Okay, they're not literally the same, but they are substantially the same. I'm reading a great book called Morning in America, about Reagan and his influence on the culture.
Heathers is so clear to me now.
Reagan and the three Heathers all succeed/ed primarily through personality and force of will, not intellect, talent, or achievement. All of them "perform" their lives (like Sarah Palin also does). There's a lack of authenticity, a calculation, a self-consciousness to everything. They all "play their roles" more than live authentically. We see in the show the considerable toll that constant performance takes on Heather McNamara in Act II, in her song "Lifeboat." Also – and this is important – neither Reagan nor the Heathers had/have any empathy whatsoever for anyone who is "Other." (Read The Republican Brain for more on that topic.) They are fiercely tribal. And they attack what/who they fear to maintain their power and position.
I've told our actors that in every scene, they should think about where's the fear and who's being selfish. Those two things will tell us so much. Every character – like every person – fears something. And most of them have grown up being selfish without consequence.
Maybe the American musical theatre faltered in the 1980s because it fell out of sync with the culture at large in Reagan's America. Musicals had always been about community, and until 1970, almost every musical had a chorus, which represented that community. But the economics of commercial theatre in New York in the 70s made it harder and harder for a show to break even. So the chorus started to disappear from our musical stages, just as our long-held ideal of shared community started to come under attack in the culture at large. Once Reagan was elected, America was on a trajectory away from community and toward individual selfishness, cleverly re-branded as "rugged individualism." And the American musical just didn't connect to that idea.
And the new Golden Age was born.
Today, the musical theatre is in the perfect place in its evolution to look back on the 80s with clear eyes, and explore what a culture of selfishness did to our country. Heathers is entirely about that friction between the needs of the community and the wants of the individual. The showstopper "The Me Inside of Me" portrays the entire school celebrating their own selfishness, as if it's some transcendent gift Heather Chandler left them all, as if selfishness is some kind of noble, higher consciousness. What could be more 80s? The lesson Veronica must learn is that healing only happens with the recognition that we are all connected, that it takes a village, that "No One is Alone." Of course, Sondheim got there ahead of everyone else, exploring that idea with Into the Woods in 1987.
Even teen movies got darker and more complicated in the 80s – Heathers, The Breakfast Club, Footloose, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Lost Boys, Risky Business, The Outsiders, Dead Poets Society...
Maybe musical theatre faltered in the 80s because musicals must be, by definition, communal in their creation. It's essentially impossible for one person to put on a musical. It depends, more than any other art form, on collaboration – on community.
You'll notice, if you watch the news, that this idea of community vs. individual is front and center right now. The "Black Lives Matter" movement is entirely about community. So was the marriage equality movement. Only communities can solve our current problems because the problems are just too big.
The problem with the Republican position is that we are a community, of 321 million people. None of us lives in a bubble. Everything each of us does affects many other people. As Sondheim put it, in Woods, "Careful – no one is alone."
Maybe bullies like the Heathers (and, many would argue, Reagan) are the ultimate anti-community types, thinking only of themselves and not about how their words and actions impact others. Though ironically, bullies can only be bullies if they have a community in which to find victims.
We learn in Heathers that community is the answer to bullying, that empathy is the answer to selfishness. In fact, it's the solution to almost everything. This is a lesson America knew but forgot, and had to learn again after 9/11. We're all in this together, but we tend to ignore that fact sometimes, and modern technology makes that easier now than ever before.
Though perhaps social media will eventually reverse that trend...
Ultimately, Veronica and the students of Westerburg High have to learn what America had to learn in the 80s and 90s – selfishness is a cancer on community. Gordon Gekko was wrong; greed is not good. Empathy is good. A capitalist system that is amoral will inevitably oppress those in the middle and at the bottom. Any workable democracy must be built on empathy.
But that was lacking in 1980s America and 1989 Sherwood, Ohio. That was the decade of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest. America and Westerburg High both had to learn to care about others again. Which is the whole point of the musical's opening and closing numbers, "Beautiful."
Well played, gentlemen!
The adventure continues...
Long Live the Musical!