Heathers, the 1988 murderous black comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, is one of the best high school movies of all time. Its exploration of quirky cliques and the impossibly popular queen bees of high school went on to inspire countless comedies, such as Clueless and Mean Girls, and its subversive tone permeates many of the best teen films. But Heathers is cut from a far darker cloth than most, which makes adapting the film into a musical a great challenge, but one which turns out to be very rewarding.
The musical follows the film’s plot closely: Veronica Sawyer (Jaz Flowers), a previously unpopular girl makes her way into the coolest clique in high school — three girls all called Heather, who are known collectively as “The Heathers” and led by the coldest Heather of them all, Heather Chandler (Lucy Maunder). Veronica immediately shuns her best friend Martha (Lauren McKenna), but when she begins a relationship with a (very) troubled young man (Stephen Madsen), comes to realise The Heathers are even more cruel than she anticipated. Tensions arise and blood is shed.
Heathers The Musical, which premiered Off Broadway last year, was written by Kevin Murphy (the writer of cult musical satire Reefer Madness) and Laurence O’Keefe, who co-wrote Bat Boy and the musical version of Legally Blonde (which I firmly believe is one of the greatest musical of the past decade). You can feel the similarities with Legally Blonde from the opening number — a masterful, upbeat eight-minute song which establishes the entire world of Westerburg High School and sees Veronica work her way from nobody to one of the most popular kids in school. There are few writers who could achieve such a feat of efficient musical storytelling while developing every character in the show. That these writers are able to do so around pop rhythms and melodies (just as O’Keefe did in Legally Blonde’s opening Omigod You Guys) puts them a level above most of their contemporaries.
But Heathers is Legally Blonde’s twisted sister: the characters are not drawn in black-and-white and it does feature the memorable exclamation, “fuck me gently with a chainsaw”. And with its murders and suicides and dark moral ground, it doesn’t come with an empowering take-home message safe for children.
Director Trevor Ashley’s production is loud and proud and utterly shameless in its camp sensibility. While it’s spatially appropriate for the Hayes stage (and Emma Vine’s set of high school lockers is brilliant), it has a spirit, energy and a volume which refuses to conform to what you’d expect in such an intimate space. And there’s something quite admirable about that.
None of this would work as well as it does if it weren’t supported by a solid base of nuanced characters and camp humour as sharp as camp can be. Just like Legally Blonde, this is an intelligent piece of musical storytelling disguised as a guilty pleasure party musical, and the way that Ashley balances the belly laughs and party atmosphere with high dramaturgical standards is particularly impressive.
Unfortunately the sound mixing, at least at the industry preview I saw, is a significant problem. It’s appropriately rock (or at least pop) concert-loud, but the vocals are too low in the mix and lyrics are often lost. It’s a shame because the lyrics are full of zingers and clever, irreverent rhymes — “Let’s go, you know the drill. I’m hot and pissed and on the pill” — and are essential to the plot.
There’s also one rather obvious misstep by Murphy and O’Keefe: the song Blue has really just one joke, about “blue balls”, and only needs be half its length.
But when the direction is this exciting and the musical has been perfectly cast, there’s plenty to enjoy.
Jaz Flowers steps into Winona Ryder’s shoes as Veronica, and tears into the role’s vocal challenges, belting high into the stratosphere. It’s any diva-loving gay man’s wet dream, and while it’s not the most rewarding dramatic role — she is sort of the “straight man” in this high school full of clowns — she has charisma to burn.
Stephen Madsen’s J.D. is golden-voiced and completely dreamy. He’s the kind of beautiful disaster that everybody falls in love with at least once during high school, and when he sings the power ballad Seventeen with Flowers, it’s a gorgeously romantic moment. Erin Clare and Libby Asciak both deliver broad but extraordinarily sharp characterisation as the two supporting Heathers, and they absolutely rock designer Angela White’s absurd ’80s high school chic costumes.
Amongst all these riches, the show is stolen by Lucy Maunder as Heather Chandler and Lauren McKenna in the dual roles of Martha and Ms. Fleming. Maunder was born to play Heather Chandler and her performance is a comedic masterclass — every arched eyebrow and snarky side-eye is executed perfectly.
McKenna demonstrates a rare ability to leap in and out of distinct characters, and it’s hard to understand why Sydney audiences haven’t seen more of her. Her performance as the new-age teacher Ms Fleming is laugh-out-loud funny, but she makes the put-upon Martha Dunnstock a three-dimensional, genuinely sympathetic character. Her rendition of Kindergarten Boyfriend is genuinely heartbreaking and just one of several great surprises in this excellent musical.
Declaration: Ben Neutze is contracted by the Hayes Theatre Co for a regular column TALK