Cult films might come with a built-in fan-base and heavy nostalgia appeal, but how many times has the reworking of an old story – especially one with a rabidly protective fan following – ended up disappointing its audience and cheapening the original? (Are you listening, Carrie?)
Heathers: The Musical, directed by Andy Fickman and written by Kevin Murphy and Lawrence O’Keefe, is one of those rare cases that get it so right as to make it look easy. Based on the 1989 movie of the same name, Heathers follows the teenage Veronica’s semi-reluctant attempts to get in with a popular clique in her high school, while dating twisted bad boy J.D., who would rather see the mean girls – and everyone else he finds distasteful – dead.
It’s an update with substance – strong plotting, great dialogue, superb acting – and one that might even actually improve on a classic. This may be controversial, but for my money the musical is better than the film.
There tends to be an expectation that the original be treated with some reverence, often for good reason – adaptations are notoriously difficult to pull off. But sometimes that deference is ill deserved, the result of conflating familiarity with quality. Heathers the movie is fun, and self-aware, and has mostly earned its huge cult following. Being a campy 80s movie, it’s also got its fair share of bad writing and lazy plot structuring – all stuff that’s part of its charm, but still distracting.
The musical fixes some of this. It’s not clear, for example, what film-Veronica’s motivation is for joining the popular girls, Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara, and Heather Duke – in fact, she’s openly disdainful of the Heathers from the start. Musical-Veronica corrects this neatly: while still wary of the girls, she asks to sit with them at lunch just once so everyone else at school will stop harassing her. And what about her skill at forgery? This is a huge part of the story in both versions, but film-Veronica’s ability to mimic others’ handwriting isn’t really revealed in a natural way; it simply is. But we discover musical-Veronica’s gift through a tidy plot device, when she saves the Heathers a week’s detention with a counterfeit hall pass.
These are simple enough things, but the plot holes in the film give it the feeling of having been a product of rushed, careless writing. It is to Murphy’s and O’Keefe’s credit that they recognized these holes, however minor they might seem to a dedicated fan base, and plugged them deftly and elegantly. Here’s the key, though: they don’t overstep. What worked well in the film, the musical leaves largely unchanged. And, wisely, the writers pull in plenty of famous scenes intact, leaving space for the most familiar lines – just enough to quiet those who would be instinctively uneasy at the thought of a tinkered-with Heathers. Heathers: The Musical pulls off the delicate balance that evades so many other adaptation attempts: it remains true enough to the original to satisfy the die-hards, but fixes the problems in the original in a way that doesn’t feel invasive. Nearly every change is an improvement.
The actors, meanwhile, resist the temptation to interpret their characters in exactly the same styles as their movie counterparts. Ryan McCartan plays a much less forced, and thus believable, J.D. Dean than the sometimes grating Christian Slater. And Barrett Wilbert Weed’s Veronica Sawyer is subtle, perfect timed and hilarious; Winona Ryder’s performance seems stale and awkward by comparison. Even queen bee Heather Chandler, ably played by Kim Walker in the film, is given more life by an expertly cast Jessica Keenan Wynn.
It was also fascinating, if a bit disappointing, to see how the musical handles ‘The Gay Thing.’ A major scene in the film involves two football stars thought to have been in a secret relationship with one another. Heathers, of course, takes place in 1989, and the film came out the same year. When the two football players’ alleged relationship comes to light, the movie depicts the town’s subsequent contempt toward them as an obvious thing – the audience is very much in on it, and the presumed homosexuality is as much a punchline as a plot device.
With a 25-year difference between the original and this reworking, the musical had to be more delicate. It’s still set in the late 80s, so the characters’ homophobia is perhaps to be expected. But here the musical overcompensates: the characters’ worldview is in alignment with that of a contemporary audience and the football players’ suicide becomes a catalyst for acceptance in the town, even spawning a huge, colorful number involving rainbow ties at the funeral, and another big gay revelation. It felt contrived and somewhat anachronistic.
Despite this hiccup, this musical adaptation more than does justice to its cinematic roots. In many ways it goes further. If this production was the original iteration, the musical would still be fantastic fun, well-executed in its own right. The film’s staying power and durable cult following will undoubtedly bring many more people to see it. But the production team have a real gem here: even if you’ve never seen the film, never heard of Winona Ryder, you’ll still find a lot to love about this smart, sharp and funny musical.