The film Heathers is hands-down one of the true contemporary cinematic cult classics that the stuff of legend is made of. When originally released in 1988 this dark comedy about high school cliques, popularity, and teenage angst first introduced the world to the actor Christian Slater and also featured breakout performances from Winona Ryder in the lead role of Veronica Sawyer and Shannen Doherty as one of the infamous ‘Heathers’ that propagate much of the action and focus throughout its dark terrain.
Despite high critical praise, the film was not a big hit at the box office but quickly became a cult classic with high video sales & rentals; and in 2006 it was ranked #5 on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the ’50 Best High School Movies’.
Over 20 years later, Heathers was adapted into a stage musical directed by Andy Fickman and with music, book, and lyrics written by Laurence O’Keefe & Kevin Murphy. After a sold-out Los Angeles tryout in 2010, the musical had an Off-Broadway run in 2014, which has since become massively popular on various social media outlets.
While developed as a comedy, Heathers deals with issues of teen suicide, bullying, homophobia and gun violence in a delicately inventive and satirical manner, and now Pit & Balcony Theatre is closing out their 2017 season with an ambitious production of Heathers: The Musical that will run from May 12-13 and May 19-21st.
According to director Chad William Baker, “We’re really trying to do contemporary shows with appeal that also carry a great message to them. In recent years we’ve ended the season with contemporary and more cutting-edge musicals such as Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, last season RENT, and now Heathers; and there’s the factor of name recognition to each of them, but all have something different to say. With a lot of musicals done in the region, I don’t think audiences typically get musicals with these type of hard-hitting messages; and musical theatre is the best way to absorb that kind of stuff because not only is it fun, but you don’t see it very often.”
Baker says that he became familiar with the musical version of Heathers back when he was involved with Hairspray for Pit & Balcony a couple seasons ago. “It’s starting to become more popular with younger actors and because its based on the movie, which is actually a cult-film popular with multi-generational audiences, I went to see one production in Detroit and another in Chicago about a year ago.”
“Now Pit & Balcony is doing the regional premier and what I feel distinguishes it is that it has a really good score,” continues Chad. “Laurence O’Keefe wrote the lyrics for Legally Blonde, which we produced earlier this season; and Kevin Murphy did the musical version of Reefer Madness, so they both have experience doing these musical knock-offs of cultish theatre; and the score is an interesting mix of 80’s synthesizer music, really good rock songs, Gospel, and a variety of musical styles.”
“The plotline is similar to the film, except for combining a couple of the film characters into one character for the musical; but all the events flow fairly closely to the narrative of the film, although the ending in the musical has a more positive spin and a more hopeful ending, which is why I believe is why its so popular now. But all the biting satire is still present,” states Baker.
With topics such as gun violence and suicide that were as topical back in 1990 when the film originally broke as they are today, for Baker as well as the actors, the biggest challenge is walking that fine line between satirical comedic relief and the seriousness of the subject matter.
“We’re making fun of some pretty serious topics and its finding that fine line of doing a Black Comedy while still making it realistic that is the biggest difficulty,” reflects Baker. “But I told the cast from the beginning to play each role as realistic as possible, because most outlandish situations usually mirror life in the sense that when they happen, you have to ask how you would handle the situation. And these characters handle it the best they can, which is a lot like real life.”
With a cast of 17 actors, which is typical of Pit’s bigger year-end musicals, Chad says the turnout for auditions was quite strong. “Partly because it’s the regional premier and also because it’s become such a cult hit that many actors want to get their teeth into, we had a large turnout of actors for the various roles,” notes Chad. “We always have a female heavy audition pool and in this case, the female roles are the really meaty ones.”
The tale of Heathers mainly features the interplay between pivotal character Veronica Sawyer (performed by Danessa Hellus) and her interaction with the trio of ‘Heathers’ that epitomize the cream of pretension and popularity that tends to define the popular ‘in-crowds’ that populate most American high schools. With the P&B musical production, Heather Chandler is played by Erica Close; Heather McNamara by Rihanna Holley; and Heather Duke by Danielle Katsoulos. Finally, with the singular & pivotal role of Jason Dean (JD) that was mythologized by the performance turned in by Christian Slater in his film debut, actor Issac Wood will attempt to fill his estimable shoes.
“Danessa played a key role in Legally Blonde earlier this season as well as with Next To Normal,” reflects Chad, “last season she was in RENT and she’s simply a fine musical actress. Isaac Wood was recently in our production of Eurydice and is an SVSU alumni, so comes with quite a bit of experience; and the ‘Heathers’ are actually pretty young. Erica is a Senior at Garber in Bay City and Rihanna is a Senior at John Glenn, while Danielle and I actually attended SVSU together. Danessa and Isaac are very comfortable with one another and that’s important because it’s a pretty heavy show for those two characters, so there has to be a level of chemistry there.”
So what type of spin is Chad and the cast placing upon this darkly satirical romp through the vagaries propagated by teenage angst? “With the musical being a bit more relatable and possessing more of a positive spin that the film, it gives us a reason to care for all these characters, which I don’t think the movie necessarily did. Plus, I like that it’s a satire.”
“Heathers has a great message, which the musical puts more of a contemporary spin upon, that basically boils down to the importance of just being who you are in this life and making the world beautiful in your own way,” concludes Chad. “From the beginning line in the movie the question is posed, ‘What’s her damage, Heather?’ I want the audience to think about that question, because no one in the show is evil – each of the characters have reasons for doing what they’re doing and why they’re the type of person they are. Maybe not the best reasons; but they all have reasons.”
For Danessa Hellus, who landed the pivotal lead role of Veronica Sawyer, numerous factors led to her to audition for the part. “I’d heard the musical before seeing the movie and my brother sent a song to me from Heathers that he said I had to sing because it was so cool,” she explains. “I listened to the soundtrack and became obsessed with it and must have listened to the score a million times. I’m so in love with the character that Wynona Ryder developed in the film and the music is so killer; but its difficult, because there’s a lot of loud rock-type belting involved. That’s the most challenging thing: not totaling my voice out,” smiles Danessa, “because I have a ton of singing in this production and the vocals are super-challenging, towing that fine line between humor and seriousness.”
With regard to interpreting her character, Danessa says that while she prefers the character of Veronica in the film version, she’s incorporating many of those qualities into the musical. “In the film she is more cool and comfortable in her own skin and super bad-ass, whereas in the musical you see more of a transformation in her from this nerdy type of character into some who becomes this badass person. She’s a bit goofier in the musical, so I do a mix of both translations.”
Handling the controversial and topical material also takes an acute and precise type of talent, which Danessa feels is brilliantly handled in the musical’s script. “The script is so funny and the challenge is to make something funny that on the surface is quite upsetting,” she reflects.
“There’s parts in this production where situations happen that make your stomach hurt, but that’s what drew me to the character. Veronica is the one character you’re supposed to relate with; and I get her because she relates with everybody. She’s the one you’re supposed to empathize with because she’s stuck between wanting to be cool, but also wants to keep connected to her old nerdy friend Martha and the new boy she’s in love with. She’s so caught up in the whirlwind of Senior Year in High School that she knows will be over in a few months; but in the current moment, everything is literally life and death for her.”
Veronica’s romantic counterpart JD is being performed by Isaac Wood, who considers the film Heathers to be a total cult classic. “Not many people my age knew about it, but it was my Mom’s favorite movie so I knew about it growing up. For me JD is the character that I’ve always wanted to sink my teeth into the moment the show came into my radar. What draws me to his character is that he’s got this power to him and there is freedom in power and freedom in the fact he just does not care. Like Danessa’s character, I’m walking a fine line and have a lot of singing to deal with.”
“It’s a demanding show on all of us vocally,” he concludes, “which a lot of people won’t expect. If you listen to the soundtrack it sounds simple, but it’s deceptively complex because there’s a lot of blending and chorus work going both on and off-stage. A lot of it sounds like a rock-pop musical, but if you peal it apart there’s a lot going on with this production.”
“I just hope people have a good time with Heathers,” he concludes. “What I appreciate the most about it is how it deals with difficult subject matter but in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re watching an after-school special. It feels very self-aware”.