Heathers

Heathers is about selfishness, and the moral and emotional damage that come from it, the inevitable result of the 1980s Me-First Reagan Revolution, which was a reaction to the turmoil and cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 70s.

If the hippies believed in community, community must be suspect. If the hippies condemned greed, greed must be good.

Heathers is about the resulting breakdown of institutions in 1980s America – the family, the community, the educational system – as Reagan convinced many Americans to distrust government and other institutions, as he successfully turned "government" into a dirty word. Americans had always believed that We the People are the government, but Reagan changed that, portraying our government – our collective act of democratic self-governance – as a massive, scary giant who's out to get us, in the process severing the sacred connection between The People are their government.

In the 1980s, with no trust in our government, no trust in community, and a growing suspicion of The Other, Reagan as architect of the Me Decade turned individualism into a cult and delegitimized the responsibility to community that had always been such a cornerstone of American life. The myth of "rugged individualism" that played such a role in the settling of our continent was revived and deified, partly in response to the communalism of the 60s and the universal distrust Reagan nurtured in his followers.

This shift away from responsibility to the community, and instead toward individual selfishness, was also the central theme of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in 1987. Often it takes historical distance to see important insights into a period, but both Heathers and Into the Woods (and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, while we're it) captured the 80s zeitgeist so perceptively, even while they were right in the middle of it.

Can we blame the kids in Heathers for being self-centered? Look at the world surrounding them, clueless teachers, ineffectual and/or absent parents, no role models, no responsibility to others, no empathy for others. Now that I'm thinking more seriously about this story, I realize it's (metaphorically) America of the 1980s that J.D. and Veronica want to blow up, the whole cold, callous, selfish Reagan Era, a time and place that could produce the Heathers.

I graduated high school in 1982. We didn't have Heathers.

In most teen comedies, one of the lead characters goes from outsider status to insider over the course of the story. In other words, most teen comedies are about conforming. If that character is unable to conform, they have to be "removed" from the community. This is also a common device in many musicals, in which the protagonist must either assimilate into the community (as in The Music Man, Brigadoon, La Cage aux Folles, Hello, Dolly!) or be removed (as in Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Man of La Mancha, Bat Boy, Urinetown).

But in Grease, Cry-Baby, and Heathers, it works in the opposite direction. In these stories, the protagonist goes from insider to outsider; but also at the same time, from outsider to insider, because both Grease and Cry-Baby present two conflicting communities. So in Grease, Sandy could be a mainstream insider with Patty, but she rejects that mainstream world for Danny; so from the Greasers' perspective, Sandy goes from outsider ("Sandra Dee") to insider. The same thing happens to Allison in Cry-Baby. In Heathers, Veronica goes from outsider to insider, and then back to outsider again. In the world of Westertburg High, being an outsider is way better than being an insider.

Is that backward structure a reaction to 80s culture? It seems that in the conforming 80s, much of our storytelling was about just that – to conform or not to conform – and after the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, many people were choosing conformity. Heathers is a cautionary tale about the dark side of "fitting in," arguing that "fitting in" is an inherently selfish act. Veronica goes from being empathetic (which is the whole point of the first part of the opening number, "Beautiful") to being fairly callous and selfish, then finally back to empathetic again.

There is a clear morality at the heart of the story. The meanest people all die, after all. Selfishness and lack of empathy are punished. It's a more lenient version of the classic slasher movie morality, in which sex is always punished by death. Here it's only those who hurt others who must die.

But Heathers is also a Faust story. Early in the show, Veronica makes her Faustian bargain with the Heathers, selling her soul for popularity and power. Unlike most Faust stories, here Veronica eventually recognizes the cost of her compromise and she's able to reverse the usual ending. It's not hard to see a parallel between Little Shop's "Feed Me" and Heathers' "Candy Store," both such delicious Faustian seductions. (And while we're on the subject of Little Shop, I'd also suggest a clear parallel between Audrey's "Somewhere That's Green" and Martha's "Kindergarten Boyfriend.")

What's so surprising and so cool about Veronica's journey over the course of the story, is that even when the "elites" reject her, she retains her power. That doesn't happen to Faust or Seymour Krelborn. This is a new model for the Faust story.

It's such good storytelling, so smart, so clever, and like Bat Boy (also by composer-lyricist Larry O'Keefe), it so beautifully walks its artistic tightrope. At times, it's so vulgar, so outrageous, so ugly, that it's easy to hold the characters at arm's length, to judge and laugh at them, to see them as Other. But at other moments in the show, characters bare their souls so fully and honestly, that it's impossible not to be moved, and impossible not to see ourselves (past or present) in these kids. Again, like Bat Boy, this is a show that would not (could not?) have been written before this new Golden Age. There's a Brechtian mix here of cold comic irony and authentic emotional connection that's very potent.

Yes, all this is going on in Heathers. Surprised?

Though the stage musical is very faithful to the original film, the show does go a little deeper and gets a little more serious. I think the Broadway production tried to work against that, but I think it's part of what makes the show so rich – and not just another paint-by-numbers movie adaptation. Heathers is a really well-crafted, original, insightful piece of musical theatre.

At our first rehearsal, I gave the cast (more than half of them newcomers!) my oft repeated discourse on The Style. I learned about The Style the first time we produced Bat Boy. It was born at the Actors Gang in L.A., but New Line has adopted it as our own. One of the Bat Boy writers, Keythe Farley, coined the phrase that has since become my mantra: "The height of expression, the depth of sincerity." Utter honesty on the inside, even though the surface style may be exaggerated. The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle.

If we spend the show indulging in sight gags, mugging to the audience, and "commenting" on the characters and action, if we focus on laughs instead of character and story, we'll lose much of what makes this show so good. So we won't do that.

Many otherwise excellent actors have tanked in musicals because they were unable to walk the treacherous acting tightrope that musicals require. Acting well in a musical, particularly in this kind of 21st-century musical, is a very special and very specialized skill that is often under-appreciated and misunderstood. It’s much tougher than it looks. Just sayin'.

This is going to be another wild ride, for us and for our audience. We've assembled a kick-ass cast to bring to life this fucked up but very honest story, which has only gotten more relevant over time. Unfortunately.

Another adventure begins.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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