Once upon a time, Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann put their heads together and created one of cinema’s darkest teen comedies and consequently a huge cult classic. Heathers is one of those films that seems like it could never be a musical: a story about teenage homicide and suicide, told in 1988 when a student bringing a gun to school lay just beyond the realm of logical imagination. During their first day of rehearsals, Jodie Steele, who plays the lead ‘Heather’, says her first reaction to the film was, “gosh, this tests the waters doesn’t it? How are we going to get away with making this into a musical?” Yet, in 2018, audiences are flocking to see Heathers the Musical, with the sale date of the original run at The Other Palace overwhelming the booking site so much, it completely broke down. Now at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for its official West End debut, the show continues to draw adoring, screaming fans, many of whom make a habit of attending the theatre dressed as their favourite characters. The auditorium often feels more like an audience seeing their favourite artist headline at the O2 than it does an audience seeing a theatre show. Essentially the original Mean Girls, what is the draw towards Heathers now, thirty years later? I speak with writers, Lawrence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, Director, Andy Fickman and actors Carrie Hope-Fletcher, T’Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs about why they think the story is still so relevant.
One of the meatier topics to come up, we ponder the nature of school and its constant in people’s lives, despite differing time periods. Isaacs, who plays Heather McNamara thinks so many people identify with the show because: “everyone goes to high school. Everyone has their own experience of that.” Aside from the homicidal matters of the school, there is relatability. There are cliques and pressures to fit in, there’s bullying and friendship, fun and laughter and pain and confusion. Fickman tells me about one of the nights he came as an audience member and encountered a woman who had come with her granddaughter and was initially dead-set against the show. He gave her his seat to try to placate her and didn’t see her again that night. After the transfer, he saw the same woman who excitedly explained, “that was what it was like when I was at school.” The fact that people can identify with the show at any stage in life gives Heathers a timeless quality. It could take place in the past, in the present, or in the future but it just so happens to be set in the 80s.
Isaacs also points out that, “we, as a nation, are obsessed with American culture and TV. It’s a huge influence in our everyday life. American theatre is a huge influence over here as well.” In that vein, as all the cast members who speak to me address in some way, Heathers has already amassed a collective of fans obsessed with the original Off-Broadway show. They’ve listened to the cast recording, they’ve watched the bootleg recording of the show and they’ve researched costumes before the show has even opened.
Even for die-hard fans of the original Off-Broadway productions, there are more surprises with the inclusion of three new songs in the show: ‘I Say No’, ‘You’re Welcome’ and ‘Never Shut Up Again’. Hope-Fletcher, who plays Veronica, tells me that the addition of Veronica’s 11 o’clock number, ‘I Say No’, gave the character a chance to distance herself decidedly from boyfriend, JD’s destructive ideas. The song wasn’t added until the last few performances of the Other Palace run and Hope-Fletcher only had 4 days to perfect it, having been given the song on the Monday with it then officially added to the show on the Friday. O’Keefe and Murphy say the idea for the addition of the new song came from Andrew Lloyd Webber, who pointed out that Veronica had no new music after ‘Seventeen’. O’Keefe and Murphy wanted to give Veronica more moral clarity and the version of the show that the West End gets frames Veronica as even more of a hero than she was originally. ‘You’re Welcome’ again gives Veronica more of a voice in a situation where she was previously just an unwitting victim.
Similarly, ‘Never Shut Up Again’ gives William’s character, Heather Duke (second in command), the chance to steal the spotlight: both figuratively and literally. Williams describes the song as Duke’s fantasy “Mary J Blige, Tina Turner, Beyoncé moment”; one that O’Keefe and Murphy specifically wanted to give Duke this time around. The new songs, especially for women and the young girls who come to see the show, are great examples of the female characters given opportunities to shine, to stand up and be seen. The visibility of powerful female characters, whether they are characters we root for or not, is extremely important in theatrical representation and the choice to continue working the show to allow the characters these new moments is a valuable decision.
Heathers has been a runaway success from an audience point of view, with full houses of cheering fans, dedicated to the show and its cast and creatives. While being toned down for the stage, the show still manages to retain the core of the film, something that Fickman tells me Lehmann had said himself when he visited the show. And even now, 30 years on, the messages of the film clearly still have a place in our society. The production has managed to create a fun and entertaining show that holds on to the essence of its source material. It is a show that doesn’t limit itself to the cult following, instead opening itself up so that anyone can feel a connection to it.
And for anyone who, like me has been crossing their fingers for a West End cast recording, Fickman tells me in no uncertain terms that it will soon be on the way.
Heathers is playing the Theatre Royal Haymarket until November 24 2018. For more information and tickets, see: http://www.trh.co.uk/whatson/heathers-the-musical/