Freeze Your Brain

I have to admit, as much as I love Heathers and as much as I wanted to direct it show, I didn't think it was a particularly political show. I guess you could argue that any serious show is political in some way. But a lot of our shows are very explicitly political, and this didn't seem to be that.

I was wrong.

Heathers is about a clash of irreconcilable worldviews, and that's exactly what our national politics have been since 1964. My last blog post was about the issue of selfishness vs. community, which sits at the heart of this show, with Westerburg High as a stand-in for our American culture and politics as a whole.

Heathers isn't just set at the end of the 80s. It's about the 80s. The three Heathers are the 80s. Maybe what the film and stage show are saying underneath is that America was acting like a bunch of spoiled, selfish, mean teenagers during the Reagan years.

One of the things I've learned about politics in the last few years came to me through a brilliant book called The Republican Brain, which summarizes all the current and recent brain research (there's so much of it now!), and demonstrates that science can partly explain the incompatible worldviews of our two major political parties. In brief, recent research shows us that different areas of the brain tend to be larger in conservative and liberal brains. Now before you dismiss this, let me say again that this comes from scientific research, but they're still in the process of figuring much of this stuff out. The research shows certain things to be true in general, but not in every specific case. Human behavior is too complex to be reduced to any single cause. Also, they don't know if people are born that way, or if their environment affects brain development in this way.

But in general, the brains of conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala, where we process fear, fight-or-flight, but also bonding, tribalism, family, some of the most basic, primal human urges. And in general, brains of liberals tend to have a larger prefrontal lobe, where we process curiosity, desire for adventure, nuance, openness, and most importantly, impulse control and empathy. The amygdala wants to protect us. The prefrontal lobe wants to explore and connect to the world. Those two impulses are fundamentally at odds with each other. With that in mind, our national politics suddenly make sense. Fox News and its audience make sense. The fact that liberals gravitate toward science, academia, journalism, and the arts, makes sense.

But it also means that half our country genuinely perceives the world differently from the other half. Many conservatives see the world as fundamentally dangerous and scary. Many liberals see the world in terms of connection and discovery. So when politicians discuss the recent nuclear deal with Iran, it's easy to see why the two sides can't agree. They literally are talking about two different deals with two different Irans in two different global contexts. Of course they can't agree. Republicans are terrified of Iran, while Democrats want to bring Iran (and Cuba, by the way) into "the community of nations." These two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible and that prevents any agreement on most big issues.

So what does this have to do with Heathers?

Heathers is also about two competing worldviews. Is the goal in life to "win" the social game by climbing the ladder higher and higher? Or is the goal to connect to the people around you and be part of a community? The Heathers are a part of this community, since they are physically inside it and they rule it, but they're not really of it. And they don't want to be. They're above it all.

One of the great divides between the political parties in America is exactly the thing that propels the plot of Heathers: a lack of empathy, the inability to imagine what the other guy feels like, or to feel what the other guys is feeling. Empathy resides in the prefrontal lobe, so if that part of your brain is smaller, it's harder for you to feel empathy.

Some studies have shown that if a baby is not given enough physical affection in the first few years of life, his prefrontal lobe may not develop properly. So when that baby grows up, if he's lacking empathy and impulse control, it's really easy for him to be mean to people, to rob a convenience store, to shoot the guy behind the counter, or to be Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. When you can't imagine how your "enemies" feel, that can be very freeing.

Sound like anyone in Heathers? Yes, the three Heathers (Chandler even more than the other two) and J.D.  Veronica is trapped between two terrible choices. I'm tempted to also add Ram and Kurt to the empathy-free list, but I don't know if they belong or not. Maybe they're just the kind of clueless that many teenage boys are; and yet, on the other hand, we witness what could well have escalated into a rape, if not for the uber-creepy comedy song that follows...

We also meet some of these damaged kids' parents in the show, and we have to wonder what kind of childhood they had... whether they had physical affection in their formative years...

I doubt that writers Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy consciously decided to write Heathers in order to mirror our national politics, but the zeitgeist surely must have made this story seem richer and more immediate to them.

The central action of the story is Veronica's journey from one terrible worldview to the next, each with its own perverse incentives, power, love, sex, violence. It's only when she returns "home" philosophically, when she returns to empathy (in the person of Martha), that she finds balance again, and our story can end. It's kind of an existential version of the classic story of the man who travels the world to find his true love (or the meaning of life), only to return home and find it was there all the time. (Same story as The Wizard of Oz.)

You might argue that Heathers is a sociopolitical fable.

When they made the movie in the late 1980s, they couldn't have known that Columbine and so many other school shootings would follow. Like Spielberg did with his films in the 80s, Heathers took us to a safe place, the American suburbs, and showed us that we're never really safe.

And that's our fault.

Off Broadway, the Heathers producers and production team treated the show like a wacky comedy. It's not. It's a very serious story, if you just summarize it. Today's new musicals are rarely just funny or just serious; most of the great ones are a wild, precarious blend of the two. But the directors and designers in New York's commercial theatre still don't understand these new shows. They still think funny has only one speed. Their instinct is always for high-speed wacky and for lots of gags. Most of these new shows deserve better.

As you can see if you've been reading my blog posts about Heathers, this is a show full of substance and serious insights into our culture, despite its many outrageous laughs. But despite its NYC production, not every moment of this show is meant to be funny. Some of it is disturbing, and some of it is very genuinely emotional.

It's an incredibly well-written piece and it's so cool working on it. We start blocking this week!

Long Live the Musical!