Heathers: The Musical just opened Off Broadway at New World Stages, and already it displays some of the elements of a cult musical, with audience members dressing in “Heathers” colors and laughing uproariously at lines taken directly from the cult-favorite movie it’s based on – even if the lines aren’t so hilarious in their new context. Luckily incipient super-fans have some good stuff to latch onto: a fun, energetic, raunchy, and winning show with clever lyrics, some very good songs, and an excellent cast.
Written by Kevin Murphy (the Reefer Madness musical) and Laurence O’Keefe (the Legally Blonde and Bat Boy musicals), Heathers: The Musical is less weird, and more emotionally compelling, than the 1988 Daniel Waters movie on which it’s based. While it follows the film’s storyline pretty closely, it develops its main characters more roundly and makes them – paradoxically, given the song and dance – more real. The book and lyrics carry part of this weight, the rest borne by the acting, which is several levels above the movie’s.
The film starred an awkward young Winona Ryder as Veronica, an alienated high school girl who has managed to get into the popular girls’ clique, and Christian Slater as J.D., a confused young classmate who’s new in town and cultivates a bad-boy drifter persona. Through most of the film he dominates Veronica, manipulating her ever deeper into his destructive lashings-out. In the new musical, the same murders take place, the same cruel hoaxes, but Veronica’s personality is far more forceful, especially as played to the hilt by the vocally gifted and darkly charismatic newcomer Barrett Wilbert Weed.
Conversely Ryan McCartan’s J.D. is a more complex and sympathetic version than the movie’s, capable of sinister doings but also of falling in love, saying so, and making us at least half-believe he’s acting out of devotion. Weed and the golden-voiced and equally charismatic McCartan have good chemistry. While Jessica Keenan Wynn’s icily poised Heather Chandler, leader of the mean, popular girls, grows into a richer and funnier character after she’s dead and her ghost lingers on, looking over shoulders and commenting drily.
As in the film, the other two Heathers are less well developed, though Elle McLemore’s Heather McNamara comes vividly into focus in her attempted-suicide scene, which is played effectively for laughs. Evan Todd and Jon Eidson, as jock bullies Kurt and Ram respectively, are solid, rubbery comic presences throughout, calling to mind the galoots of golden age Hollywood films dressed up (and undressed) with modern-day raunch. The musical rolls two movie characters, the overweight, picked-on Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock and Veronica’s nerdy old friend Betty, into one, and I don’t feel the loss. This Martha gets an aching solo number, “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” sung beautifully by Katie Ladner.
The songs and the stagings that quicken them are more memorable than those in many other modern musicals. (Spring Awakening, for example, was an innovative show I thoroughly enjoyed but from which I can’t remember a single note of music.) Among the songs, “Blue,” “Lifeboat,” and “Seventeen” score brightly, the last being especially pretty. “Fight For Me” is staged simply and effectively, Veronica singing to J.D. with everyone else frozen. And while the plot development in Act I races by a little too briskly, the second act is non-stop well-paced musical theater action.
Whether Heathers: The Musical becomes the cult hit it wants to be remains to be seen. I think it’s got the goods.
Heathers: The Musical is at New World Stages