Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How Heathers the Musical tweaks the cult movie for a modern audience
First-time collaborators Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe are no strangers to musicalizing movies, having worked on Reefer Madness and Legally Blonde, respectively. But the book/songwriters faced a particularly tricky challenge when adapting the dark comedy Heathers, about a quippy teen and her rebel boyfriend who start killing their popular but abusive peers.
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, the 1989 film was initially a flop but soon became an immensely quotable cult hit that paved the way for irreverent high-school-is-hell sagas like Mean Girls and Glee. And that presented a problem. On one hand, Heathers' ironically flippant take on serious subjects is no longer novel---just look at South Park and Family Guy. Yet on the other, our society seems more sensitive than ever about the film's specific satirical targets---bullying, bulimia, suicide, and school shootings.
"That was something we constantly wrestled with," Murphy says. "It's also one of the reasons Larry originally turned me and Andy [Fickman, the director] down when we asked him to come on board. He said the movie was so bleak and nihilistic that he didn't see how it could become a bearable musical without being ridiculous and campy. And none of us wanted to go the Silence! The Musical route. We didn't want to send up Heathers; we wanted to reinvent it and make it relevant for teenagers today."
Their solution? To make Heathers the Musical more optimistic than the source material.
Before you wonder if the creators had a brain tumor for breakfast, both Murphy and O'Keefe insist that hints of hope actually exist in the original movie. "In the last few minutes, the heroine, Veronica, saves her school from annihilation, averts disaster, and rips the red scrunchie [a symbol of social power] off Heather Duke's head," says O'Keefe. "She breaks the cycle of violence. She embodies the change she wants to see in the world. We have more of those glimmers in the musical; we've turned Veronica into someone who fights for justice instead of just grimacing at the evil around her."
Adds Murphy, "We decided that the most subversive thing we could do was to be true to the events of the film while creating something that says, 'It gets better.'"
Of course, in order to build a kinder and gentler Heathers, Murphy and O'Keefe had to make some significant adjustments. Devotees will notice that there's no more lunchtime poll (one of those beloved cinematic details that didn't really translate to the stage), bad boy J.D. doesn't brandish a gun on his first day at school (unsettling echoes of Columbine), and the overweight loner Martha Dumptruck and Veronica's nerdy former best friend Betty are now one character. That last change works particularly well by raising the overall emotional stakes of the story.
"Martha doesn't speak much in the movie," says Murphy. "She's this iconic object of ridicule that Veronica only reaches out to at the very end. We thought it would be more gripping if Martha was a long-time friend whom Veronica wrongs and abandons and then makes amends to. In turning them into a composite character, we kept the best of both of those relationships."
In the musical, Martha, played by Katie Ladner, is certainly much more than a symbol. She gets a rich back story that includes her unrequited love for Ram, a callous jock, who kissed her back in kindergarten. It's a moment she can't move beyond, and Murphy points out that all of the characters are trapped by their pasts in one way or another.
"Veronica is caught up with how everyone used to be nicer; J.D. is messed up by his mother's suicide," he says. "First grade is around the time when kids start to become aware of the fact that some are dweebs and losers and some are not. My own son is just on the cusp of that. It's learned behavior."
Murphy continues, "Martha is like Lt. Joseph Cable in South Pacific who sings 'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.' She articulates the overall message of the musical. She's our last big thematic statement."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Chad Batka