2006: So I’m at the California Canteen, a ramshackle restaurant clinging to Ventura Boulevard right where the Valley (suburban, complacent) jams up against Hollywood (sexy, violent). Which side am I on, I wonder.
I’m there to meet my old friends Kevin Murphy and Andy Fickman, who want to convince me to help them adapt Heathers into a Broadway musical. This is of course a terrible idea, unless it’s not.
1989: The movie Heathers comes out. Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a brilliant teenage misfit plucked from nerdy isolation and elevated to the ranks of the Heathers, Westerberg High School’s three hottest and cruelest girls. But Veronica learns the Heathers are selfish monsters and quits to play Bonnie and Clyde with J.D. (Christian Slater), a darkly magnetic high school outlaw, who offers a cure for selfish monsters: bullets and bombs. Veronica, trapped between violence and powerlessness, must find a third solution. Heathers was frickin’ hilarious. And it scared the crap out of everyone.
Because Heathers blew a whistle on our entire culture. Reagan’s Morning In America had become a hungover afternoon migraine, still shilling candy-flavored lies about America the infallible. Our TV’s were full of Oliver North lecturing us on how patriotism requires you to covertly sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds to finance fascist Nicaraguan rebels. Our movie theaters were stuffed to bursting with Rambos, Rockys and almost-but-not-quite-truthful adolescent epics like John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink.
Those teen flicks were funny and occasionally honest about the lives of teenagers. But at heart they were candy too: utopian fantasies of Rich Boy Loves Poor girl and Bad Boy Wins Prom Queen. We shrugged and consumed them like a Slurpee at 7-11: delicious, but never mistaking it for actual nutrition.
So when a friend dragged teenaged me to see “this movie Heathers, about the meanest school on Earth,” we had no reason to think this movie would be any less of a fantasy.
Until five minutes in when our jaws hit the floor and stayed there for two hours. It felt like a documentary about the inside of our own heads. No other movie had ever portrayed how we high school kids actually treated each other. How we sneered and cursed and lied and prayed. And how we all craved justice and safety, and how every one of us had fantasized about hurting those who hurt us.
It was cathartic. It helped me realize I wasn’t alone; helped me deal with my own adolescent bewilderment and resentment and hope; and taught me to think hard about how to treat people and myself better.
So naturally Heathers flopped in movie theaters. But then went on to form the bedrock of our entire culture ever since. Without Heathers there’s no Clueless, no Legally Blonde, no Grosse Pointe Blank and of course no Mean Girls. Heathers’ DNA is unmistakable in “Veronica Mars,” “Freaks And Geeks,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “My So-Called Life,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and on and on and on.
2006: Problem is, I tell Kevin and Andy, Heathers also spawned smug stories celebrating shiny, rich, defiantly mean girls: “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “My Super Sweet 16,” “Laguna Beach.” Without Heathers, there would be no TV shows for Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Real Housewives everywhere.
Heathers looked so gorgeous, and the actors so deliciously hot and effortlessly cool, that many audiences forgot the film’s satire and anti-violence stance, and and instead worshiped the candy coating, treating the fashions, hairdos and mansions as a consumer Bible. So wouldn’t a Heathers musical fall into that trap? Wouldn’t a musical adaptation soften the wrong edges and wind up glorifying glamorous cruelty?
“Guys”, I said. “We have a hard choice: stay true to the dark heart of the movie and risk alienating Broadway audiences, or soften the edges for theatergoers’ tastes and dilute the honesty that made the film iconic in the first place.
“Broadway audiences aren’t the same as film audiences; they usually expect higher levels of hope and optimism and much, much lower levels of teenage sex, teenage murder and (worst of all!) teenage swearing. In a Broadway house a light PG can feel like an R.
“And part of what makes the film so delicious is its moral poker face. It has so much fun showing misfit teens wreaking murderous revenge that it’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers deplore violence or endorse it. Not until the very last few minutes, when Veronica finally decides ‘No, blowing up my school will not save it.’ She stops JD’s murderous plan, then confronts Heather Duke, the new alpha dog. She rips the red scrunchie of power from Duke’s hair and ties it around her own, declaring, ‘There’s a new sheriff in town,’ then turns to poor wheelchair-bound loser Martha Dumptruck, inviting her over to watch videos. Only then do we understand that the screenwriter Dan Waters prefers forgiveness over violence. ‘Til then the movie can feel a bit like a dispatch from a free-fire zone in one of those ancient trouble spots where no UN-brokered ceasefire ever holds.
“And even if we find a way to make theater audiences okay with the racier stuff, in the end will they even want to hear the movie’s message that change is rare and painful? That when you depose one Heather you risk becoming a Heather yourself? Broadway audiences prefer their morals black-and-white and their endings uplifting-and-victorious: Hairspray, Lion King, Legally Blonde. They don’t love having their assumptions challenged.
“I mean, Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece and it’s been produced on Broadway three times, but none of those three times was a box office hit. And this movie is often even more nihilistic than Sweeney…”
They replied: “Sure, the movie is. But Larry, your own musical Bat Boy ends with a stage littered with bodies, which is played for laughs, and audiences still found it moving. Avenue Q and Urinetown are hilarious and yet stay honest and deal with real darkness. We think a musical Heathers can be less flippant about violence than the film and still hit hard. It’s the story of a teenage girl trapped in an abusive pressure-cooker environment, who longs for a better world, but makes destructive mistakes until she learns to separate justice from revenge. That can sing.”
They had me. I took the leap of faith. Wasn’t hard, actually. Kevin and Andy are geniuses and have hearts full of hilarity and warmth. They created one of history’s funniest musicals, Reefer Madness. They’ve made lots of great television and movies. And you can’t get more dedicated champions for a project than our three originating producers Amy Powers, J. Todd Harris and Andy Cohen. I’m glad I joined them. It’s been the best professional experience of my career.
But mostly I knew they had me when Kevin Murphy showed me his first draft of a lyric for a song called “My Dead Gay Son.”
This article is part of our Heathers the Musical Series. Click here for the others.