Bam! Bam! Bam!

Musical theatre has a few great mad scenes, including Bat Boy's "Apology to a Cow," Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's "The Saddest Song," Edwin Drood's" A Man Could Go Quite Mad," The Wild Party's "Let Me Drown" (and arguably, "Life of the Party"), Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany," Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn"...

"Freeze Your Brain" in Heathers is closer kin to Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses," giving just hints, glimpses into the madness to come. And Heathers' "Meant to Be Yours" is a lot like Gypsy's "Rose's Turn," the characters half talking to themselves, half screaming at the world, in a full-blown meltdown.

J.D. is one of the musical theatre's more complicated characters. For anyone born before the 1960s, the initials "J.D." are still 40s and 50s slang for "juvenile delinquent." As Paul Friswold put it, in his Riverfront Times review of New Line's production, "He has lost his first love. He's a motherless child of a brutal and distant father. He's outside everything and against everything, a nihilist who feels only hatred for this world." Yet in certain ways, he's also a perverse Christ Figure, persecuted, beaten, mocked, excluded, and with his own Mary Magdalene. He even (sort of) dies for "our" sins. And his full name is Jason Dean, which isn't too far off from Jesus Christ.

Because musicals can do what movies can't, we get inside J.D.'s brain far more in Heathers onstage than in the film. Both his "mad scenes" are just full of great character writing and insightful details, as well as great 80s pop music and incredibly well-crafted lyrics, full of rhyme and alliteration. Notice that both these songs are chock full of rhyme – the verses of "Freeze Your Brain" are ABCBDD and the chorus is ABACCDD. Following Sondheim's rule, this abundance of rhyme shows us J.D. is too much in his head. He over-thinks everything.

J.D. and Veronica's first extended scene happens in a 7-11, and once the scene gets underway we realize this is no accident. This is J.D.'s home turf. This is a safe place for him to meet Veronica. The one place that's the same no matter what town his father moves them to. He's been waiting for her here. Maybe what's most surprising in this scene is that Veronica is still interested in him by the end.

He sings "Freeze Your Brain," by way of unorthodox introduction:
I've been through ten high schools.
They start to get blurry.
No point planting roots,
'Cause you're gone in a hurry.
My dad keeps two suitcases packed in the den,
So it's only a matter of when.

I don't learn the names,
Don't bother with faces.
All I can trust
Is this concrete oasis.
Seems every time I'm about to despair,
There's a 7-Eleven right there.

Each store is the same,
From Las Vegas to Boston,
Linoleum aisles
That I love to get lost in.
Yeah, I live for that sweet frozen rush...

Notice the lyric writing craft here, the richness of "No point planting roots," with the alliteration of the Ps, and the three terminal Ts. Notice all the Ss in "...faces. All I can trust is this concrete oasis. Seems... despair, there's... store is the same... Las Vegas to Boston..." You get the idea. In the third stanza, there's also a lot of L sounds, in "Las Vegas... linoleum... love to get lost in. Yeah, I live..." The lyric sounds effortless, casual, conversational, fully organic to the character, but every word is carefully chosen.

So far in the song, J.D. has told us his problem, and the solution he found. But we don't yet know why that's the solution. What does he find at 7-11 that he can't find anywhere else? Slurpees. Now we get to the real J.D. and the chorus. Notice the many S and Z sounds mashed up together here.
Freeze your brain,
Suck on that straw,
Get lost in the pain.
Happiness comes
When ev'rything numbs.
Who needs cocaine?
Freeze your brain.

Okay, that's pretty creepy. Happiness comes when everything numbs? Seriously? Back to the verse, and the problem.
When mom was alive
We lived halfway normal,
But now it's just me and my dad,
We're less formal.
I learned to cook pasta, I learned to pay rent.
Learned the world doesn't owe you a cent.

So he's fucked up, he's a loner, and he has a chip on his shoulder. Sounds like a fun date. But now he has to convince Veronica that she's as fucked up as he is...
You're planning your future,
Veronica Sawyer,
You'll go to some college,
Then marry a lawyer.
But the sky's gonna hurt when it falls,
So you'd better start building some walls...

Not if it falls, but when it falls. Happiness will not last, so the only solution is disconnection. Freeze your emotions. The opposite of what Veronica is seeking. He keeps going.
Freeze your brain.
Swim in the ice,
Get lost in the pain.
Shut your eyes tight,
Till you vanish from sight,
Let nothing remain...

But the already insistent, percussive music becomes even more relentlessly pounding, and the music moves up a key, as it drives toward the end, with an extra four lines at the end, to keep up the relentlessness.
Freeze your brain.
Shatter your skull,
Fight pain with more pain.
Forget who you are,
Unburden your load,
Forget in six weeks
You'll be back on the road.
When the voice in your head
Says you're better off dead...
Don't open a vein...

Wait a minute, what? He's also suicidal...? And he has a voice in his head? Suddenly the madness of the music stops and goes back to a light, innocent pop sound. Which is even creepier.
Just freeze your brain.
Freeze your brain.
Go on and freeze your brain...

And it ends with him insisting she take a sip of his Slurpee, and then she gets really painful brain freeze, and the audience laughs. And like Veronica, we sort of ignore all the crazy shit he's just said, 'cause he's charming. But even though it's a cute, funny moment, we've just seen J.D. convince Veronica to cause herself pain, even if in small doses. It's the first test.

And that's the less crazy of his two mad scenes.

J.D.'s big mad scene comes in Act II with "Meant to Be Yours," when Veronica has abandoned him. He climbs through her bedroom window and finds she has locked herself in the closet. And he lets loose, in a genuine mad scene, to driving, pounding, angry music...
You chucked me out like I was trash,
For that you should be dead.
But! But! But!
Then it hit me like a flash:
What if high school went away instead?
Those assholes are the key!
They're keeping you away from me.
They made you blind,
Messed up your mind,
But I can set you free!

You left me and I fell apart,
I punched the wall and cried.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Then I found you'd changed my heart
And set loose all this truthful shit inside!
And so I built a bomb.
Tonight our school is Vietnam.
Let's guarantee
They never see
Their senior prom!

The rhyme scheme of the verses is once again fairly elaborate – ABCABDDEED – even as he's losing his mind. Also notice that all this is her fault, for changing his heart and setting shit loose...

Then the music turns romantic, but also very "wrong" – it sort of feels like it's in "romantic" triple time, but it's actually alternating back and forth between 4/4 and 3/2, with each phrase 14 beats long, in other words, two beats more or two less than a normal musical phrase. The audience hears it in triple time because the first three notes are each three beats long, but once they've heard it that way, then the phrase seems to drop a weird beat at the end, like a musical hiccup.

J.D. sings, over this odd pseudo-ballady music:
I was meant to be yours!
We were meant to be one!
Don't give up on me now!
Finish what we've begun!
I was meant to be yours!

This section is also the same melody as the "Yo Girl" section the dead students sing before "Meant to Be Yours," yet when they sing it, it doesn't drop a beat. The driving music of the verse returns.
So when the high school gym goes boom
With ev’ryone inside –
Pchw! Pchw! Pchw!
In the rubble of their tomb
We'll plant this note explaining why they died:

And all the students appear in his head, saying the words with him rhythmically:
"We, the students of Westerberg High
Will die.
Our burnt bodies may fin'ly get through
To you.
Your society churns out slaves and blanks.
No thanks.
Signed, the students of Westerberg High.

The driving music returns as he imagines his violent triumph.
We’ll watch the smoke pour out the doors.
Bring marshmallows, we'll make s'mores.
We can smile
And cuddle while
The fire roars!

That's so chilling! He still doesn't take death seriously. But also, notice the craft here, like the interior rhyme of "smile" and "while;" the triple rhyme of "doors," "s'mores," and "roars;" and the alliteration of all the Ws.

And then the song transitions back again into the creepy-romantic chorus, but even that music gets crazier and crazier. Suddenly, he draws his gun and sings to the door, (with the ensemble singing certain phrases with him, which makes it all even creepier):
Open the, open the door please.
Veronica, open the door.
Can we not fight anymore please?
Can we not fight anymore?
Sure, you're scared, I’ve been there.
I can set you free!
Don't make me come in there.
I'm gonna count to three!
Fuck it!

And he charges the closet and throws it open on a huge dramatic chord. And significantly, the song does not actually end; instead it moves into underscoring and then into the next song. By this point in the story, the music is almost continuous, to keep the tension mounting. But notice that even at his maddest, he still rhymes – door and -more; free and three; and been there and in there. There also a close internal rhyme with scared and there.

It's a powerful, dramatic scene, that is made even more so by the power of the music and the way these two writers use it. And I gotta say, our J.D., Evan Fornachon has created an utterly fearless and intelligent performance that makes it very hard to condemn J.D. outright and impossible to hate him. It's a tightrope not all actors could walk, but Evan's nailing it. You really feel deeply for this J.D., and you're also terrified of him. What a role!

There's so much about this score that is surprising, that is far more sophisticated and subtle and carefully wrought than you'd ever guess just experiencing this wild, heart-pounding show for the first time. But the way the music works on you shouldn't be obvious or even conscious. At the same time, recognizing the craft and artistry that O'Keefe and Murphy put into this score makes me love it even more. There's nothing in the world like a really well-written musical.

Our Heathers run continues. We're completely sold out this weekend, and we have just one weekend left after that. I'm sure none of us will be ready to leave Westerberg High when that time comes. What a joy it is working on a show this amazing.

Long Live the Musical!