When it premiered in 1989, Heathers was a box office flop. In a world dominated by the feel-good teen comedies of John Hughes, people may not have been ready for the bleakness and cynicism of this misanthropic satire about the cutthroat world of high school taken to the extreme. However, in the three decades since, the now-cult classic has borne the test of time far better than Hughes’ work, which has aged poorly.
Much like a Reagan-era Shakespeare, Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers, practically crafted a new lexicon, too, producing a wealth of classic lines, many of which sadly can’t be replicated here (one involves a rather colorful activity with a chainsaw). But phrases like, “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” are truly eternal.
All of this provides a backdrop for Actor’s Express’s enthusiastic new production of the 2014 song ‘n’ dance Heathers: The Musical, written by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, which runs through October 17 at the Conant Performing Arts Center on Oglethorpe University’s campus. Notably, the cast features 12 Oglethorpe students as part of a collaboration between Actor’s Express and Oglethorpe University Theatre to foster opportunities for young actors. This casting choice adds authenticity to the ensemble of characters, who are supposed to look like they are still in high school.
The story follows Veronica Sawyer (Alexandria Joy), a student at Westerburg High School in small-town Ohio, who’s miserably part of a powerful clique of wealthy, beautiful teenagers all named Heather. When Veronica becomes fascinated by the new boy at school with the menacing mystique, Jason “J.D.” Dean (Jordan Patrick), it becomes a case of girl meets boy, boy likes girl, boy leads girl down a path of murder-revenge against the popular kids . . . you know, the age-old trope! The crux of the joke is that this has the unintentional effect of making the slain bullies seem more profound than they were in real life, raising their popularity to new heights.
In the 30-plus years since Heathers debuted, the issues it tackles, including violence in schools, bullying and depression and anxiety among young people, have only become more relevant. Pop culturally, too, the time seems ripe for this musical antidote to shows such as the manipulative soap opera 13 Reasons Why. After all, that Netflix series does precisely what Heathers so ably skewers — basking voyeuristically in the “glamour” of tortured youth.
Heathers fits into the not-exactly-official genre of musical theater comprised of musicals built from improbable source material, likely on a professional dare. Think Carrie or Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera (about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan). It feels like writerly one-upmanship. “Oh yeah? Well, I bet you can’t do NOSFERATU.” (There’s a musical of that, too.)
Unfortunately, despite the subversive promise of song titles such as “My Dead Gay Son,” Murphy and O’Keefe oddly opted to soften the edges of the story to the point where entire plot points no longer work, making the show a bit of a mixed bag. You are carried away by the diabolically fun tunes, “Candy Store,” “Dead Girl Walking” and “Freeze Your Brain,” which capture the spirit of the film, but then must slog through more saccharine Glee-sounding numbers such as “Seventeen.”
If only the musical had cast off the film studio’s system-imposed restraints from three decades ago and gone full force into the darkness, perhaps Murphy and O’Keefe could have finally staged the film’s original ending, which featured everyone getting blown up and attending prom in the afterlife.
As an example of a choice to soften rather than sharpen, Veronica is set up at first as one of the geeky underlings who, during just a few weeks, manages to infiltrate the Heathers’ clique. This waters down one of the critical components of the movie’s first-person narration, conveyed via Veronica’s frantic diary entries. There, she comes across more like a shell-shocked war veteran, embedded behind enemy lines for so long, she secretly loathes what she has become to survive.
When Veronica in the musical utters one of the great lines from the movie about how her friends are like “co-workers, and our job is being popular,” it makes no sense here, since they haven’t even been hanging out that long. It also makes less sense that she would be resentful enough to follow along with her new boyfriend’s serial killer tendencies.
Which brings up the biggest flaw in how the show was adapted: the choice to imbue J.D. with more sympathetic, gentler qualities rather than leaning into the charismatic pure psychopath that he was in the film. By giving him “pathos” and a soul because of his messed-up childhood and deranged dad, it removes the broad villainy that originally made him so darkly funny and compelling.
On the bright side, much of this show still manages to entertain and occasionally genuinely move when led by the talented Actor’s Express cast and creative team. A welcome addition the musical gives us is a powerful solo by the tormented Martha Dunnstock (whose cruel classmates sneeringly call her “Martha Dumptruck”), played wonderfully by Caroline Gammage.
During the preview performance we took in, there were some significant sound problems (mics that shorted out, gunshot sound effects that were delayed from the action onstage), likely addressed in final tech adjustments. Still, under the direction of Freddie Ashley and choreography of Precious West, there were also striking visual moments. A favorite was the smoke-filled, cartoonishly reverent entrance of “the Heathers” flanked by a row of orange cafeteria trays raised in salute.
The vibrant and innovative set, designed by Jon Noonan, should get star billing, too. It allowed for some fun touches such as when one Heather dies and another Heather ascends into the top power spot, and the looming, neon Westerberg “W” sign changes to match the outfit of the new ruling Heather.
As Veronica, Joy presents a captivating mixture of big dreams, good intentions gone wrong, hapless self-awareness and, eventually, moral fortitude.
Other standouts include Emily Whitley as original alpha mean girl Heather Chandler, relishing every haughty line, and Wendy Melkonian, who practically steals the show as Ms. Fleming, the hippy-dippy school counselor gone instantly power-mad by her sudden relevance in the wake of repeated tragedy.
To this day, Heathers the film still comes across as sharper, meaner, darker, and more cold-hearted than the many, many high school clique comedies it spawned — most recognizably 2004’s Mean Girls. And though its musical offspring doesn’t go as hard for the jugular, it does raise interesting questions. For instance: What might Heather Chandler have wrought in the social media age? One shudders to think.
Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.