Yo Girl, Keep it Together

Much like Larry O'Keefe's score for Bat Boy, so too is O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy's Heathers score far more sophisticated and complex than you'd guess after one hearing. Here, music is a powerful storytelling tool, not just accompaniment. The writers use quite a few musical themes both to give the score (and the show) a sense of unity, to hold it together, but also to enhance the storytelling, to dial up the suspense, to add subtext and subtle connections.

In many places throughout the score, this is film music, more soundscape than melody, intensifying the tension and emotion in dialogue scenes, and illustrating my argument that this show is more thriller than comedy. In other places in this score, the music connects moments and ideas, reminds us of relationships and plot points, reveals dramatic or thematic ironies, and lots more.

The show begins with I call the Westerberg High "Daily Life" theme, which is used throughout the show to introduce scenes in the school, often coupled with a school bell to suggest a new day. The music is almost entirely off the beat, and it drops a beat at the end of each phrase to make us feel like something is a little off here…

Both in the opening and in the “Blue” reprise, this off beat instrumental theme pairs up with percussive vocals in opposition to it, hurling horrible insults. In the opening, it seems funny, "typical" of high school kids; but the second time it’s scary. The stakes are higher now, and the insults sound more like threats now. In the opening, the insults are random, generalized; in the “Blue” reprise, they are very specific and designed to hurt.

There's also an "intrigue" instrumental motif that shows up throughout the show. It first appears in the opening number, underscoring the scene in which Veronica forges a hall pass to fool Ms. Fleming and rescue the Heathers from detention. That's the moment that brings Veronica into the Heathers' orbit, which sets the entire plot in motion. This motif returns again when the Heathers visit Veronica's house; she is one of them now.

This music returns again, but altered, when Chandler first sets in motion the humiliation of Martha, here with the "Beautiful" theme in counterpoint. This double-motif also shows up in the scene where Duke claims the top Heather spot, and also under the scene in which Martha tells Veronica that she thinks J.D. killed Kurt and Ram. In all of these moments, the music tells us subliminally that the intrigue has infected Veronica's dream of a "Beautiful" world in which everybody gets along. Her dream in the opening number was joining the "Beautiful" world of the Heathers; now that she's arrived, she finds it decidedly un-beautiful, made (literally) dissonant by the intrigue.

The "intrigue" motif is sometimes paired in underscoring with what I'll call the "Yo Girl" motif (also connected to intrigue and suspense), music that we don't hear in its full form until "Yo Girl" in the middle of Act II, but we hear it before that under dialogue, leading us to Veronica's impossible situation in "Yo Girl." It also shows up under the confrontation between Veronica and J.D. versus Ram and Kurt at the end of Act I.

The show's central musical theme is the "Beautiful" theme, established in the opening number. This music tracks Veronica's dramatic arc over the course of the show.  We first hear it several times in the opening, representing her optimism (“I know…”), and the future she assumes is ahead. Late in this first song, Heather Chandler appropriates this theme as the Heathers are making over Veronica. Now because the singer and point of view have both changed, the lyric refers to outer beauty, and no longer to moral or emotional beauty. Veronica's theme has been made shallow by Chandler, a musical equivalent of what will happen plot-wise.

The “re-made” Veronica finishes the show’s opening with one more quote of “Beautiful,” but this time as an over-the-top 80s pop anthem with full choral backup; and now the word “beautiful” refers to social success. Veronica has already had her worldview corrupted by the Heathers before the first song is even over. The measure of Veronica’s narrative arc is when and how she returns to using the word “beautiful” (and its musical theme) to mean inner beauty again. It's the musical equivalent of Veronica's overall arc, from empathy to selfishness, and back to empathy again.

Each time this music is repeated, the section of music right before the chorus (can we call it the “Dreams theme”?) becomes less percussive, less syncopated, more linear, smoother, prettier, and that “nicer” music always accompanies Veronica thinking about better days in the future.

The "Beautiful" theme returns in “Dead Girl Walking,” but now referring to J.D.’s physical beauty and their burgeoning love affair. It returns again at the very end of the show (I love bookends!), but now “beautiful” refers to their collective decision to act to make the world beautiful. They’re no longer naive enough to believe the world is already beautiful; now they know that it takes effort and vigilance. They've grown up, and this musical theme has tracked that.

The “Heathers” theme ("Ahh-ahh, Heather, Heather, and Heather...") is a major musical theme that doesn't gets used as one. It’s actually a fake theme. It dominates the second part of the show’s opening (“Beautiful” Part II), when the Heathers first enter. But we never hear it again, except twice as underscoring. Why? Because this show isn’t about the Heathers; it’s about Veronica. And even though we assume by the end of the opening that the Heathers are our antagonists for the evening, they’re really not; J.D. is. I have no idea if O’Keefe and Murphy did this consciously, but it’s a brilliant fake that powerfully serves the purposes of the story…

What's fun about this theme is that it's made up of four short phrases. The first time we hear it with vocals, the first phrase accompanies a generic "Ahh-ahh," and the following three phrases each get a "Heather." By the end of the opening, the "Ahh-ahh" is gone, and the four phrases now include the three Heathers plus Veronica; she has been raised up to their (musical) status and the whole school is singing her praises. But the writers don’t let us forget that she has been a nobody, so the first sightings of the new made-over Veronica are "...and someone," "...and a babe," and only when Martha shouts out her name do the rest of the students finally sing, “Veronica” – over and over, as obsessively as they just sang about the Heathers.

But this seemingly important musical theme doesn't return, except as underscoring, first under Heather Duke's appropriation of Heather Chandler's red scrunchie, and then again, when Veronica returns and claims the top Heather spot (and the scrunchie) from Duke. Here at the end, it's in a much less bombastic form. Things are different now.

The "Stomp-Stomp-Clap" is an aggressive rhythmic theme that permeates the entire score. If you listen for it, you can hear it all over "Dead Girl Walking," in the last verse of "Freeze Your Brain," and in other places in the score. (Weirdly, the first musical rhythm we hear as the show opens is an exact reverse of this pattern.) This "stomp-stomp-clap" rhythm is used in Act II as a powerful device that first just establishes a staple of high school life, the pep rally, but when it becomes background underscoring for the harrowing scenes late in Act II, when we realize the rally soon may be the site of mass murder, that sound becomes a tool of suspense, menacing, scary.

Exactly like a ticking timebomb.

In addition to these musical themes, O'Keefe and Murphy also use reprises very strategically. When songs return, it's always in a new context because the plot is so fast moving, but also because that's good storytelling, connecting two disparate moments that share something, even if only ironically.

The first time we hear "Dead Girl Walking," the title refers to social death, and also in the later part of the song, maybe also le petit mort ("the little death," a French phrase for orgasm)? But when the song returns late in Act II, this time the title refers to actual death.

The first time we hear "Our Love is God," at the end of Act I, it's about J.D. and Veronica's "specialness," their favored position above the rest of humanity by virtue of their love and their clarity of vision, about the power their love gives them (sounds like Leopold and Loeb, doesn't it?). At the end of the show, that same song is now about the failure of J.D.’s perverse morality and the irony of his impending death. In Act I, it's about love and passion; in Act II, it's about Nietzsche's ubermensch in collapse.

The first time we hear "Blue," it's about (very funny) begging to have sex. The second time we hear it, it's about (very ugly) lying about having had sex. The first time it’s about the boys’ desire; the second time, it’s about the boys’ revenge. It's such a smart use of reprise, as sex turns from fun to ugly.

Likewise, the first time we hear "Shine a Light," it's a song (clueless as it may be) about lifting people (and yourself) up. When it's reprised, it's about tearing Mac down. The first time, we’re laughing at its ineffectualness; the second time, we’re not laughing. The first time the song is anti-suicide; the second time it's pro-suicide. Again, that's some smart, and disturbing, writing.

"Seventeen" is the song of connection, first between Veronica and J.D., then later between Veronica and Martha. It’s also under­scoring in the scene where Veronica rescues Mac, the moment when these two characters really bond. One of the show's underlying textual themes is about teens having to grapple with adult issues before they're adults. The song "Seventeen" is about letting kids stay kids for a while. It's the impossible wish throughout the story that just might be possible at the end.

Okay, probably not. But still...

By the time we get to the last part of the show, O’Keefe and Murphy have created such a full musical language for this story, they can now let each of those pieces pay off, reprising “Dead Girl Walking” (in counterpart to the “Stomp-Stomp-Claps,” and “Hey Yo Westerberg”), then “Seventeen,” then finally “Beautiful,” the three main pieces that describe Veronica’s dramatic arc.

The score's structure provides us with musical bookends to open and close our story. Musical bookends work so well because they mirror the structure of drama: a stable situation at the beginning gets thrown out of balance, and only when balance is restored can our story end. "Beautiful" represents that balance in this story, the way things should be.

Now I have to admit, very few people sit in our audience and consciously recognize all these themes and other devices. But that's okay. Musical themes and motifs are meant to work on us under the surface. Music is about emotion, and musical themes makes us feel things that help the writers tell their story well.

I've been a rabid fan of Larry O'Keefe's work since we first produced the amazing Bat Boy in 2003 and 2006. He's one of the strongest and most interesting voices in the musical theatre today, and his work with Murphy on Heathers confirms that. And really, on top of everything else I've written here, maybe what's most important about this score is that it's packed with great songs! Gorgeous, rowdy, wild, emotional music in a gloriously 80s pop vocabulary, paired with clever, outrageous, insightful, intensely emotional lyrics.

What a score!

Long Live the Musical!