A Gleefully Twisted Theatrical Update on a Classic Black Comedy

by delarue

For those who missed it the first time around, the 1988 black comedy Heathers remains one of the alltime great midnight movies. It stars Winona Ryder, Shannen Doherty and Lisanne Falk as a trio of sadistic, popular high school girls, all named Heather, whose mission is to make life miserable for everyone below then on the status ladder. As a satire of high school conformity and cliquishness, it’s as bleakly funny today as it was then.

It also became a popular musical. The original West End cast recording, released last year, is streaming at Spotify. What’s almost shocking is that the creators, writer Kevin Murphy and composer Laurence O’Keefe, kept the narrative in its original late 80s milieu. Back then, the internet was just a dial-up connection for diehard computer nerds, only spies and hedge fund moguls had mobile phones, and the plague of social media was yet to come. So just as in the movie, all the hazing and hostility here happens in reality rather than its virtual counterpart.

The cast are perfectly adequate singers, but the songwriting is the musical’s strongest point. Obviously, none of the original three Heathers would have been listening to anything edgier than Mariah Carey. Interestingly, Murphy and O’Keefe bring the music further into the future. This is a pop musical: while most of the music has 80s production values, with real guitars, synthesizers, bass and drums and even occasional orchestration, there are interludes that either draw on or make fun of singsongey, post-emo corporate radio fodder. Hip-hop influences also pop up in places.

The dialogue is relentlessly sharp and a lot dirtier here, compared to the movie. There’s a big “holy shit” chorus early on that’s irresistibly funny. And the characters, especially the villians, have been updated except for the social media obsessions. Sex, booze and drugs are as ubiquitous here as they are among real-life seventeen-year-olds.

“This ain’t high school, this is the Thunderdome,” embattled protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Carrie Hope Fletcher) complains as the blustery opening anthem introduces a procession of bully and victim stereotypes. The quasi-relationship between Veronica and the outsider Christian Slater character (Jamie Muscato) makes its entry earlier than in the movie: this guy also turns out to be considerably kinder and gentler. The plot twist where a couple of the jock characters are outed as gay (no spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie) reflects a 21st century conscience. Veronica also gets caught up in a genuinely chilling metoo moment.

Suicide is also an even bigger theme in this version. As the parade of power ballads, ersatz funk and frenetic dance numbers rise to an explosive peak, the musical proves to be every bit as dark as the film.