I grew up loving the movie Heathers, then I watched again a few months ago and was a bit horrified at my callous teen self. In the opening sequence, Veronica (aka Winona Ryder) is buried in earth up to the neck, her head used as a target for croquet balls by the titular clique of three popular girls called Heather. It’s this first sign that this is not a film that’s tethered to reality. It’s full of vivid anxiety dreams and epic shoulderpads and violent revenge scenarios made real. The best bits are all delicious icy surrealism and blithe cruelty. The worst bits revel in slur-flinging nastiness, in a kind of nihilist scorn for anyone who’s not in JD and Veronica’s loved-up clique of two.
Heathers – The Musical is altogether different: originating in LA, and coming to the West End via a tortuous route that’s taken in Off-Broadway and a non-reviewable run at The Other Palace, it feels like it’s made by people who neither understood nor especially liked their source material. It’s determinedly campy, not unsettling. Its humour is served up with endless winks in the audience’s direction. There is nothing tormented about musical theatre star/relatable YouTuber Carrie Hope Fletcher, and the relentless ordinary cheerfulness of her performance as Veronica means she greets each dark plot twist with a knowing wink at the audience. It fills Theatre Royal Haymarket with a peppy outbreak of primary-coloured high school kitsch (fans of the movie’s noirish, determinedly grown-up aesthetic, prepare to be disappointed) and witty, studiedly retro songs like house party anthem ‘Big Fun’. And most of all, it tries to warp the original film’s burn-it-all-down scorn for a kind of pappy/troubling message about making the world a better place.
Heathers, the movie is about a popular girl who hates her life, and who finds in JD (aka Christian Slater) an equally messed up ally to fuck things up with, to break through the numbness and try and feel something. Heathers – The Musical is a story of a befuddlingly nice, perky nerd who’s trapped by blind lust into a cutesy romance with a boy that ends up somehow, baffling, resulting in a lot of deaths that the tone of the musical doesn’t prepare you for.
Totally hypothetical question time: did the way that 80s and 90s teen films anatomised high schools into hierarchical and immutable tribes of cheerleaders, jocks, stoners, art kids and nerds actually shift the way kids saw themselves, and make them crueller to anyone who didn’t fit the mould? They might not advocate throwing slushies at anyone spottier and speccier than you, but they sure put it on the table. Because there’s often a hypocrisy embedded in these films: they set themselves up as satires of image-obsessed worlds, while still reinforcing the social divides they’re mocking. Their bullies are ice-cool anti-heroes, their outsiders are conventionally attractive, their targets are anyone who stands out for having the ‘wrong’ body, the ‘wrong’ background.
A few decades on, we’re in a slightly different cultural place. Maybe being an ice-cold high school psychopath is a bit harder now that the movies are all about wholesome gangs of kids with supernatural powers, and key teenage role models – not least Carrie Hope Fletcher – make a career out of being relentlessly, seemingly authentically nice. So perhaps that’s why Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s book offers a selectively sensitive rewrite. In the movie, Veronica sacrifices love-lorn lunchroom nerd Martha Dumptruck on the altar of clique-loyalty with barely a backward glance. In the musical, Martha Dumptruck is saved from humiliation by her friendship with Veronica, and gets her own tragic ballad (‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’): the plotline twists itself into painful contortions to avoid sticking the knife into a girl the movie dismisses in one throwaway scene. It still throws around slurs like ‘fag’ and ‘cripple’ – but the homophobia is challenged by a euphoric pro-gay anthem in a church, even if the ableism, disappointingly, isn’t. It also does a 21st century version of the classic Breakfast Club trick of suggesting that maybe these kids are messed up because of their parents’ failings. Jamie Muscato plays JD with a kind of gawky vulnerability that’s miles away from Christian Slater’s smouldering deep-down badness. This musical’s writers make him preface his murderous excesses with musings on his (pretty implausible) backstory: a demolition man dad, a mum who he saw die by suicide.
Which gets us to the central weirdness of Heathers – The Musical. It’s packaged in layers of fluff and kitsch and feel-good girl gang fun: little corkboards scattered around the theatre invite audience members to pin up enthusiastically felt-tipped fan mail to the show. But at heart, this is a story that centres around suicide, and satirises the glamorisation, hero-worship and hysteria that accompanies it. Veronica and JD commit a series of murders, each time faking a suicide note for their victims, and watching as each fresh death is met with an outpouring of the kind of love and warmth their high school is otherwise utterly lacking in.
As I suggested earlier, teen films often satirise damaging tropes while reinforcing them. Ironically, while Heathers mocks a world that glamorises suicide, it’s also complicit in that glamorisation – and that feels worse in this stage version, in the context of a storyline that’s got a kind of moralistic sunniness instead of the original’s biting insight. The Samaritans media guidelines for reporting on suicide are pretty clear on what to avoid. The precepts that feel most relevant here are:
-Leave out technical details about the method of suicide
-Be wary of over-emphasising community expressions of grief. Doing so may suggest that people are honouring the suicidal behaviour rather than mourning a death.
-Don’t brush over the complex realities of suicide and its impact on those left behind.
-Be careful not to promote the idea that suicide achieves results. For example, that, as a result of someone taking their own life, a bully was exposed or made to apologise.
Applying these ideas to a work of art might look po-faced or clumsy. I get that. But I also think that when a work revolves this closely around the leading cause of death for young people (the audience this show is so aggressively marketed towards) some thought in how that might be depicted sensitively and responsibly would be welcome.
The musical’s use of nooses and pills for cheap visual gags was particularly unwelcome. But more than that, the show reinforces the depressed person’s most dangerous delusion: that the world would be better off without them in it, and that they’d find a kind of adulation after death that they could never find while alive. It’s a show where four teenagers die (admittedly, three of them not on purpose), and that’s shown to be pretty much a good thing, their forged ‘suicide notes’ acting as tools that inspire their classmates and make the school a happier, better place. Kurt and Ram’s apparent double gay suicide leads into the show’s most euphoric moment, ‘Dead Gay Son’, a song set at their funeral where the show’s homophobic jokes give way to a joyful (if built on stereotypes) love-in between their dads, who finally admit they’re gay.
Heathers, the movie, gets away with its messed up undertones because it’s a noirish satire made in a different way, in a different world: it’s populated by girls who dress like 40s femme fatales, and stalk through a pre-Columbine landscape where the idea of mixing hyper-violence and school politics was inherently, if darkly, ludicrous. It’s about a mood, not a moral. But here, on stage, this story feels less like a fever dream, more like a bad taste anachronism, dressed up in its best ’80s duds for a generation of kids who’ve moved on.
Heathers – The Musical is on at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24th November. More info here.