Tulsa’s Theater Pops group opened their season with Heathers: The Musical, performed at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. This musical, based on the 1988 cult film of the same name, first premiered in 2010 in New York.
Both the show and the musical follow Veronica Sawyer as she navigates her senior year of high school in Sherwood, Ohio. As a misfit in the ruling clique, known as the “Heathers,” Veronica finds refuge and a like mind in the mysterious new kid, JD. But JD takes her anger to a darker side than she originally intends, and she is soon forced to confront him head-on.
The tale flips the classic high school movie formula on its head. A smart, somewhat nice girl enters the world of the mean ones and decides she hates it. Although it may initially seem reminiscent to Mean Girls, this revenge goes to the extreme, as the oft-repeated line goes, “My teen-angst bullshit now has a body count.”
For those with knowledge of the movie, the musical’s version of events may be a little jarring. While the overall arc of the plot remains the same, characters’ personalities have been altered. JD’s character, by the end of the musical, becomes more sympathetic and likable. He’s still not someone you want your teenage daughter dating, but with a bit more time, there’s promise that he might be capable of loving Veronica without wanting to destroy the rest of society. Veronica also softens as audiences see how she becomes part of the popular clique and her efforts to lessen the brutality of their actions.
The characters themselves may seem a little clichéd, but that’s the point. There’s the two rude, dumb jocks, the mean ruling girls, with a cold-hearted queen and subservient second-in-commands, the nerds, the wannabes and the pitiful overweight girl. Rounding out the pack are the main focus: Veronica, the smart, good girl lost in the clique, and JD, the alluring bad boy.
Supernatural elements also enter the musical and serve as an added conscious for Veronica. The ghosts, primarily Heather Chandler but also the two football players, Ram and Kurt, add tension, serving as the angel (or devil, depending on who you root for) on Veronica’s shoulder, reminding her of all she’s done. In death, these characters become kinder voices, suggesting that how we are remembered may be much different than what our actions proclaim.
Without the power to enforce her words, Heather becomes mocking voice that could push Veronica either way, instead of an overlord.
The musical also makes it a point to emphasize tolerance and acceptance, albeit ironically. “I Love My Dead Gay Son,” the first song after the intermission, depicted characters’ journeys to accepting homosexuals. While a similar tender moment existed in film, this song lengthened and strengthened the point, as one character came out of the closet after changing his mind about his dead, gay son. This journey to acceptance is slightly lessened by the revelation that the character is also repressing homosexual feelings, turning a possible moment of loving someone who’s different into a make out scene built for laughs.
With an often barren set, the actors still managed to make the audience feel the familiar corridors and rooms of a high school. Occasionally, lockers, tables and other pieces were wheeled on set for a scene, but these were often only one piece of furniture, to give the audience a brief idea the setting had majorly changed.
In the house party scene, for instance, red Solo cups and plastic shot glasses abounded, where as in the opener, set in the lunchroom, actors used lunch trays to remind audiences of the location.
Otherwise, the set was empty, so that the focus became the mood of each song. Without any set pieces there, the actors showed the essential heart of high school, bustling, judgmental, and with clearly divided social lines.
Choreography of the performance occasionally seemed choppy. With the amount of dancing required by the show, it became obvious when actors movements weren’t in sync; something that was noticeable, but not terribly distracting. The choreography of the fight scene between JD and the two football players featured slow motioning punching, replacing a blank-filled pistol from the movie. Each punch was obviously inches away from the opponents’ faces, which lent a bit of unintended comedy to Veronica’s infatuation with JD and belief that he would fight for her.
One of the comedic choices in costuming was the underwear on Kurt and Ram. In this musical, ghosts appear in what they die in, so the pair retain their superhero underwear, complete with a cape on the back. Each time their ghosts walked onto stage, it provided a stark contrast between the living and the dead, potentially serving to emphasize JD’s point that death provides different social groups the possibility of friendship. Because no one can appear superior and threatening in caped, Batman undies.
In the last number, “Seventeen (Reprise)”, the true optimism of the musical came out. While the movie ended with a similar, positive change in Veronica’s friends, she also comes across much colder and toughened from what she’s seen and done. High school might be a terrible place, but we can make it better, it tells us. With all the school had been through in the musical it, it makes you wonder how well they will succeed.