Samuel French has been abuzz since the fall with excitement about Heathers the Musical, the candy-coated musical about a trio of high school queen bees who get stung by a rebellious drone. And when we talk about this show, it is inevitably referred to as a “cult musical.” This label is applied to a range of shows from the camp celebration that is The Rocky Horror Show to the melancholy, circus-themed Side Show. So, what does this mean? What makes a musical a cult favorite? As Heathers dons its shoulder pads to face an onslaught of regional productions, here are a couple of thoughts on what might lead to a musical’s cult status.
A Celebration of the Subversive
Taboo topics, pseudo-subcultures and stories that turn social norms upside down: these are ingredients of a good cult show. The stories and worlds conjured up in cult musicals are offbeat and unusual, and often go a step further into the absurd than traditional musicals. While a cult musical’s narrative may follow a traditional storyline, the story they tell test the limits of what’s acceptable in mainstream culture; be it through plot, setting, or the extremes a character will go to make things right.
There’s no better example of this than the cult-iest musical of them all, The Rocky Horror Show, an orgy of classic sci-fi film tropes, sexual liberation and camp. Other cult musicals explore the offbeat, as well. Heathers‘ high school heroine first revels in the extreme revenge enacted on the popular kids, before realizing its deadly course. Side Show looks at the lives and relationship of conjoined twins.
Many a musical champions an unlikely protagonist, but in exploring the unusual, a cult musicals goes one step further in propelling the oddest of characters to the rank of hero. Unlikely protagonists can be seen in a range of cult musicals: Batboy the Musical’s cave-dwelling title character is sprung directly from the headlines of the supermarket tabloid, The Weekly World News. Hedwig and the Angry Inch follows its genderqueer protagonist from Berlin refugee to rockstar redemption. And, Gorilla Man’s young hero must contend with both the onset of puberty and his insatiable thirst for blood.
It’s the fans!
Side Show has its “Freaks,” Heathers its “Corn Nuts”, Hedwig its “Hedheads.” A cult musical can’t be a cult musical without a following of fiercely loyal fans. These shows won’t appeal to mainstream audiences, at least not initially. However, they will find early adopters among those looking for something different or wanting a show that speaks to their own unique interests and feelings. The fact that everyone else doesn’t get it only adds to the appeal.
Cult-level fans are those who know every lyric to every song, every catchphrase, and even the right outfit to wear to the show. A true fan of Rocky Horror would never show up to a performance without their newspapers and rice. During its 2014 Off-Broadway run, Corn Nuts showed up to Heathers in full shoulder-pad chic with croquet mallets in tow.
And social media makes following a favorite musical that much easier. (Stay tuned for a later article on that.) Connecting through show websites, Facebook pages and Twitter, wide-flung fans become close communities of devotees. Truly faithful cultists can even add to the fandom with homemade art and videos.
Bomb at the Box-Office
A cult musical can’t please all the people all the time, and it might take a couple of tries before it can please anyone. Though a hit in London, the original production of Rocky Horror found luke-warm reception when it opened in New York. Beloved by devoted fans, Side Show has had two less-than-successful bows on Broadway. And infamously, the 1988 Broadway musical Carrie, about a sheltered teen girl with telekinetic powers, closed after 5 performances.
But bombing on Broadway only makes a cult musical stronger, its fans fiercer and its legend notorious. Rocky Horror gained new life and a Broadway revival due to the popularity of its film adaptation, and Carrie’s infamy made its Off-Broadway comeback a must-see in 2012. Not all cult musicals need to be flops. Hedwig’s original 1998 production ran for over two years in the intimate Jane Street Theatre over a decade before its 2014 Broadway production won the Tony for Best Musical Revival.
Based On The Film
And finally, it certainly has helped a slew of cult musicals if they’re able to add to the frenzy surrounding a classic cult film. Evil Dead, Carrie, even Reefer Madness are all based on films with their own cults of fandom. Heathers is, of course, based on the 1989 film of the same name. A film with it’s own cult fandom that came out at the end of a deluge of high school films but took a darker, more cynical look at high school than any Brat Pack film did.
Looking for a great musical that comes pre-packaged with a loyal following of fans? Check out some cult classics available in the Samuel French Catalogue:
This article is part of our Heathers the Musical Series. Click here for the others!