Cult movie-turned-musical doesn’t play safe
Slow Burn Theatre production of ‘Heathers’ has edge
They are mean girls on steroids. Or maybe not so pretty-in-pink types who wield croquet mallets and cruelty as weapons.
However you describe them, girls like Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara and Heather Duke — aka the Heathers — may just be the stuff of high school nightmares.
They’re also the power trio at the center of “Heathers,” a mordant 1988 movie comedy that transcended its so-so box office performance to become a cult classic. And they’re similarly up to no good in “Heathers: The Musical,” a show that had a six-month Off-Broadway run in 2014.
Thanks to its strong score, deeper character development and a big embrace by the world of social media, “Heathers: The Musical” has gone onto have a solid post-New York life. The latest chapter happens here, when Slow Burn Theatre opens its production of the ‘80s-set show this weekend in the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater.
The musical is the creation of Kevin Murphy, a screenwriter and TV producer who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical “Reefer Madness,” and Laurence O’Keefe, the composer of “Bat Boy: The Musical” and (with his wife Nell Benjamin) “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” Andy Fickman, the director who worked with Murphy on “Reefer Madness,” suggested the creative pairing for “Heathers: The Musical,” but Murphy says O’Keefe was initially reluctant.
“Larry turned us down. He didn’t think it would work,” Murphy said by phone from Los Angeles. “The original movie was very distancing. Anyone who makes a human connection gets it knocked out of them. … It took me six months to convince Larry.”
Musicals, Murphy notes, are about feelings and internal monologues expressed in song. Distancing doesn’t work. So from the bullies to the bullied, deeper motivation was key to making From left, Cristina Flores, Leah Sessa and Sunny Gay look on as Abby Perkins’ Veronica is wooed by Bruno Faria’s J.D. in Slow Burn Theatre’s “Heathers: The Musical” at the Broward Center. “Heathers: The Musical” a success.
“[We had to] get inside the heads of each of these kids and figure out who they are,” he said.
On its surface, “Heathers” presents a typical teen social hierarchy, this one at the fictional Westerburg High in Ohio.
Heather Chandler is the primo mean girl, ruling the roost along with yearbook committee chair Heather Duke and head cheerleader Heather McNamara. Student Veronica Sawyer gets swept into their orbit, even though the Heathers are exceedingly cruel to her overweight best friend, Martha Dunnstock, who is also bullied by dumb jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly. Veronica’s life takes a big turn, though, when she falls for the handsome new kid in school, the mysterious and brainy misfit Jason “J.D.” Dean. So far, so typical.
What sets “Heathers” — the movie and the musical — apart is its deft, thought-provoking treatment of a host of serious subjects: bullying, certainly, but also teen suicide, gun violence, sexual as- sault, family dysfunction, a bomb plot, even murder. Murphy calls his musical R-rated, and though it’s entertaining, tuneful and often very funny, it also resonates on multiple levels.
Slow Burn artistic director Patrick Fitzwater, who’s staging and choreographing “Heathers: The Musical,” says the show was pitched to him while the company was doing “High Fidelity” two years ago. The licensing agent at Samuel French sent him a “swag bag” with a Trapper Keeper, Corn Nuts and a red scrunchie, like the one Heather Chandler wears. Fitzwater had thought about doing “Legally Blonde,” but he and musical director Emmanuel Schvartzman fell for the “Heathers” score, and both think the musical is better than the movie.
“I’m a big fan of the composer,” Fitzwater says. “The music is sensational.”
Schvartzman, who first heard some of the “Heathers” songs at a Catholic high school where he was teaching, says the show’s score “has a lot of edge to it. It doesn’t play it safe. … It’s the heartbeat of what’s happening in these kids’ lives.”
In the Slow Burn production, Abby Perkins is Veronica, Leah Sessa plays Heather Chandler and Bruno Faria is J.D.
Perkins watched the “Heathers” movie before she auditioned “and about a million times since.” She finds it to be a gothic version of “Pretty in Pink,” and thinks there’s a reason that even 21st century high school kids connect with the musical so strongly.
“This reminds me of how high school felt. The stakes for these characters are so high, so on edge, so epic. I remember if I wore the wrong shirt, I’d get picked on,” Perkins says.
Talking about “Heathers: The Musical,” high school memories came flooding back for Fitzwater, Schvartzman and the actors, all of whom say they found a safe haven in the performing arts during those emotionally fraught years.
“I came here from Brazil and didn’t speak English at first. I had no neck — my chin and my chest connected,” says Faria of his younger, heavier self. “We moved around a lot. I was always meeting new people. When I [got into] theater, it became my family.”
Fitzwater, a tall former actor, was just 4 feet 4 inches tall as a high school senior. His family too had moved a lot, and his high school years were spent in what he calls a “Podunk” town.
“I was the same size as the trash cans in the bathroom, so I got thrown into them a lot,” he says.
Like Faria, the Argentina-born Schvartzman started school in South Florida as an outsider, speaking only Spanish and dealing with issues like middle school gangs. By high school he was deeply involved in music, playing everything from classical to jazz as a pianist and percussion in the marching band.
“I felt I was achieving a lot and receiving a lot when I was performing. I never cared to be the popular one. I knew there was nothing behind it,” he says.
In “Heathers: The Musical,” Sessa says, she’s playing “the queen bitch who rules the school.” Sessa’s high school life wasn’t like that, but she remembers a particular kind of discomfort.
“Lunch time was terrifying. There was always that fear of having to sit alone. So I’d take my lunch and eat it in the chorus room,” she says.
Murphy and O’Keefe are working on a version of their musical that’s more PG and high schoolfriendly, though Slow Burn is doing what he calls the “hard R” original.
Despite the serious content woven throughout the show, Sessa emphasizes that “Heathers: The Musical” is anything but glum.
“It’s really laugh- out-loud funny,” she says.
Then Perkins adds, “I think it’ll make you laugh and cry.”