Theatre Review: Heathers the Musical

How does the plot from an American film made three and a half decades ago manage to fill a theatre in Blackpool on a drizzly Tuesday night? Heathers The Musical proves the allure of mean girls is as timeless as it is twisted.

It was slightly mind boggling to see so many teenagers dressed as the titular characters of Heathers the Musical on its opening night at Blackpool Opera House. But the venue and tour producers were obviously switched on to its popularity, packing in eight shows to its five-day run.

The 1988 film starred Winona Ryder at her most dark and enchanting – fresh from Beetlejuice and with Edward Scissorhands ahead of her – as protagonist Veronica Sawyer. Her co-star Christian Slater a perfect counterpart as JD, the smouldering, mysterious and rebellious new kid at Westerburg High, Ohio. There, a trio of queen bees – all called Heather – call the shots. The film was a critical rather than a box office hit and it’s off-kilter black comedy elevated it over the decades to a cult classic.

The cult of the Heathers has clearly followed them into the film’s stage adaptation, which it not a natural musical but is at home among the likes of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon for pushing the boundaries of what musicals can do. The knife-edge humour of these shows rubs up uncomfortably with the format of big-show numbers to provoke shock and discomfort that audiences squirm and revel in.

It’s clearly a format that will appeal to teens, who will get the feeling they’re taking part in something illicit (Heather’s the Musical is delightfully sweary!) and the energy they brought to the theatre was infectious, at times making the musical feel almost interactive – something the cast are clearly used to and dealt with flawlessly. The cheer the Heathers received on their first synchronised entrance made those of us oblivious to the musical’s place in young people’s black hearts soon realise – this isn’t a regular musical, this is a cool musical.

With lyrics and book by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, the off Broadway show enjoyed two seasons in London in 2018 before heading on tour this year, directed by Andy Rickman. The story follows Veronica, a clever social outcast, as she navigates her senior year and will seemingly do anything to get her through the last few brutal months of high school. Her unusual talent for forging handwriting presents an opportunity to get into the Heathers’ good graces and, despite throwing her best friend since kindergarten, Martha Dunnstock (cruelly nicknamed Dumptruck), under the school bus in the process – she takes it.

In a meta twist to the tale it’s entirely probable that it’s social media that has elevated the musical version of Heathers to cult darling.

But when JD, a troubled kid who has bounced around the country with his widowed father for the past eight years. arrives as Westerberg quoting Baudelaire, her attentions are divided. His plot to shake up the social order by taking down those as the top of the ladder down a peg or two at first seems like a noble pursuit and Veronica is a willing participant. But when things take a darker turn she finds herself complicit in acts far worse than any school yard bullying and craves the normal life of a 17 year old. Ultimately there are strong moral and heartwarming themes teased out among the bitterness – but audiences don’t seem to be turning up for them.

Like many high school dramas, what makes Heathers compelling, relatable viewing is that the setting presents an intensified version of society as a whole. But, more than that, the screenplay, written by Daniel Waters when he was just 23, was unsettlingly prophetic. Bullying, eating disorders, gun violence, teen suicide and sexual assault were of course all sources of anxiety for teenagers in 1988, but in the internet age these themes are all the more prescient.

“It’s funny that what was kind of satirical fantasy, almost borderline science fiction, has got now the blood of reality,” Waters told the Irish Times in 2018, clearly not having lost his dark humour. “It’s kind of terrifying and kind of amazing too. I didn’t know I was Nostradamus.”

In a meta twist to the tale it’s entirely probable that it’s social media that has elevated the musical version of Heathers to cult darling. It was only when JD sang his desperate refrain in Meant To Be Yours – “Veronica, open the, open the door, please. Veronica, open the door…” – that I recognised it as an internet meme.

Despite this catchy chorus – and risking the wrath of the Heathers – much of the music in the show didn’t match the heights of the best musicals. For those of us brand new to the score there was very little to grab onto or that immediately identified itself as the stand-out show tune. And while the lyrical content was often dark and intriguing, some of it seemed almost superfluous – do we really need a song to describe this teen angst the cast has already so brilliantly portrayed? Other times the sunny musical devices seemed not to serve as a bonus layer of discomfort but to do the show a disservice. Just as a scene would become intense and unnerving the audience was yanked away from its feelings and into an all-singing and dancing number.

The production, choreography, vocals and acting were, however, flawless. Jenna Innes as Veronica is superbly cast in a role synonymous with Winona Ryder and played Veronica with nuance that’s sometimes difficult to translate in such a big production. Similarly, Jacob Fowler amped up the tension from brooding to murderous with subtlety in a show that is otherwise anything but subtle.

Billie Bowman, Elise Zavou and Verity Thompson, meanwhile, occupied the roles of mean girls so convincingly that those conflicting adolescent feelings of admiration, fear and loathing were summoned to the surface after decades lying dormant. I’m not sure what it says about audiences that they have elevated these utterly odious characters to cult status. Perhaps that we are all a little bit twisted and sadistic? If you fancy letting that part of you play out for a couple of hours, this is definitely the safe space to do it.

Heathers the Musical is at Blackpool Opera House until Saturday with matinee performances of Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Get tickets here. Main image (l-r): Jenna Innes as Veronica, Verity Thompson, Billie Bowman and Elise Zavou as the Heathers.

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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