Whatever became of the original musical comedy? In a society plagued with ever decreasing attention spans and a fixation on the familiar, the genre seems to have joined the ranks of other once beloved theatrical formats like topical revue, social drama, or even operetta. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen an ever increasing number of film musical adaptions in recent seasons, and the 2013-2014 Broadway season certainly did not disappoint, providing a whopping five such titles. Even off-Broadway, where subscription audiences should allow for more creative breathing room, the squeeze to adapt the familiar is palpable and increasingly, authors feel the need to raid film libraries in search of appropriate titles to musicalize. I maintain there’s nothing inherently wrong in selecting films for musical adaption: they do after all, provide preexisting narrative structure and character arcs which can be a godsend for writers often flummoxed by the treachery of creating a musical from scratch. And if we’re honest, some of our greatest stage musicals have been adaptions of films (“My Fair Lady” and “The King and I” come immediately to mind, their credited source materials to the contrary notwithstanding). But naturally films are not musicals, anymore than books are screenplays, and the key to a successful creation lies in how the creators adapt and transform the material, not only for a different medium, but for a different audience (and sometimes a different generation).
So if film as a source of musicals can now be accepted as a theatrical given, I must confess that even I blinked twice last fall when I learned “Heathers” was headed for a presentation off-Broadway this spring at New World Stages. For those of you unfamiliar with the Daniel Waters film “Heathers,” it’s a 1989 ultra-black satire which served as a retort to all those sugary teen movies of the 70s and 80s (a kind of sinister apotheosis of “The Breakfast Club” or “Sixteen Candles” which paved the way for countless imitators like “Clueless” and “Mean Girls”). Without belaboring the complicated plot, the original story deals with the revenge killings of the beautiful ruling class elites of an Ohio high school which are made to appear as tragic teen suicides. This being high school and all, there are subsequent copycat suicide attempts along with healthy doses of sadistic bullying, teen sexuality, school shootings, homophobia, and even a climax in which one deranged psychopathic student attempts to blow up the entire school. The film famously tanked at the box office, although it later acquired cult status with the requisite following of diehard devotees. Still, this is not exactly breezy subject material for a musical, and in the aftermath of the Columbine and Newtown shooting tragedies, this might be material best consigned to the annals of film oddities. But as I’ve said, any source material is potentially good fodder for a musical. It all lies in the (ahem) execution. So exactly how good is the execution of “Heathers: The Musical”?
Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag. The true mark of any musical adaption is not what it retains from its source material, but what it adds. And with “Heathers: The Musical” the additions are often good. Authors Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe seem to have no problems with the first act where they provide plentiful laughs while mocking the mean girls, stupid jocks, and assorted caricatures wandering the halls of Westberg High School. Better yet they seem particularly adept at filling in many of the plot holes found in the source film. For instance, after a strong opening number “Beautiful,” the missing motivations for Veronica’s joining the mean girls (and for their taking her on) are cleverly illustrated; she’s an expert forger, you see, a technique that not only comes in handy for writing fake hall passes, but also sham suicide notes as the bodies pile up. Veronica’s culpability in those subsequent murders is also smartly diminished so we, while not exactly rooting for her, don’t entirely lose our empathy for her either. Even her deranged boyfriend J.D. is given a backstory so he has some dimension; in the film he’s little more than a charming psychopathic cypher oozing Christian Slater boyishness peppered with Jack Nicholson menace. Secondary characters who are left as mere dangling threads in the film are here neatly woven back into the plot providing a greater sense of coherence. And because it’s a musical, the song hooks are mostly carefully placed. For example, we get a very strong establishing song for J.D. (“Freeze Your Brain” — a song about much more than Slurpees), a beautiful second-act anthem for Veronica (“Seventeen”), and a bacchanalian party stomp (“Big Fun”) for the ensemble. As expected from O’Keefe, who wrote the music for “Bat Boy” and the highly underrated “Legally Blonde,” these songs are quite good, with smart lyrics occasionally pulled straight from the unique teen argot of the film. If they occasionally strain to sound young and hip, it’s forgivable. Writing compelling teen lingo is so formidable that screenwriter Daniel Waters created his own timelesslessly memorable idiom (just as Arthur Laurents did for “West Side Story”).
The troubles surface in the second act where the script additions prove less helpful. For instance, the playfully dark tone which made the first act such wicked fun oddly morphs into something decidedly more serious. Suddenly as the true motives of Veronica’s beau, J.D., become clearer, and the couple’s relationship intensifies, Murphy and O’Keefe ask that we also consider them, and their classmates — even the more despicable ones — as human beings. This effort is undercut, however, because the despicable murder victims keep returning as a sort of sarcastic Greek chorus of ghosts to sing, dance, and taunt Veronica for ending their lives before they could graduate, in effect bitching about graduation interruptus. After all the snark and sharp black comedy, this shift into soft focus seems disingenuous. Newer numbers like “Lifeboat,” sung after a botched suicide attempt by one of the surviving Heathers and “Kindergarden Boyfriend,” sung by Martha, the school fat girl and victim of one of the evenings cruelest jokes, seem wholly out of place, almost as if they were written for a different musical. These are still wonderful songs, mind you, but completely out of synch with the gleeful bitchery and mayhem which proceeded them. I won’t reveal the specifics of the ending except to lament that the authors have soft pedaled it to such an extreme that even J.D. is redeemed. This perplexing discrepancy in tone rings false and seems like a dramatic betrayal to not only the source material, but also to all the events which lead to the disappointing anticlimax. As Veronica might say, “What’s the upchuck factor on that?”
So what went wrong? Columbine and Newtown, for starters. Those tragedies unfortunately place “Heathers: The Musical” in the unenviable position of, as Ben Brantley pointed out in his NY Times review, waxing “nostalgic for a more innocent time, when a plot about killing off high school royalty wasn’t quite so sick a sick joke.” I suspect if the authors had stuck to the bleakly satiric vision of the film, the musical would be much darker, much more satisfying, but ultimately much more risky. Unfortunately we all know which night of the week satire closes on.
The show is not helped in the least by the direction of Andy Fickman who seems positively terrified of the material and determined to soften its flinty edges with as much color and bounce as might befit an episode of “Up With People.” There’s simply no getting around the fact that, for a professional production, Mr. Fickman provides an ineptitude to challenge Hal Prince’s bumbling of the original “Merrily We Roll Along.” He simply does not know what to do with this material thematically and his management of stage traffic is deplorable. Actors lounge about in awkward clumps awaiting blackouts, then trudge offstage until the next group trudges on flinching under the incredibly unflattering lighting. Several of the song-staging concepts are so cheap they wouldn’t pass muster at the high school level — pen-lights, really? Shows can be done on the cheap while still exhibiting richness of thought and creativity. Unfortunately this show ends up looking bankrupt, both visually and artistically. How I wish Alex Timbers could have been given a crack at this material. I think he would have brought just the right balance of darkness and smartassery to make this material as savagely entertaining as it cries out to be.
Not that any of my concerns mattered to the audience with whom I saw the show. They hooted and cheered every song and movie reference as if their very lives (and social standing with the Heathers) depended on it. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Veronica’s angry response to Heather Chandler’s rant after Veronica vomited on her shoes: “Lick it up, baby. Lick it up.” And so they do, and how.