Heathers 101: High School Edition is taking the stage this week in the Midwest, which may seem odd considering Heathers’ racy material—songs ridden with curse words, a party scene filled with alcohol and drugs and a sex-crazed teenage girl who enters through a window to seduce a serial killer. Still, it bows September 15 in Texas.
Of course, this version is newly revised by writers Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, iTheatrics and licensing company Samuel French for students. Following its 2014 Off-Broadway run, it gained cult status from audiences that mirrored the characters at Heathers’ Westerburg High, and multiple high schools were putting in requests for the licensing rights.
“After seeing the Off-Broadway production several times, we knew that Heathers would have a cult following among teen audiences and fans of the motion picture, due to its focus on the important issues of bullying and teenage depression,” says Samuel French executive director Bruce Lazarus. “We believe that Heathers 101: High School Edition deals with these themes in a meaningful way, which will resonate with our high school audiences.”
According to the writers, the revisions have only made the piece stronger.
“By removing all the hot-button [material]—the four-letter words, the references to shocking things like adolescents smoking and drinking and fooling around—what was left was adolescents trying to be cruel to each other or trying to be kind to each other, trying to hurt each other or trying to save each other, and an amazing thing happened,” explains writer O’Keefe. “With watching 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids doing this workshop…and watching these artists play their own age, it removed one extra layer of veil or insulation between the performers and the actual truth of the show, which made for a more intense, moving, awesome, funny and scary experience than we thought.”
Heathers: The Musical is based on the 1988 R-rated film of the same name, in which 17-year-old Veronica Sawyer, desperate to fit in, gets involved with the serial killing Westerburg newbie, Jason “J.D.” Dean. The two get in over their heads when trying to rule the school. The musical adaptation adopted iconic movie moments, but those are all too inappropriate for high school.
With the help of Samuel French and iTheatrics, the company that revised O’Keefe’s Legally Blonde for high school productions, the writers got to work on a Heathers revamp. Unlike Legally Blonde, O’Keefe and Murphy wanted to make the changes themselves, but were given guidelines by Samuel French and iTheatrics. Swear words had to be removed as well as all scenes that simulated sexual activity.
“You can be suggestive, but not explicit,” O’Keefe and Murphy were directed.
Therefore, just about every song and scene were changed—and a new song was written to replace “Blue,” the number for football players Ram and Kurt before the show’s first act ended, in which they sing about getting a bad case of blue balls.
“We weren’t satisfied 100 percent with its performance in the grown-up version,” admits O’Keefe. “I think ‘Blue’ is funny, [but] there’s no denying that it was the most polarizing song in the Off-Broadway version. If you were under the age of 20 you were like, ‘Ah, that’s great,’ and if you were over the age of 20 you were like, ‘Oh, boy!’”
In the scene, Ram and Kurt try to pressure Veronica into a threesome, but she escapes by giving them alcohol until they pass out—leaving then with blue balls when they wake up and realize what’s happened. “We set up a slightly scary situation, and then we did not have the boys acting as you’d expect them to do,” says O’Keefe. “We didn’t follow the logic all the way to the end. These kids are alone with a girl. They are inappropriate. … So we replaced the song ‘Blue’ with a song called ‘You’re Welcome,’ and it’s now my favorite song in the show. Instead of being like, ‘Ha, ha, you make my balls so blue,’ the premise of the song is, ‘Hey Veronica: Once you were a nerdy nobody, but now you are hot enough to be macked on by us. You’re welcome.’ Kevin certainly contributed a very important part of the song, which is, ‘C’mon, help us out here. You know we can’t control ourselves when you look that hot. We can’t be blamed for the ogling and mauling that we want to do right now because you are hot,’ which is chilling. That’s a horrible thing, and teenage boys do it all the time.”
Both O’Keefe and Murphy said they may nix “Blue” entirely and use “You’re Welcome” in all of Heathers licensing versions, though they haven’t made the final decision yet.
Murphy was also integral in changing the number “Big Fun,” in which the students throw a big (and, obviously, unsupervised) house party. In the student version, instead of heading straight for the liquor cabinets and rolling joints, the teenagers wreak havoc on the house—climbing on the roof, jumping in the pool and causing chaos.
These changes—including changing “Dead Girl Walking” to be less about a teen girl’s final sexcapades and more about “a girl driven to say, ‘To hell with it!’ by despair and fear”—brought to light the show’s themes, which function as important lessons for high-school students.
“By having a cast that was actually precisely age appropriate for the material, [it] made the material feel a lot more dangerous and interesting in a good way,” says Murphy. “Our Off-Broadway cast were actors who ranged from [about 20-27]; they weren’t out of the realm, but they were just old enough that you didn’t really fear for them as actual children because you felt like they were very young adults, and that’s why it made it safer to laugh at the cruelty and the horribleness of the show. You didn’t worry about the actress who played Martha, when people were calling her fat over and over again and making horrible noises… You sort of enjoyed the character. Whereas, when you see a real girl of that body type going through that in high school, there’s something that really makes you feel uncomfortable about seeing that girl in that situation.”
In the end, the result paid off. “When Veronica finally forgives her classmates and resolves to save them, even the ones who have hurt her, it made it all the more thrilling and rewarding.”
A workshop of Heathers 101 was done in November of last year, and now the piece takes shape in its first official production September 15-18 at JJ Pearce High School in Richardson, TX.
Directed and choreographed by Heather Biddle, the cast includes Adi Bitton as Veronica Sawyer, Trevor Norris as Jason “J.D.” Dean, Erica Newberg as Heather Chandler, Kristen Harrington as Heather McNamara, Sarah Peterson as Heather Duke, Megan Droste as Martha Dunnstock, Josh Kane as Kurt Kelly and Grant Oliphint as Ram Sweeney.
Rounding out the cast are Jack Weatherford, Lizzy Wolcott, Cole Dillow, Paige Wills, Maya Carr, Jakob Martinez, Zoe Moore, Abby Lysinger, Colton Stricklin, Kyle Berger, Steven White, Max Longfield, Ben Summey, Marissa Murtow, Sarah Mendenhall, Brianna McArthur, Emily Head, Alexis Kane, Belinda Lloyd, Meredith King, Charlie Cooney, Caleb Hart and Abery Lampert.
The creative team also includes Jared Schwartz (music director), Ben Parker (assistant director), Debi Lewis (assistant to the director), Kelly Cox (technical director), Robin Stricklin (scenic designer), David Seitz (lighting designer) and Wes Weisheit (sound designer).
JJ Pearce High School is located at 1600 North Coit Road in Richardson, TX. For more information on the show, visit PearceTheatre.org.