As a member of the high school class of 1987, you would think by now that I’d be over the days of teen angst. Remarkably, I’m not in many ways, which I will explain later. But at that time, my angst was different than what we know it to be today…well, in some ways. Sure, there were some bullying issues, issues with self-identity, body image, jock envy (because I was an artsy-fartsy kid) and the general hormonal imbalance that sets us all on our ear for about four to five years or so. For some, maybe more and others less.
But my teen angst centered around having a voice, being heard, making a difference, standing out in a crowd any way I knew how and, as an only child, most often being the center of attention. SO OF COURSE I JOINED THE DRAMA CLUB! Having now made theatre my career/life choice, I don’t know whether to thank my parents for allowing me to discover such an amazingly rewarding profession or blame them for letting me follow my financially unstable passion. At the end of the day, being in theatre did what it needed to do, especially during that awkward yet hopeful era we fondly remember as the 80’s. I had purpose, I was accepted for who I was and what I was becoming and people listened to what I had to say – even the jocks and the brainiacs. I learned about collaboration, leadership, friendly and not-so-friendly competition, public speaking, hard work and getting results because of the hard work. I learned what it meant to step outside myself and walk in someone else’s shoes. I learned that no matter what happened on stage, I was part of something bigger than myself. Everyone involved knew it and felt the same. We astonished ourselves and others at what we could accomplish. It was a natural high that brought many, many people together – no drugs or alcohol needed. For a short while, every fall and spring, I belonged.
And that’s how I got through high school. The drama club saved my life. Becoming addicted to doing theatre, I was sheltered from all the bad stuff I could have gotten into. “Play practice” was my modus operandi and I loved every second of it. When we were in rehearsal, I couldn’t WAIT to get out of school and do what made me feel the most ALIVE (even if it meant that my mother spent hours in the parking lot reading while she waited for me to be done). You’re probably nodding your head in complete agreement and hopefully laughing a bit or smiling because of your own memories.
But the power of theatre is not what this article is ultimately about, even though theatre should be required curriculum in every single high school that exists because of the positive effect it has on young people; not to mention how it should be prioritized on an equal playing field with all sports and academic programs. I digress.
What this piece is about is the importance of producing a show like Heathers. So fast forward to the Internet, email, texting and social media – a whole new way for kids (and adults for that matter) to get in trouble, but on an overwhelmingly easy and public level. We live in a time where reality television is usually scripted, people are so obsessed with themselves that even Narcissus would stop and take note, along with their homework kids think nothing of bringing deadly weapons to school, the lack of respect for fellow human beings is clearly evidenced by the way people speak, tweet or post about each other not to mention the way they drive, consideration and politeness are things of the past, we’ve lost faith in our justice system and no one knows what the word integrity really means.
What’s most infuriating is that people don’t think before they speak and worse, don’t care what the repercussions may be to what they say. Bad behavior is as addictive as heroin and the media feeds it to us non-stop because supposedly we can’t get enough. So much so, that our society will even elevate and applaud a U.S. presidential candidate notorious for poor behavior, disgusting rhetoric and many, many bad choices. I’m surprised we haven’t blown ourselves up yet. But clearly, we’re on the path to do so…just turn on the news.
And the youth in our society have access to all this information via every possible medium. After all, it’s a veritable “current events” buffet that apparently we can’t stop watching. Couple that with bad parenting and a failing educational system and here we are… a society in big, big trouble.
Enter Heathers: The Musical, which is actually an important part of our new musical theatre canon, in my opinion, but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. You might think me mad and purists are rolling their eyes while Richard Rodgers rolls in his grave. But hear me out. The show is similar to a bawdy Moliere farce for present day audiences, poking fun at how ridiculous a society we’ve become on both sides of the slamming doors. Not that it should be played that way, nor lean towards camp by any stretch of the imagination. What makes it work is its audacious sincerity presented subtly within an infrastructure of outlandish, hysterical circumstances. It’s the type of comedy that if not played honestly with tongue firmly planted within cheek, it doesn’t work at all, hits way too close to home and becomes a greek tragedy of present day horrors with no appeal whatsoever. We’ve already got plenty of that.
So here are some reasons why I think Heathers wins. Firstly, the relatable characters. We’ve all known a “Heather” at some point in our lives. We’ve all known “Kurt’s,” “Ram’s,” “Martha’s” and that estranged, but oddly sexy “J.D.” type that everyone was just a little bit scared of for one reason or another. Perhaps some of us were a “Veronica” waiting to bloom out of our misfit existence. Even the adults in this piece are true-to-form stereotypes. But they’re built as a stereotype because why? Because if these people didn’t really exist, there would be no stereotype. I know how un-PC that is, but dial it down a second and remember that this is musical theatre! The characters have to be relatable in order for the piece to achieve what it sets out to say.
Secondly, it’s so perverse and raunchy but yet so delectable and touching at the same time, that we happily applaud its well-intentioned achievements screaming “YASSS! Give me more truth!” And while we’re at it, let’s hear it for a well-written, intelligent, strong female lead character who doesn’t take sh*t from anybody and exudes an authenticity we appreciate and root for every step of the way. Sure, she falters a bit along her journey (and who hasn’t?) while making some co-dependent choices that clearly don’t serve her well, but it helps add a much appreciated complexity to the storyline. She “fails” so we can learn.
Thirdly, there are lessons on how to treat people better to be learned everywhere. Because the show satirizes the characters and events in such an incredulous “I can’t believe they actually did/sung that on stage” manner, it’s like a “Family Guy” episode on crack and we can’t stop watching the “in your face” shenanigans because it still has something honorable to say. Its no holds barred attack forces us to look at what it’s really like being a teenager during a time that’s supposed to be the best years of adolescence and what those poor kids have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s no joke, and they need all the help they can get to make it out alive. Each and every one of them. Of course my answer is always going to be, “Go join the Drama Club!” as unrealistic as that may be. But Heathers is such a magnificent example of what not to do that it should be required producing in every single high school across the country. It’s certainly more entertaining than any anti-bullying presentation I can think of and exceedingly better written with its intelligent, provocative humor and cadre of one-liners.
Thankfully, this show has major wide-spread appeal and cult-like following among today’s musical theatre geeks, that a High School Edition was recently created (more info here)…and hallelujah because the more young people who experience the powerful lesson of “bad behavior gets you nowhere” learned within this story, the better. Maybe (reference above) we can get out of this pickle.
Make no mistake, Heathers is deliciously seductive because it presents characters who appear to “win” because of their bad behavior, but look deeper and realize they really don’t. Thankfully the writers succeeded in taking out a lot of the glamour that usually goes with the depiction of despicable characters and chose to elevate the positive choices of our heroine as the piece resolves. And if you look even deeper still, you come to realize that every character has an underlying positive aspect to them, from the seemingly homophobic dads to the most psychopathic of the bunch, J.D. His devotion to Veronica is real, very real and on some level a wonderful achievement for someone who has lacked strong parental support and affection.
So, for some odd reason, I gravitate towards directing angsty teen musicals because I still haven’t finished saying what I need to say in that arena. And thankfully, many of those shows address the issues I feel most passionately about. Hence not being over my teen angst. But moreover, I still want to make a difference, especially with the next generation, because I believe they’re worth it and like many true educators out there, I too believe that the best education possible is the key to solving many of our society’s issues. At least it’s a good start and worth the investment.
I dream of the day when bullying and school violence is just a memory of a time when our ignorant society just didn’t know any better and couldn’t help themselves from searching out and destroying others who were different on any level. Unfortunately, we kill what we don’t take time to understand. And sadly, it’s a human trait that repeats itself over and over again since the dawn of time.
Heathers lets us take a small breath for a moment and laugh at how ridiculous this concept really is, while acknowledging that it can totally be rectified just by getting to know someone and finding a way to love and accept them for who they are. How can you dislike someone without getting to know them?
If a raunchy, guilty pleasure, pop musical is what it takes, Heathers should be required viewing. So come see it!
Jeremy Quinn is directing Heathers at White Plains Performing Arts Center October 14 – 23 for six performances only. Visit www.wppac.com for tickets and more information.