New Line's sold-out, critically acclaimed production of the brilliant rock musical Heathers is now just a memory. Right now, I don't think we'll ever return to this show, but I've learned never to say never.
The response was amazing. Every night sold out except our preview, with standing ovations every night, and so much love from the press! Here are just a few quick samples:
"This is beyond must-see entertainment. . . You'll be dazzled by its brilliance." – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld
"A racy rock score drives 120 mph into the dark, libidinous story with a narrative intelligence reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan on coke." – Chris Limber, Buzz On Stage
"A spectacular production." – Tina Farmer, KDHX
"As entertaining as it is terrifying." – Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times
"Ruthlessly intense in the final 20 minutes" – Richard Green, TalkinBroadway
"One of the standouts of the year." – Lynn Venhaus, Belleville News-Democrat
What a wild, awesome ride it's been. We assembled a truly exceptional cast, funny, gutsy, inventive, and more than half of them new to our company; our designers all did excellent work; and we discovered as we worked that this powerful, beautiful show is way more serious, more intelligent, more insightful than any of us thought. And way more relevant. It's about far more than high school violence.
As J.D. puts it, "People are going to look at the ashes of Westerberg and say there's a school that self-destructed not because society didn't care, but because that school was society." How meta. I can't imagine any other moment in history more exactly tuned to Heathers' satire and its message than right now. And what is that message?
We don't have to be assholes.
In this historical moment, when many Americans genuinely believe our President is trying to destroy our country, when huge chunks of the American electorate think the usually nasty Donald Trump would make a good President, when Congress is pursuing the nastiest kind of partisan witch hunt against a Presidential candidate, Heathers delivers an important lesson for us.
We can choose not to be assholes. Each one of us, every day. We can choose.
When the relative anonymity of the internet makes it so easy to be mean, to belittle, to insult, to assault verbally (have you ever read the comments on political news stories?), Heathers tells us that we can choose to be Heather Chandler and Heather Duke, or we can choose to be Veronica. J.D.'s response to the cruelty of Westerberg High is to be even worse than they are, but that only drags him down to hell with them. Veronica learns that the only reasonable answer is to reject the cruelty, to be different from the assholes.
Veronica and Gandhi.
She chooses not to be an asshole. Okay, sure, it takes her a while, but we should cut her some slack. Who among us could resist Charming J.D. in Act I?
Heathers starts and ends with twin phrases. At the beginning, we hear it many times, "We can be beautiful." By the finale, that phrase changes to "We'll make it beautiful." It's no longer just a possibility; now it's a decision. That's not some Hallmark sentiment. That's the point of the show. We can choose to be beautiful, to be open and optimistic and joyful. We can choose to embrace life, rather than struggle against it. We can chose not to see life as a zero-sum competition.
To be fair, J.D. (at least as drawn in the musical) is probably too fucked up to choose well. He's more complex than that. We all have damage, but J.D.'s goes pretty deep and pretty far back. As he sings to Veronica, just before the finale, "I am damaged, far too damaged, but you're not beyond repair." He's right. Maybe his most tragic flaw is his self-awareness. He's knows exactly how damaged and how toxic he is. But at least there's enough good in him to make his final selfless act. Which makes him even more tragic.
Veronica is our surrogate, the audience's way into the story and also our guide (as narrator) through these moral "woods." As the great James Baldwin wrote in his 1962 essay, "The Creative Process":
The conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
The redemption at the end is so powerful for us because Veronica is our stand-in. We know we've all done mean things, said mean things, hurt people. But through Veronica we can be redeemed. We can find our way out of those dark woods.
We can choose not to be assholes. If Veronica can do it, so can we.
It's a more hopeful companion piece to both our last two shows, The Threepenny Opera and Jerry Springer the Opera.
I think most of our audiences were both deeply moved and genuinely surprised by this show. It's so much richer and more beautiful and more emotional than anyone expected. In comparison, the film (which I've always loved) seems a little less intense now that we can see how powerful this story really can be, how emotionally harrowing. In all fairness, much of that power comes from this rich, evocative music, and the musical theatre's ability to do interior monologues, like "Kindergarten Boyfriend," "Fight for Me," and the first part of "Dead Girl Walking." What a fucking show!
I am forever indebted to our cast, our musicians, and our designers and staff. Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms, and a show isn't this great unless everybody involved is doing their very best. I am a very lucky man – I get to do what I've always wanted to do, and I get to do it with really talented, really smart, really creative people. I often end my blog posts with "I love my job," but that doesn't begin to cover it...
Many, many thanks to all the New Liners who worked on this, to the press who really understood this difficult piece, and to St. Louis audiences, who so embraced our show and gave us a sold-out run full of standing ovations. I am so grateful.
And one last special mention. Pretty much from the minute I decided we'd produce Heathers, or at least from the first time I heard the score, I knew I needed Anna Skidis to play Veronica. We don't often pre-cast roles, but this was a no-brainer. I knew she'd be extraordinary in this role, and I was right. I can't imagine any actor being more right for this role. Every night, she and Evan (as J.D.) made me laugh out loud and they broke my heart, and Jesus, I could listen to them sing (together or separately) forever. Actually, if I were really rich, I'd just hire these sixteen actors to come sing for me once in a while. What a glorious sound they all made together.
One line from the show pretty much captures my feelings right now: "Holy shit!"
Goodbye, Westerberg. We'll miss you!
Long Live the Musical!