A Raging Black Ocean

Jonathan Gottschall writes in his excellent book The Storytelling Animal, "Story – sacred and profane – is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Garner puts it, Fiction 'is essentially serious and beneficial, a game player against chaos and death, against entropy.' Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold."

And we have been engaged in some heavy-duty storytelling these last several weeks.

There are three things about Heathers that surprise the hell out of our audiences. First, that the show is as vulgar and aggressive as it is. It paints a very ugly picture of this micro-society. Second, that it is as intense as it is; at least on stage, it's definitely more crime thriller than teen comedy. And third, that the show includes moments of genuinely transcendent beauty and emotion, amidst the terror and hormones run amok. It's those moments in which the show really earns it.

It continues to baffle me why it seems that the director off Broadway thought this is a musical comedy, but that's how he staged it. Of course, I think he wildly misdirected Reefer Madness off Broadway as well. He's a director who does not trust his material or respect his audience. Heathers is a much more serious, more complex piece than the off Broadway production would suggest.

Here are two cases in point, both from Act II, where the story turns considerably darker. Several people in our audiences have remarked to me how much darker and more serious the musical is than the movie (something the off Broadway production did not understand). I think one of the central reasons for that difference in tone is that musicals use interior monologues, so characters can just tell us outright what they're thinking and feeling. In the case of Heathers onstage, the implications of the outrageousness and cruelty become much more obvious, because emotion is at the forefront of the story.

Because this is a musical.

It's interesting how constantly murder and suicide dance around each other in this show, masquerading one for the other, sometimes real, sometimes not. The show traps us by making the first three murders, all in Act I, funny. By the time we get to Act II, we're not taking death any more seriously than J.D. does. And then the show shakes us out of that complacency and smacks us with the real pain all this ugliness causes – all this ugliness we were laughing at all through the first act.

It's when Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy force us to face this shit, that the show makes its bones. This is no teen comedy. This is a show comfortably in the artistic company of Cabaret, Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Early in Act II, the guidance counselor Ms. Fleming's ridiculous anti-suicide rally gets accidentally sidetracked into genuine emotion, with Heather McNamara's powerful solo, "Lifeboat." Notice that the lyric follows one of Sondheim's rules, that rhyme in theatre lyrics connotes intelligence and/or presence of mind. The more intellectual, the more rhyme; the more emotional, the less rhyme. Here is a song that's uncomfortably emotional, and so there is very little rhyme here, essentially one rhyme per stanza, only at the end, which is in real contrast with much of the Heathers score. Not only that, but it's the same rhyme in every verse, subtly altered each time, but still...
I float in a boat
On a raging black ocean.
Low in the water
And nowhere to go.
The tiniest lifeboat,
With people I know.

Cold, clammy and crowded.
The people smell desp'rate.
We'll sink any minute,
So someone must go.
The tiniest lifeboat,
With people I know.

Everyone's pushing,
Everyone's fighting,
Storms are approaching,
There's nowhere to hide!
If I say the wrong thing
Or I wear the wrong outfit
They'll throw me right over the side!

I'm hugging my knees,
And the captain is pointing.
Well, who made her captain?
Still, the weakest must go.
The tiniest lifeboat,
Full of people I know.
The tiniest lifeboat,
Full of people I know.

One of O'Keefe's favorite acts is to give his audience emotional and narrative whiplash, jerking them between hilarious and poignant, wacky and sad. Mac's short monologue leading up to "Lifeboat," ends with a very dark, but undeniably funny punchline, which gets a big laugh that almost immediately quiets, as the audience sees Mac is dead serious. She says:
My sort-of boyfriend killed himself because he was gay for his linebacker. And my best friend seemed to have it all together, but she's gone too. Now my stomach's hurting worse and worse, and every morning on the bus I feel my heart beating louder and faster, and I'm like Jesus, I'm on the frickin' bus again 'cause all my rides to school are dead.

That's a dark fucking punchline, and the audience instantly recognizes the uncomfortable truth in what she says. And really, it's brilliant writing, leading seamlessly into the song, fully character-driven. And it really drives home the social isolation of this girl who until recently was on the top of the social heap, her pain, her fear. It's funny because the punchline is such a surprise, but it's also sad as hell. And that's the beauty of this show.

The other powerhouse emotional solo, Martha's "Kindergarten Boyfriend," just shatters our audience every night. It's intentionally childlike, with short sentences, very simple vocabulary, very child-like images, which give her a palpable innocence. Martha is forever stuck emotionally at age five, kissing Ram on the kickball field in kindergarten, a time and place before judgment and cliques and social cruelty.

This song is very much like the brilliant "Somewhere That's Green" in Little Shop of Horrors. It's power is in its simplicity, in how little Martha asks from life to be happy, and how impossible we know her dreams to be. Lyricist-bookwriter Howard Ashman wrote a forward to the published Little Shop script that also applies to Heathers, and especially to Martha. He wrote:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

In fact, this applies to many shows New Line produces, including Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, BBAJ, and many others. The more honest, the most heartfelt, the more powerful. The writers take care of the outrageousness; the actors supply the honesty and emotional reality. Notice that there are no rhymes in this song. Just raw emotion.

Martha sings:
There was a boy I met in kindergarten.
He was sweet, he said that I was smart.
He was good at sports and people liked him.
And at nap time, once, we shared a mat.
I didn't sleep, I sat and watched him breathing;
Watched him dream for nearly half an hour,
Then he woke up.

He pulled a scab off, one time, playing kickball.
Kissed me quick, then pressed it in my hand.
I took that scab and put it in a locket.
All year long I wore it near my heart.
He didn't care if I was thin or pretty,
And he was mine until we hit first grade.
Then he woke up.

This last sentence returns, now with much different, much deeper meaning; and this image of waking up will return again. Once the real dream dies, the song moves into fantasy, just as Martha has done all these years. And the music takes flight along with the imagery...
Last night I dreamed
A horse with wings
Flew down into my homeroom.
On its back there he sat,
And he held out his arms.
So we sailed above the gym,
Across the faculty parking lot,
My kindergarten boyfriend and I...
And a horse with wings…

The only world she knows is school and the people there. And reality is smacking her in the face now.
Now we're all grown up and we know better.
Now we recognize the way things are.
Certain boys are just for kindergarten,
Certain girls are meant to be alone.

You've got to be carefully taught. The script tells us, "Lights change to reveal Martha standing on the edge of a bridge."
But I believe that any dream worth having
Is a dream that should not have to end.
So I’ll build a dream that I can live in,
And this time I’m never waking up.
And we'll soar
Above the trees,
Over cars and croquet lawns.
Past the church,
And the lake,
And the tri-county mall!
We will fly
Through the dawn,
To a new kindergarten...
Where nap time is centuries long.

Martha raises her arms, as if to fly. As she leans back... Blackout. Splash. And all this was foreshadowed back in Act I, at the homecoming party.

"So I'll build a dream that I can live in, and this time I'm never waking up." Wow. This image of waking returns, now in the context of the story's first real suicide attempt, a "dream" in which "nap time" – the big sleep? – the only possible safe place, "is centuries long." It's not just beautiful language, not just authentic emotion, but also rich, character-driven poetry. Only Martha could sing this song, because only this character would feel these things, but only in a musical could her pain be this eloquent and revealing.

These two songs change how we watch the rest of the show. We are no longer at an ironic distance; we are elbows deep in these messy, authentic emotions, and it makes for some powerful, harrowing theatre in the last twenty minutes.

We close this week, having sold out all but one performance (our preview). I will miss this show, this cast, and this wild, wonderful experience of living inside this gorgeous, rich, thrilling music for the last several months. It's been such a privilege and such fun.

On the bright side, half this cast is going on to American Idiot with us...

Long Live the Musical!