Good musicals may not be getting any smarter but bad ones certainly are. Take Heathers, which at every turn vastly improves the 1989 cult movie on which it’s based. Alas, that’s a very low bar; the movie, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, is such a sloppy, poorly directed mess it can’t even figure out what genre it’s in. (It ends up glorifying the brutal high school culture it ostensibly means to satirize.) A thousand deft repairs and a thoroughly professional score by the musical’s gifted authors — the book, music, and lyrics are by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe — can’t solve the problem, but do manage to lift Heathers all the way to terrible.
If I remember the movie less fondly than you, perhaps it’s because I was a sometime victim of that brutal culture. Not that I attended Westerberg High, where three queen bees, all named Heather, rule over the dweebs and dorks with vicious late-Reagan-era élan. (They’re so empowered that they don’t even bother to finish their idioms; “It’ll be so very” is a typical Heatherism.) For unexplained reasons, the Heathers enlist monocle-wearing smart-girl Veronica as their bitch-in-training; when the détente disintegrates, Veronica seeks revenge. Unfortunately, her new boyfriend, J.D., a dark misfit in a black raincoat, takes the revenge a bit too far. After one Heather dies, who will be next?
Murphy and O’Keefe’s translation of the story for the musical stage is in many ways exemplary. The tone, so wobbly in the movie, is firmly set in a fine opening number called “Beautiful.” The missing motivations for Veronica’s joining the mean girls (and for their taking her on) are deftly provided. Veronica’s culpability in the deaths is reduced so we don’t lose our connection to her, and J.D. is given a backstory so we have a connection to him in the first place. Characters who are left as hanging threads in the movie are neatly woven back into the musical. And because it is a musical, the song hooks are carefully honed. Aside from that opening number, we get a very strong establishing song for J.D. (“Freeze Your Brain” — nominally about Slurpees), a beautiful second-act anthem for Veronica (“Seventeen”), and a bacchanalian party stomp (“Big Fun”) for the ensemble. As was to be expected from O’Keefe, who wrote the music for Bat Boy and the underrated Legally Blonde, the tunes are good; the lyrics are always at least better-than-average.
So what went wrong? Everything else. Rarely have I seen a professional show so poorly directed; that Heathers is a high-school musical does not excuse a high-school staging. (For the record, the director is Andy Fickman.) Actors stand in awkward bunches until the lights snap off, then trudge offstage until another group trudges on. (The younger cast members look stranded; the seasoned ones, embarrassed.) Several of the song-staging concepts, if you can call them that, would have been deemed too cheap at summer camp; pen-lights, really? But cheapness is a theme: The set bears an unfortunate resemblance to a Barbie Dreamhouse in that it’s flimsy and pastel and looks like it cost $149. Was the show, whose lead producer is Harvard’s Hasty Pudding, undercapitalized? Artistically, for sure.
But even a deluxe Jerry Mitchell staging would not have saved this misbegotten creature: The unfortunate hybrid of Legally Blonde’s shiny pink happyfest with the deeper reds of Grand Guignol Carrie. Turning the movie into a musical, however smartly on the authors’ parts, could never have made Heathers anything better than it was. It’s just so very.
Heathers is at New World Stages through September 7.