As an avid fan of the 1988 film upon which the musical is based, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Heathers The Musical. Most things starring Winona Ryder don’t immediately scream “musical theatre,” you have to admit. But my expectations were exceeded.
The plot starts off fairly simple: Veronica is fed up of high school. She’ll do anything to survive her senior year, including hanging out with the Heathers, a group of mean-spirited popular girls (all named Heather), who by association will provide enough social protection for her to reach graduation unscathed. Sounds simple, right? Enter JD, stage left (or right, I can’t remember), the mysterious new boy who wears black and quotes Baudelaire. Yuck, right? Works for Veronica though, for some reason. Chaos ensues from here onwards, and surprisingly none of it revolves around JD needing to wash his hair.
But, greasy boys aside, this a musical about reclaiming female agency. Veronica’s independence and headstrong nature comes through just as strongly as it does in Winona Ryder’s portrayal of the character in 1988 and, also like the original film, she is allowed to make mistakes. Veronica messes up, but we sympathise with her. And a sympathetic teenage girl is often difficult to come by in popular media. A new song has been added for this version of the show on London’s West End that is not on the original soundtrack, ‘I Say No,’ which gives Veronica even more agency and empowerment than she already had. “Blame your childhood, blame your dad / Blame the life you never had / But hurting people? That’s your choice, my friend,” she sings to JD as events escalate and the show nears its climax. The scenes pertaining to male violence, such as the attempted sexual assault of Veronica by jocks Ram and Kurt, feel particularly pertinent in the current climate, but are handled sensitively (albeit with the show’s trademark black humour).
I also enjoyed the show’s portrayal of teenage female sexuality. ‘Dead Girl Walking’ is the horny anthem we all need; the lyric “I’m hot and pissed and on the pill” singlehandedly turned me into a musical theatre person. Veronica is in control of her sexuality. She’s confident and she isn’t punished for being sexual, as is so often the case in literature and film alike. Well, not explicitly punished. I can imagine there might have been some transmittance of grease on JD’s part during the act itself.
Another highlight, this time from beyond the fourth wall, was the fan engagement. Much of the audience was comprised of teenage girls in the Heathers’ iconic colour coordinated skirt and blazer combos, or Westerberg High varsity jackets. I felt thoroughly underdressed. As the cast came on for their final bow, those in the front rows threw scrunchies onto the stage in a ritual that I wasn’t familiar with. Teenage girls are always the most passionate fans, which despite nagging thoughts in the back of my head about young people being exploited by merchandising companies, is otherwise a fantastic thing.
This isn’t necessarily a show for everyone; it might not be everyone’s cup of Prairie oyster. And this is good, in my opinion. It’s a show about teenagers and it’s primarily for teenagers. And me, of course. Heathers is proof that media for teenage girls is objectively good; it’s complex and dark, covering light hearted themes such as teen suicide and bullying, but it’s also hilarious. And the songs, in my musical-theatre-novice opinion, are really, really good.
Above all, though, Heathers is proof that the real villains are not the popular girls in high school. It’s the greasy philosophy boys who listen to Morrissey that you shouldn’t trust. Even the ones that don’t try to murder you.