What Heathers Gained on the Way to The Stage

What Heathers Gained on the Way to The Stage

When the creative team of Heathers: The Musical saw Daniel Waters scribbling madly on any sheet of paper he could find, they got a little nervous.

After all, Waters was the screenwriter of the 1988 movie Heathers, which has assumed an iconic stature for its wickedly funny take on the teen films that were so popular at the time. (It made the No. 5 spot on Entertainment Weekly’s “50 Greatest High School Movies of All Time” list and launched the careers of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.) And nearly a quarter century later, Waters was watching the first workshop of the brash new musical version, which takes the twisted love story into a post–Mean Girls, post–Pretty Little Liars landscape.
“Luckily, I was playing keyboard at the time, so I couldn’t pay too much attention to what Dan was doing,” says Laurence O’Keefe, the Tony Award-nominated Legally Blonde: The Musical songwriter who collaborated with Kevin Murphy on the book, music, and lyrics for Heathers. “But it was pretty nerve-wracking for everyone.”

Not to worry: Waters says he was actually trying to write down every great new line he heard so that he could repeat them to his friends. Those jokes and a few new ones can be heard at New World Stages starting on March 15, when Heathers: The Musical begins previews. In a season stuffed with big-budget Broadway musicals, it stands poised to become the kind of dark-horse hit that could please even the toughest of audiences.

“I had a vague best-case scenario and a vivid worst-case scenario in my mind of what a musical of Heathers would be like,” Waters says. “And it was far beyond my best-case scenario.”

A huge part of this came from a willingness to add a strain of optimism to the jet-black source material, which follows Veronica Sawyer’s attempts to first join and then destroy the all-powerful trio of popular girls (all named Heather) at her high school, with the help of a sexy new rebel, J.D., who has just arrived in town. Murphy and O’Keefe each have plenty of experience with silly musical comedy — they wrote Reefer Madness and Bat Boy, respectively — but everyone involved with Heathers says the show has taken a different approach.

“We decided seven years ago to make this as truthful as possible,” O’Keefe says. “Heathers turned the whole John Hughes genre on its ear, but the culture has turned 180 degrees since then. It was incredibly subversive at the time, but it was so influential that we felt the subversive thing to do now would be to bring out the hope and the heartfelt emotions.” Some of the characters — particularly J.D., who was more of an alluring cipher in the film — have also been given more of a background.

Still, Heathers fanatics needn’t worry. The quips and devilish plot twists that earned the movie such legendary cult status are still in there, though sometimes in surprising new spots. “I approach it as a true fan,” Murphy says. “If I didn’t love and respect it so much, I wouldn’t have spent the time I have to turn it into a musical.”

The affection is mutual: Waters liked what he saw so much at that workshop that he took advantage of a cross-country flight to spark the original Veronica Sawyer’s interest in it. “The gods sat me next to Winona Ryder on a flight back from New York,” he says. “It was the day before the last performance of the workshop, and I begged her to come see it. She loved it! And she stayed all night and took pictures with everyone in the cast.” Christian Slater has been busy filming his new TV show, but he has sent encouraging emails to the new cast as well.

And if that’s not an impressive enough fan base, Heathers also has the widest social media presence of any Off-Broadway show, with a Facebook and Twitter following that bests several Broadway shows. “We have an extremely open policy on rehearsal photography, and everyone in the cast is very active with the hashtag #heathersmusical,” Murphy says. “All we have to do now is not be boring so that people stop following us.”

There’s little risk of that happening. When Heathers: The Musical opens on March 31 — exactly 25 years after the movie’s debut — audiences will be able to thrill to the iconic dialogue and characters they love while experiencing a whole new level of energy and hope. It’s enough to make anyone start scribbling down lines in joy.