Heathers: The Musical … “What a waste. Oh the humanity.”
Dedicated to all those affected by the Sunday, June 12, Orlando attack. With love.
Anyone familiar with the brilliant 1988 American cult black-comedy film written by Daniel Waters will recognize that classic line, used throughout the film, after the police discover yet another of Westerburg High’s “suicides.” And today, as I woke up to write this review of Slow Burn Theatre Company's spirited production of Heathers: The Musical based on the film, with book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’ Keefe and Kevin Murphy, it was with a large number of my friends in the Orlando area of Florida, only a couple of hours from where I live, marking their Facebook statuses as “safe.”
Only after I clicked on a link from CNN did I discover that a man born in America who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic terrorist group ISIS had shot and killed 50 people earlier that morning at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, in an attack authorities are calling “The Deadliest Mass Shooting in the United States” and “The Nation's worst terror attack since 911.” At least 53 bystanders, including friends of mine in Orlando, were wounded in the attack.
“We know enough to say this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” President Obama said in an address to the nation from the White House. While the violence could have hit any American community, “this is an especially heartbreaking day for our friends who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” he said. He goes on to express his feelings on equality and how the attack was a sobering reminder that this could have happened to anyone, but those fighting for their civil rights had been specially targeted.
So many Christian Mothers Groups “In favor of the children” try to take away the violence in films, the blood-spatter in video games. What they do not seem to realize is that art imitates life, and so forth. Heathers was made as an antidote to the John Hughes sugarcoated descriptions of teen life in the early '80s and '90s. It portrays high school in a way that strikes a chord with many viewers to this day and is now well-regarded and respected by critics and viewers alike as a cult classic.
For as J.D. so convincingly said, “The extreme always seems to make an impression.” When I saw Hotel Rwanda for the first time in class, yes, it was shocking, but it also opened my eyes to the effects of war and genocide just because some people were born a bit different. When I read, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning as an aspiring Journalism student, yes, there were sections that were hard to read. The same effect was had on me by other dark, yet meaningful, films such as American Beauty, Donnie Darko, and Dancing in the Dark.
Another J.D. quote comes to mind here, where he says, “The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in Heaven.” And you know what? He may just be right.
Social status and class will always play a role in society, as we learned from the outrageous Brock Turner rape case in California, where the judge granted only six months in County Jail, three for “good behavior,” after he raped an intoxicated, unconscious female victim outside of a Stanford frat party.
I have found, being a huge musical theatre fan and attending many on and off-Broadway productions throughout my life, that some stories are translated perfectly into this format. The Phantom of the Opera for instance, was a smash for a reason … people left awed, swayed in some way, humming the tunes. My two favorite musicals are Rent and Spring Awakening. Like Heathers: The Musical, both also dealt with dark and difficult subject matter, including AIDS, Hate Crimes, and Abortion. However they did so in a way that rang true. From the opening swearing of Rent, to “The Song of Purple Summer” (about loss) and “The Darkness I Know Well” (about rape) from Spring Awakening, for me a truly spectacular musical is one that leaves me singing, and also, if I’m very lucky, changes me in some way … touches my soul.
I was eager to see Heathers: The Musical as, despite being slightly biased by my love of the film, I was curious to see how they adapted the subject manner into song. And honestly … I’m still on the fence.
In the 1988 film the dialogue was as witty as the soundtrack was snappy. But in O’Keefe’s and Murphy’s adaptation, while doing their best to use the original movie’s dialogue when possible, including the now-oft quoted and famous lines like “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and “Are you pulling my dick?” there remain large gaps. For instance, they removed Betty Finn, Veronica’s best friend, before her involvement with the Heathers clique, as a character, morphing parts of her personality with that of Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock. (Played expertly by the talented Stephanie Trull, who had the added burden of having to play both Martha and Betty … though to those who have not seen the movie, Trull wove the two together so well, you wouldn’t end up noticing.)
Some of the songs from Heathers were obvious showstoppers that had everyone in the audience in laughter, while others remained a head scratcher for me. Not every production translates well from one medium to another. Like the movie version of Rent. I love the show to pieces, but by messing with what made the show so great to begin with — its rawness, the grittiness, that feeling of it being genuine — the movie, called by some of the original Broadway performers as “The bubblegum karaoke version of Rent,” soured by changing the song lineup and cutting material. Heathers: The Musical unfortunately makes the same mistakes.
A huge turning point of the Heathers movie was when quarterbacker Kurt Kelly and linebacker Ram Sweeney (portrayed with excellent comedic appeal by Justen Fox-Hall and Domenic Servidio) notice Veronica asking J.D. the lunchtime poll question of the week, and get jealous when they see the Heather clique’s new protege, Veronica, flirting with the black trenchcoat-wearing outsider. Though their first thought is to “Kick his ass!” they decide to mess with him, instead, by sticking their fingers in his lunch and by Kurt asking “Hey Ram, doesn’t this cafeteria have a No Fags Allowed rule?” To which J.D. cleverly retorts that “they seem to have an open door policy for assholes.”
When Kurt asks him what he said and also calls him a dickhead, J.D. responds with “I’ll repeat myself” after which he pulls out a gun and shoots them. This is a pivotal moment in the film, for although Veronica defends J.D.’s actions by the fact that he used blanks, Heather Chandler seems to see J.D. for who he actually is as she points out that he used a real gun. In the musical, however, this scene is swiped for one where J.D. simply gets into a fistfight with Kurt and Ram instead, and Veronica fantasizes about being with him (“Fight for Me”).
I was really wondering about the removal of this scene from the musical, especially as it seems O’Keefe and Murphy have no problem creating whole songs about blue balls (“Blue”) and included the scene where J.D. tricked Veronica into shooting the quarterback and the linebacker after they make up a rumor about her having a “swordfight” with their genitals in her mouth. So why cut the one scene where no one is actually harmed and, before her death, Heather Chandler shows true insight into J.D.’s psychopathic nature?
I know why. It is because, even though apparently what I was watching opening night was the “rated R, uncut version” of Heathers: The Musical, before it gets even more watered down to be used in school plays around the nation, in an attempt to be overly comical, the musical Heathers unfortunately lacks that dark gritty realism of the original movie. That isn’t to say it’s not worth watching … I did enjoy their take on the line, “Our love is god, let’s go get a slushie” which was transferred into the ballad “Our Love is God.” However by using snappy, mean-girls-esque “contemporary” opening numbers like “Candy Store” showcasing the luxurious, Regina Georgeish lifestyle of the popular girls and “Seventeen,” which gives J.D. a conscience, they transformed the show into more Glee than gritty, more cliche than controversial.
And, seriously, are you pulling my dick? Sanitizing an excellent movie in musical form should just be an unspoken “no.” It would be like trying to make a musical version of The Crow. The most unfortunate part was Heathers could have been a brilliant musical. “Dead Girl Walking” was a fun number in which we watch Veronica seduce J.D. (played by Bruno Faria, while Veronica was portrayed by Abby Perkins.) And the “My Dead Gay Son,” a riotous song with an excellent twist is, I’m sure, worth the price of the ticket for many. It’s just the tinkering with the plotline that confounds me, and how, in this day and age, some people still actually think they can hide the horrors of the world, make things more “pleasant.”
You know what? That “violent” video game or movie is not what is motivating murderers and rapists. It's their own mental issues, at times mixed with substance abuse or a troubled home life. I remember high school. It's nothing like Glee or Mean Girls. There is no breaking of the tiara, no feel-good “we're all actually just the same!” gooey moment.
The cheerleaders and popular girls were blonde and wore monogrammed brown Louis Vuitton bags and always got the best roles in plays or were the sopranos in choir. I remember a certain boy, with crazy long hair who used to always wear a long dark trenchcoat. I remember him telling me I was “really low on his hit list” and me taking it as a compliment.
I wonder what happened to him, all these years later. Like J.D., he was a constant target for the jocks' abuse, and like Veronica, I admired his dark style and had a secret crush on him, though as I was a shy bookworm, by my own admission, I never told him … just like I tried to pass through high school as invisibly as possible. When I first saw Heathers, it brought back those long-suppressed years of torment and, apart from it being genuinely, scarily funny, is what made that 1988 film genius. Sometimes, certain things in life — from bullies to rapists to terrorist attacks — just happen, and we are stuck in that moment of torture (if we are lucky, not fatally).
There is a certain quote from Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I think applies to my point: “Bottom line is, even if you see them coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really, but it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are going to come, you can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you really are.”
What I love about Heathers is that, though she cannot control J.D. or his actions, Veronica eventually realizes her own inner power when she fakes her suicide and gets him to confess his master plan of blowing up the school, then follows him in secret to stop him. There are no sappy love songs, no other options. She realizes (perhaps for the first time) after he killed Kurt and Ram that he is a true psychopath, and when she finally pulls the trigger and shoots her ex-lover says, “Do you know what I want, J.D.? Cool guys like you out of my life.” In that moment she is calm, collected, empowered.
By changing J.D.’s nature, what O’Keefe and Murphy have done is, essentially, rob Veronica of that empowerment. After saving the school, Veronica, covered in dirt and blood, kisses Heather Duke on the cheek and informs her “Heather my love, there’s a new sheriff in town.” Freeing herself from the toxic influences of both J.D. and the Heathers themselves, the final scene shows her striking up a conversation with Martha Dunnstock and inviting her over to watch movies. Maybe this particular adaptation could not help but strike me as contrived, or maybe the original was just too perfect to be screwed with. And, that, 28 years later, is most very indeed.
Heathers: The Musical is playing through June 26th at the Amaturo Theater of The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale and is being produced by Slow Burn Theatre Company.