September 1st, 1989. Seventeen-year-old outcast, Veronica Sawyer, discovers popularity when she is befriended by the powerful trio at the top of Westerburg High’s social hierarchy.
This is where Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde: The Musical) and Kevin Murphy’s (Reefer Madness) musical begins, a relatively conventional starting point for a story about American teens. Where the narrative goes from here, however, is entirely the opposite. Adapted from the 1988 black comedy Heathers, this twisted take on the high school melodrama is a spectacle of adolescent angst told through ballads and bloody outbursts.
HAMA Productions recently debuted the musical in Perth as part of the Fringe World Festival. In a joyous rendition of O’Keefe and Murphy’s work, HAMA’s talented troupe delivered complex plot points, iconic punch lines and emotional apexes expertly from script to stage. The phenomenal performance was indicative of what HAMA Productions aims to do; promote art and support aspiring artists by placing accessible, inexpensive and sensational live shows in theatres across WA.
This iteration of Heathers the Musical was spectacularly well-cast, depicting a host of high school caricatures that were both comedic and, when necessary, sincere. The actors employed within the leading roles of Veronica Sawyer, Jason Dean (JD) and Heather Chandler were especially appropriate, each with strong, distinct voices that made their presence on stage all the more engaging. Despite small issues with audio, musical numbers were mesmeric, impactful and obviously handled with care.
Held in Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre, HAMA’s Heathers took advantage of a relatively intimate venue. Actors initiated small moments of interaction with the audience and allowed scenes to seep beyond the stage and into the crowd. The set and costume design was not necessarily intricate but the more simplistic background and symbolic outfits worked within the context of a surreal narrative. These qualities were reminiscent of the 1988 film, relying on repetition and representation to communicate certain ideas.
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers (1988) became a cult classic on account of its unique humour, quotable characters and critique of the high school experience. Radical even within a modern context, it depicts bulimia, suicide, self-harm and sexual assault unabashedly. O’Keefe and Murphy’s musical adaptation sticks to the same basic themes and plot points but employs predictable character arcs and genuine romance to form a more palatable and profitable final product.
The idea of reimagining the story of Heathers as a musical is, in my opinion, a good one. The musical is a medium that can only re-emphasise the absurdity of the world it depicts. While it may seem insensitive to discuss serious issues through showtunes, this decision builds upon the paradoxical and dream-like tone of the original script. This is not to say, however, that Heathers the Musical would be acceptable to die-hard fans of the film. While it keeps the most iconic lines of dialogue, this adaptation fails to hold the same critical weight of its predecessor.
The only problem with Heathers the Musical comes to the forefront in its final act. In both the film and the stage production, JD blows himself up with the bomb he once used to target the entire student body. However, the musical crucially departs from the film when JD’s suicide becomes an act of romantic expression and redemption—a final testament to his love for Veronica and desire to make the world a better place. Bizarrely, the musical’s conclusion commits the very sin it intends to criticise: the romanticisation of teenage suicide.
However, regardless of any problems I had with the show as an adaptation, HAMA’s production of Heathers the Musical was entirely engaging. The cast of Westerburg High handled all the comedic, controversial and even improvised aspects of the performance with professional ease and enthusiasm. The actors had an energy and a love for the show that emanated throughout the audience and made this one of my favourite Fringe experiences to date.
Heathers the Musical was part of the Fringe World Festival in Perth