Before Jawbreaker, Clueless, or Mean Girls, there was 1989’s Heathers, a dark cult comedy that set the standard for films about popular cliques in high school. Pre-Regina George, there were Heathers Duke, McNamara and Chandler, a trio of scrunchied debutantes who classed up the joint with delicate phrases like “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” and “F–k me gently with a chainsaw.”
The insanely quotable film celebrates its 25th anniversary on March 31, the same day Heathers: The Musical will open in New York. Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, the acerbic teen comedy is the latest movie to get the musical treatment, but Heathers’ road to the stage is a bit quirkier than other stage-to-screen adaptations. While shows like Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway, and Aladdin are heading straight to the big Broadway houses, Heathers began as a decidedly more intimate affair, having premiered last fall at a tiny theater in Los Angeles where a limited run became a sold-out sensation.
“We would have some shows that felt like the most raucous Rocky Horror audience ever,” says Barrett Wilbert Weed, who played the role of troublemaker Veronica (originated onscreen by Winona Ryder) in the L.A. run and will reprise it for New York. “People were waiting to pounce for their favorite lines, waiting and waiting and waiting for Heather to say, ‘Blah me gentle with a chainsaw,’ and they would go wild.”
In its big move to the city, Heathers will not immediately try to conquer Broadway—instead, it’ll test the waters at Off Broadway’s New World Stages, a younger-skewing underground string of theaters that often features shows that are just as fun as the margarita-slinging joint above it. While other movies-turned-stage shows like Bring It On and High Fidelity may have raised eyebrows in their initial pitches, Heathers is one of those cult hit films that simply begs to be musicalized.
Director Andy Fickman promises that every line you love from the film has made its way into the musical, whether as dialogue or lyric. The show boasts book, music and lyrics by Legally Blonde composer Laurence O’Keefe and Reefer Madness writer Kevin Murphy, whose libretto has earned the blessing of the film’s creators, on board with the production since the first workshop six years ago (in which Veronica Mars and Frozen star Kristen Bell played Veronica).
“Sometimes a movie becomes a musical and the people who did the movie don’t have anything to do with the musical. It’s the complete opposite for us,” says Fickman. “All of the original Heathers movie team have actively been a part of our family, supporting and challenging us. To watch Winona Ryder’s reaction and get her blessing, and have Christian Slater e-mail the cast, and get Dan Waters’ and Michael Lehmann’s thumbs up…that, to us, is our quality control to the Heathers fans.”
At a press-invited open rehearsal in Midtown on Feb. 19, the cast presented four songs, starting with the show opener, “Beautiful,” which introduces the audience to the recognizable characters of Westerberg High: narrator Veronica (Weed); hardheaded bullies Ram and Kurt (Jon Eidson and Evan Todd); poor, unfortunate soul Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Katie Ladne); and the Heathers Duke (Alice Lee), McNamara (Elle McLemore) and Chandler (Jessica Keenan Wynn), who make their entrance from behind a cascade of lunch trays. The other three songs included “Candy Store,” a harmony-heavy trio number sung by the Heathers to a newly-popular Veronica; “Seventeen,” a ballad sung between JD (Ryan McCartan) and Veronica after the suicide attempts are getting out of hand; and “My Dead Gay Son,” the act two showstopper which finds Kurt and Ram’s fathers lamenting over their departed and ostensibly homosexual offspring.
Here’s what we learned: the ‘80s are alive and well in the show, although more so in the aesthetic/wardrobe/vernacular than the sound (which includes a little synthesizer but that’s about all the ‘80s you’ll get). The show aims to strike a more hopeful, optimistic tone by the end—on the J.D. front, you’ll see McCartan’s villain (originated by Slater, already a big fan of the musical) earn some semblance of redemption before kicking it, and the show’s creators acknowledge that a second love story also exists: one between Veronica and her school. The musical has a few more ballads than you might expect, but it will retain the searing wit and dark tones of the film, although the characters won’t be imitations of the original actors’ performances. “Although there are going to be hints of Slater and Ryder and Shannen Doherty, we tried to stay away and give it our own kind of flair,” says McCartan. “Dan Waters gave us his blessing to do that, and this is all about Kevin and Larry brilliantly translating the movie to the musical.”
And of course, you want to know about the trio playing the Heathers. As leading bully Heather Chandler, Wynn (Les Miserables) bears a striking resemblance to her film counterpart, the late Kim Walker. Army Wives and Bring It On: The Musical star McLemore plays the weak-willed Heather McNamara, waxing very Gretchen Wieners, and Spring Awakening alum Lee plays ambitious second fiddle Heather Duke. The trio should bring sweet justice to the three famous roles, which Wynn says are grittier than some other iconic ’80s characters. “It’s more of a truthful tale as opposed to the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s,” gushes Wynn. “You have Pretty in Pink, you have Breakfast Club, but for the most part, those were pretty vanilla when you’re comparing them to this very dark, edgy tale.”
Based on what was shown in rehearsal, Heathers: The Musical could be the dark horse musical comedy hit of the spring. Appealing directly to anyone who’s ever been in high school, the show appears to be packed with pitch black humor, devilish lyrics only a seasoned team of satirists could devise, and the kind of harsh high school truths that made the original film so deliciously dark. As far as the Off Broadway theater scene is concerned, there may be a new sheriff in town, and her name is Heather.