'Heathers' at The Other Palace - Review
Three decades after the original film was released, Heathers the Musical finally made its way to the West End stage. A cult-classic, the 1988 Heathers tells the story of Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) and her interactions with a high school ruling clique of popular girls – the Heathers. The narrative is one steeped in secrets, murder, and the tropes of teen drama – as the protagonist writes, “Dear diary, my teen angst bulls*** has a body count!”
It is this narrative, albeit slightly altered to fit its contemporary audience, that poses the foundation of Heathers the Musical. The musical came into its own limelight in 2014, when it finally reached Broadway… well, off-Broadway. Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy breathed new life into Heathers with their lyrics and music, creating unapologetic numbers such as ‘Dead Girl Walking’, the villainous ‘Candy Store’, and the ever-hopeful opening number ‘Beautiful’. And it is the strength of the original soundtrack – with Barrett Wilbert Weed as the original Veronica (now performing as Janice in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls musical) – that carried Heathers the Musical into the lexicon and understanding of theatre fans across the globe.
The sound of Heathers the Musical is founded within the music-motifs of the 80s, something that could have led to synth-related dissonance and disaster, and yet, it works. Personally, I have been in love with this show since the soundtrack was released and I saw three girls holding croquet mallets with defiance. My love of Heathers suspended me in anticipation for the show: Would the show meet my expectations? Would my love of the show cloud my judgement? Is it possible to pass out from excitement? My head was racing, my heart pounding, and my tummy turning with a cocktail of excitement and nerves as I awaited the all-important opening lines: “September 1st, 1989. Dear Diary, I believe I am a good person, I believe that there is good in everyone, but here we are, first day senior year! And I look around at these people I have known all my life, and I ask myself what happened?”
Heathers the Musical, before I could even hope of seeing it upon the stage, found itself firmly in the list of my favourite musicals. And now I was facing the show filled with knowledge, hope, and a preconceived idea.
Going in to the theatre, I knew that the audience held the same reverence and love of the show as I did, and the atmosphere was electric. The Other Palace has been transformed in preparation for the show: with bathroom mirrors proclaiming logos and hashtags for that perfect “this could be beautiful” selfie; the cocktail menu had received a Heathers upgrade with colour-co-ordinated character drinks and slushies; and, right in the middle of the stage, Westerberg High School Standing proud.
Seeing the stage up-close and personal – especially up-close since I was seated in the front row – was amazing. Here stood one of the most important fictional High Schools in musical theatre. Complete with American flags and bright blue lockers. Seeing the school structure, and the obvious effort placed into utilising such a small stage reassured me of the coming show’s quality. Especially when I thought back to the production photos of the off-Broadway run, where the stage may have been larger, but, was much more conceptual in design – with a raised platform in order to split the levels of the stage and not much else. The stage design marked the first step of evolution from the US to the UK production, inviting us to speculate over the coming changes, and preparing us for accepting them with enthusiasm.
One such change came in the form of a song, the loss of ‘Blue’ in exchange for ‘You’re Welcome’. Firmly a comedy number, ‘Blue’ proved problematic in terms of political correctness. As Murphy and O’Keefe told Playbill.com in March: “Although it was fun to write and it’s fun to perform, ‘Blue’ has always been polarizing. Some thought ‘Blue’ was wonderful and all in good fun. Others were offended, feeling we were treating date rape as a laughing matter. It went onto our list of things we knew we needed to alter or replace.” I was never in-love with ‘Blue’ as a song, taking its name from the blue-balls of the characters it belongs too (Ram and Kurt), but it remained a firm part of the show’s identity in my head. The melody was fun, the lyrics reflecting the immaturity of Ram and Kurt, and the rhymes ridiculous to the point of hilarity. I found myself questioning, in the run up to the show, would I miss ‘Blue’? No, as it turns out, I didn’t. ‘You’re Welcome’, a song written for the Heathers: High School Edition, kept the humour of Kurt and Ram whilst providing Veronica with the remedy to her previous plausible passivity during ‘Blue’.
Now Veronica is provided with a distinct awareness and power within a troubling scene, starting off the song “Dear diary, what words do we use to defuse a suitor with the brains of a boot and the morals of a looter?” The obvious rhythm of these lyrics, provided in an aside, acts in contrast to the carefree and jovial nature of ‘Blue’. We can now feel the potential reality of the scene, with Veronica offering quick wit and commentary whilst maintaining an air of agitation and desire to escape. There is a painful moment of recognition watching ‘You’re Welcome’ unravel, with Murphy and O’Keefe showing an awareness of both their previous fault, and a reaction to the culture of both their setting and their audience. We are witnesses to an all too familiar scene - “Come back girl, now don’t play hurt, if you don’t want me starin’, why you wearin’ that skirt?” – and it is this recognition that makes Veronica’s victory and escape all the more fulfilling.
In addition to ‘You’re Welcome’, Heathers the Musical also saw the addition of a new song, a solo for Heather Duke (T’Shan Williams), ‘Never Shut Up Again’. This number added a whole new level to both the character of Heather Duke, and the dynamics upon the stage. Not to give too much away, but ‘Never Shut Up Again’ acts as a marker of Heather Duke’s ascension to head-Heather. It is with her decree that “I will never shut up again” that we see all of her anger overflow, and come to understand the cyclic and horrific nature of the internal class-system of Westerberg High. The newfound depth of Duke, portrayed both brilliantly and maniacally by Williams, allows the resonance of the opening number, ‘Beautiful’ to echo throughout the entirety of the student body – “I know life can be beautiful, I pray, I pray, I pray for a better way. We were kind before; we can be kind once more.” It is easy to be a Heather, to forgo morality for power – a trade even the identifiable-protagonist Veronica falls for – it is much harder to be kind.
What would you give to be popular? And is popularity worth the cost? – these are the questions on the surface of Heathers. When you dig deeper, there are many more, and not all of them obvious. It is the variety of meaning, and the acceptance of the constant need to reassure your own identity and that of others, that has attracted so man loyal fans to both the film and show.
Seeing Heathers on the stage was a dream come true, and I cannot say I was disappointed in anyway. All of my expectations were either met or exceeded. Fletcher made an amazing Veronica, bringing the perfect mix of crazy comic timing, and believable drama, in order to produce a lovable and forgivable character. Each of the Heathers’ embodied the collective and individual characters’ identities with flair and distinction – providing sass, levity, fear, and more overtly-quotable lines than you could yell “SHUT UP, HEATHER!” at. I eagerly await the future of this production, and hope that I may get the chance to see the show again.