Last night I was invited to attend the “concert reading” of the new musical Heathers, based on the cult film of the same name. Having not been familiar with the story or the film, I was in for a surprise. Remember those bitches that ruined your life in High School? While you still persistently tried to win their approval? Heathers finds a simple solution. Murder.
Heathers is a campy, absurd, and often disturbing portrayal of 1980s suburban high-school life. What a perfect combination of styles to base a contemporary pop musical on. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a musical that really tries to glamorize suicide. In the end, the gut wrenching truth and seriousness of real-life consequences is haunting. Heathers the film was made in a time before the Columbine High School massacre, and it's difficult to find the humor in a sociopathic teenager who eventually tries to blow up the school. But the major theme is more critique than cynicism. It’s satire with a hard bite. It’s dark comedy that’s so black its almost blue. The evening was quite enjoyable. This show was larger than life, and certainly exceeded the Joe’s Pub stage. This belongs in a theatre.
What the Heathers Concert Reading did right:
1) Excellent cast. Annaleigh Ashford gives a star performance as the protagonist Veronica. Her comedy and innocence are perfect; her vocal talent cannot be compared in this role. Jenna Leigh Green is once again playing the character her career has been known for, the perfect bitch. You love her, but she never ever looks pleasant. Ever. The surprise performance of the night goes to Julie Garnye who gets a chilling and emotional power ballad in the second act, as a humiliated ugly girl with a broken heart.
2) Great score. Simply one of the strongest contemporary musical scores I’ve heard all year. Laurence O’Keefe, the composer of Legally Blonde is the master of “hook songs.” Each song has a perfect musical hook, a strong catchy tune that is sometimes too good for the lyric. Because this was a concert reading, I imagine much of the book songs were left out intentionally. The result is one hit hook-song after another, with titles like, “I Love My Dead Gay Son,” “Our Love Is God,” “Dead Girl Walkin',” and “Freeze Your Brain” Unfortuantely, O’Keefe’s music is sometimes too good for the lyric as I mentioned. But the tune cannot be altered. If I have one suggestion, it's to work on the lyrics a bit more. I often wondered, “I wish there could have put a better three words there, to match those three notes.”
3) A story that moves. Not only was it brief, but also emotionally compelling. The “concert reading” chose the best material, and skipped the larger book scenes. This is how you put on a musical reading. I imagine about half the show was missing, but you got a great image of what the experience is like as a whole. Many scenes were described through narration. But a reading is not a full presentation, it's just a showcase... a teaser. They knew how to keep the audience engaged, while doing the best they can. It was well rehearsed and polished. The story is based on a film, so there is already a strong plot. I’m so tired of new musicals with no plot. This one just flew by because the presentation cut out all the fat.
4) How to make an entrance. They used the space of Joe’s Pub perfectly. The entrance of "the Heathers" was entirely classic. Their march through the audience was simple but inspired.
5) Funny. This show is honestly hilarious, and that’s not just from people who are familiar with the film and its references. I knew next to nothing going in, and I thought all the one-liners were still very comically effective.
I would look forward to seeing this show with a full staged production. It’s obvious the creators have their sights set on Broadway. However, I’d be worried that the subject matter is too dark and uncomfortable to be successful in the long run. Comedies this dark have trouble finding an audience on Broadway. Most shows don't joke and laugh about teenage suicide and shameless murder. It feels like a teen-musical because its about mean girls in high-school, but it is nothing less than a very adult musical, that I would not recommend to kids or teens. Not only because of the content, but because the satire of the high-school experience in this instance is only effective through a backwards lens. Young minds might get the wrong idea about what this show glamorizes. However, the score is very pop, and would draw youth in.