the jocks, but J.D. had other plans), the boys get the biggest laughs. Or at least their fathers do. The other most-oft-quoted line among Heather aficionados comes at the boys’ funeral, where their previously tough-guy, homophobic dads declare, “I love my dead gay son!” And boy does this get the full sock it to them musical treatment at the start of Act 2. Dads Brian Mathis and Pierre Alexandre, with the help of Shay Roger’s go big or go home choreography, bring the house down in “My Dead Gay Son” as they comically come to terms with their boys’ demise. O’Keefe and Laurence add on an unexpectedly funny update to this number that’s best not to spill, but it’s safe to say that it made the audience cheer even louder.
After all the amped-up fatal frenemy fun we’ve been having, a little turn for the serious is a welcome breather and we get it with three numbers in the latter half of the show. “Seventeen” is a hummable ballad expressing Veronica's and J.D.’s wish to lead a stress-free and happy teen life. “Lifeboat” is Heather McNamara’s hauntingly emotional portrayal of her fear and loneliness as she struggles to remain afloat in popularity. Most affecting is “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” loser girl Martha’s (a sweetly mousy Casey Gilbert) suicidal lamentation of romantic/social dreams not realized.
In the end, after Veronica breaks up with J.D. and his murdering ways and after she saves the school from his final vengeance, O’Keefe and Laurence smooth off one last corner for us. Despite his attempt to blow the whole school to hell, J.D. is allowed some redemption in his number “I Am Damaged.” It seems we’re to believe that J.D. — rather than a bad seed bent on violent destruction at all costs — is simply a lost soul in need of TLC.
There’s no doubt that the audience (me included) had a terrific time at the show. There’s also no doubt that the audience was packed with rabid fans. All you had to do was look around the pre-show lobby at girls dressed up in Heather costumes (hair scrunchies, blazers, shoulder pads, kilts, kneesocks) and guys in various '80s getups (a gent in a Flock of Seagulls wig was my favorite).
No one seemed to mind much about the alterations to the story and with such a jam-packed song-and-dance extravaganza of comic teen disquietude, why would they?
As for newbies to the Heathers phenomenon, I have no doubt that even in this softened version, there will be somewhat shocking. After all, one usually doesn’t go the theater to laugh at teens killing other teens. But that’s what makes Heathers so naughtily intriguing. It doesn't fit our teenage myths or our prescribed adolescent journeys.
And if you can’t see the entertainment and maybe even self-examination value in that? Well, then, to quote Heather Chandler, What’s your damage, Heather?
Heathers runs through May 8, The Hobby Center for Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, visit tutsunderground.com or call 713-558-8887. $25 - $49