I overheard a patron after one performance saying, "I liked the first act, but Act II hit too close to the real world."
What's the point of doing a piece of theatre that doesn't speak to this moment and this place? What's the point of doing theatre that isn't about real life? Humans don't tell stories because there's nothing better to do, or to "divert" ourselves. Storytelling is how we explore and understand and preserve our knowledge, culture, politics, history, morality, and so much more.
Reading about Heathers the Musical in the New York press, or even seeing the off Broadway production photos, you'd think it was a silly, spoofy take on a quirky cult film comedy. That couldn't be further from the truth. There's so much more to this show than the New York production revealed.
Since we started working on Heathers, I've argued that, as outrageously funny as much of it is, it's really a thriller and not a comedy. A fucking intense thriller. Over the last couple weeks watching all the pieces come together, and particularly seeing the show in front of audiences now, it's confirmed for me that Heathers is closer cousin to West Side Story or Sweeney Todd than Legally Blonde.
And now that my directing job is essentially over, I can really just watch the show, without constantly assessing everything. And holy shit, it is a wild roller coaster ride that leaves you breathless by the end. Our audiences are going wild for it, with sold-out houses and standing ovations every night, and the reviews have been raves.
Part of the fun of being able to relax and just enjoy the show now, is that I'm now noticing even more musical and textual themes than I had already found. As only one example among many, even though the story itself is packed with murder and suicide, the script and lyrics are also riddled with death-related slang and euphemisms and metaphors. Even beyond the actual deaths in the story, death permeates this show…
Fair Warning: There are bound to be some spoilers here...
In “Beautiful,” Veronica sings, "College will be paradise if I’m not dead by June.” She also says she'd like to "light a match and set this dump [the school] abalze." Strictly metaphorical at this point, but also sly, ironic foreshadowing. Later in the song, Ram threatens the Geek, “You’re gonna die at 3p.m.” Here, Ram sort of means it literally, but doesn't actually intend to murder the kid, right?
In “Candy Store,” the Heathers sing, “You can live the dream or you can die alone.” Not really metaphorical this time, but dying of old age isn't murder or suicide. And again, this line is foreshadowing, but only recognizable in retrospect.
In “Freeze Your Brain,” J.D. starts one verse, “When Mom was alive…” which of course implies that she's dead now. That sets up an important plot point, and it's the first time death is part of the story, though the audience doesn't know how yet. Later in the song, J.D. sings, “When the voice in your head says you’re better off dead, don’t open a vein…” What's fascinating about this is that on the surface, he's saying "Don't kill yourself; just numb yourself." But the lyric also foreshadows J.D.'s fate.
There's so much death in this script that even a stage direction during the piñata scene says, “The party has come to a dead stop.” Can't blame 'em, right?
In “Dead Girl Walking,” Veronica is thinking about metaphorical, "social" death, and her thoughts are packed with death metaphors, a whole song as foreshadowing. She sings, “I don’t have to stay and die like cattle.” and “Before they punch my clock…” and to J.D., “You’re my last meal on death row.” Death is on her mind, well before any actual deaths happen.
Another fun throwaway... Right before Chandler drinks from the mug, she says to Veronica, “You’re dead to me.” Once again, metaphor in ironic opposition to reality.
Then Act I ends with one of the theatre's most terrifying love songs (how long can that list be?),“Our Love is God,” in which Veronica and J.D. sing:
We can start and finish wars.
We're what killed the dinosaurs.
We're the asteroid that's overdue.
The dinosaurs will turn to dust.
They’ll die because we say they must…
Think about this. They're talking about the Biggest Death Metaphor possible: the extermination of the dinosaurs. As a freaky declaration of love. Their power is now infinite; they are a destroying asteroid, a Heavenly Body. Actors love high stakes, and I don't think they could get much higher than this. This last line lays it all out for us: "They'll die because we say they must." Suddenly, we're not in metaphor anymore. J.D. is now talking about the Bad People. But the audience doesn't know that yet.
Before the song is over, we get the clearest foreshadowing yet, a description of the end of the story, as J.D. sings, “I’d trade my life for yours.” If we don't know how it the ends we hear this line as romantic metaphor. It's a brilliant fake. It's the one time in a musical when someone sings that and means it. And we don't see that coming.
What's fascinating here is that Veronica and J.D. essentially have two love songs. This first one starts with J.D. and it's full of violent imagery, The second, "Seventeen," starts with Veronica, and it's all the most innocent imagery you could imagine. We see in these two songs how fundamentally mismatched our lovers are. They see the world very differently.
Then J.D. finally tells the full story of his mother's suicide, and so many pieces of the larger puzzle fall into place. This is the death that started it all. And the writers make us wait this long to get that information, for a really good reason. All through Act I, though J.D. seems a little scary, he's also charming and romantic, and we grow to really like him. Only at the end of Act I is that tested. Now, halfway through Act II, we finally find out the whole truth, which reveals so much to us that's horrifying, but we're invested in J.D. now.
Before she sings, "Lifeboat," she starts by saying:
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.
In our production, the gifted Larissa White plays Mac so honestly that the laugh after the punchline is very low. When acted well, the punchline is powerfully emotional, because it's not just a joke; it's awkward and uncomfortable, because it's Mac being nakedly honest about what she's feeling. And when the Mean Kids end the reprise of "Shine," almost screaming "Die alone!" over and over at Mac, the gravity of all this becomes inescapable. This is where Heathers earns it all.
In “Meant to Be,” J.D. has two potent lines: “You chucked me out like I was trash, for that you should be dead.” and “You carved open my heart, can't just leave me to bleed!” Everything in his head, all his imagery, comes from violence. He's stuck in that traumatic moment in his childhood. By now, the accumulation of all these death images and language becomes overwhelming. It makes the last twenty minutes of the show "ruthlessly intense," as one of our reviews put it.
There are two other very funny-sick "death" moments in Act II. First, as Ms. Fleming is introducing her anti-suicide dance number, "Shine a Light," she says with ponderous self-import, "Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make." She goes on, "So you know what I'm gonna do right now?" And the Hipster yells out, "Kill yourself on stage?" And everybody laughs. Including us in the audience. But that's some sick shit, especially right after a student has apparently killed herself. We've become numb to death.
The other funny-sick moment is when Fleming runs into Veronica and is very put out to discover that Veronica has not killed herself. Fleming is "vaguely disappointed," according to the stage direction, and she says, with a bit of a pout, "I threw together a lovely tribute. Especially given the short notice." Again sick but funny. Death, death, death.
But wait, there's more.
As the show climaxes, “Dead Girl Walking” returns. In Act I, the title referred to metaphorical "social" death; now it's about actual death. And the lyric for the Westerberg pep rally return, its images of death suddenly scarier:
Hey, you Westerberg! Hey, yo Westerberg!
Tell me what's that sound?
Here comes Westerberg,
Comin’ to put you in the ground!
Go go Westerberg,
Give a great big yell,
Westerberg will knock you out
And send you straight to hell!
In context, that's some heavy shit. Which makes it powerful vocal underscoring for the dramatic climax of the story. And also still more foreshadowing.
Even at the very end of the show, when a brighter tomorrow seems possible, even as we return to the show's opening song, "Beautiful," just before the end, they all sing, “And maybe then we’ll never die!” Surely that's not literal, right? So what does it mean? Maybe it means if we all have some empathy, our society will live and thrive, and if we don't, we won't.
This is a story about conquering darkness, a fable about the death of selfishness and the rebirth of empathy. They're leaving the 1980s. They're gonna be okay.
At least until the 2000s.
What an amazing musical and social document this is.
Long Live the Musical!