Like the cult movie to which it pays homage, “Heathers” the musical should score with all those teen misfits who fantasized about getting even with the popular kids who humiliated them in high school — which is to say, just about everyone. The witty Off Broadway show, penned by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, plays strong to a multi-generational aud ranging from digitized 20-year-olds to their parents and grands of the Gen X era, reaching all the way back to their Boomer forebears. Someone of the current generation should shake a leg and transfer this winner to Broadway.
This has been one long season (or has it been four or five long seasons?) of bumpy stage adaptations of beloved books and films. But even seasoned industry pros could pick up a few tips on the Do’s and Don’ts of adapting material from this smartly executed musical treatment of “Heathers.” The darkly funny film tanked when it opened for business in 1989 (with little-knowns Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in the leads), but once the subversive nature of the satire sunk in with the disaffected generation it represented, the movie roared back to become a cult classic.
So, first lesson: Respect the original material. Although scribes Murphy (“Reefer Madness”) and O’Keefe (“Bat Boy,” “Legally Blonde”) have done a bit of fiddling with Daniel Waters’ film scenario, the book story is essentially faithful to its source.
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Smart girl Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed, her peppy wholesomeness redeemed by a deliciously dirty laugh) is taken into the tight circle of popular senior girls known as the Heathers (because, duh, they’re all named Heather) on account of her uncanny forgery skills. But with social popularity comes a level of sadistic cruelty that Veronica can’t stomach, and she quietly defects from the inner circle. Hooking up with moody bad boy Jason “J.D.” Dean (Ryan McCartan, an attractive rebel, but no sexy psychopath), she becomes complicit in his homicidal takedowns of the school’s vicious popular girls and brutal football players.
But a successful adaptation asserts its own stylistic skill set, so helmer Andy Fickman and his creative team have translated the film’s sly satire into the bold language of musical comedy. The unit set is a flat stack of platforms. The lurid color scheme runs to turquoise and magenta. The music is a blast o’ Broadway. And forget about those cunning witches who ruled Westerberg High in the movie. The Heathers who make their flashy entrance (under a triumphal arch of lunchroom trays) in the song “Beautiful” are comic-strip cuties in Amy Clark’s paper-doll costumes and gaudy makeup.
Terrifying top girl Heather Chandler is ferociously funny in Jessica Keenan Wynn’s absolutely terrific perf. Elle McLemore makes a rather sweet dumb bunny of Heather McNamara, and that utterly untrustworthy Heather Duke is all teeth and nails in Alice Lee’s manic perf.
Other familiar characters, like perennial victim Martha “Dumptruck” (Katie Ladner) and those horny football players, Kurt Kelly (Evan Todd) and Ram Sweeney (Jon Eidson), are similarly bumped up a notch and smartly played for comedy. Everyone else in the senior class joins the chorus of generic students like Stoner Chick and Preppy Stud.
The show still deals with the serious issues that gave the movie its cutting edge: school bullying, teen sexuality, campus shootings, bomb threats and suicide epidemics. After 25 years of horrific school violence, J.D.’s terrorist persona and homicidal activities are actually more chilling today than they were when the movie came out.
But the key question with any musical adaptation isn’t so much what it retains of its source, but what original contributions it makes. In changing tone from dark-dark to playful-dark, “Heathers” loses its edge. (The upbeat ending really goes soft.) But there are rewards, too.
One bright creative move was bringing the murder victims back from the dead — to sing and dance and mouth off at Veronica and J.D. for pulling them out of high school before they could graduate. And in song after song, the scribes consistently come up with sharp lyrics, many of the lines lifted directly from the movie, for the characters’ deepest — or most superficial — thoughts.
The lyrics to “My Dead Gay Son” are unprintably funny. So are the boorish lines the football heroes sing in “Blue.” But “Dead Girl Walking” is full of smart insights into Veronica’s conflicted soul, and “Seventeen” is a surprisingly sensitive acknowledgement that even bad kids can dream of being “normal” good kids. Even at their giddiest, the lyrics never dumb down the characters singing them.
Wish we could say the same for the music, which is brassy and blah and sounds nothing like the music that made the 80s the 80s. Whatever J.D. was listening to when he was manufacturing his bombs, it probably had more synthesizer.