High Schoolers Adapt Dark Teen Film Heathers Into a Musical and Earn National Attention
Some people are calling J.J. Pearce's Heathers a Kidz Bop version, but director Heather Biddle says it's still plenty edgy without the sex and cursing.
courtesy Adam Lampert via Heather Biddle
Heather Chandler is popular, pretty and pitiless. She says things like, “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” She treats her friends, two of them also named Heather, with deep contempt, and she treats her enemies worse. Another girl invites her to lick up a puddle of vomit. One morning, Heather drinks a coffee mug full of bright blue drain cleaner and falls onto a glass coffee table, dead.
And that’s just the beginning of Heathers, the 1989 cult film about a murderous class of high school students, which stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Heathers is an exaggerated depiction of the savagery of teenage cliques and social strata, brutal in satire and high in body count.
And now it’s a nationally acclaimed high school musical in Richardson, with a new run of shows June 15-17.
When a musical adaptation of the movie played off Broadway in 2014, the show ran for just four months, but it sparked a reaction that its creators weren’t expecting — a legion of obsessed teenage superfans responding to the show’s depiction of characters trying to save social face by concealing personal struggles and depression.
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So writers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy set about adapting a PG-13 version for high school performers and audiences. In fall 2016, J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson gave the show’s high school premiere. Now Heathers: The Musical is in the national spotlight, with Pearce students chosen to perform at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The director, naturally, is a Heather.
Heather Biddle was in middle school when the movie came out. She came by her fandom honestly: “I had three best friends named Heather,” she says, “and I had a boyfriend who looked like Christian Slater.” She’s been a fan of the movie ever since.
Biddle has been working on the show for two years, starting when the creators were fine-tuning scenes and transposing songs to the right keys. Collaborating with the original authors, licensing company Samuel French and iTheatrics — an education organization that specializes in adapting plays for young audiences — Biddle arranged for a production at Pearce High School, which became the high school version’s world premiere.
Naturally, there was some skepticism in Richardson. But Texas high schools aren’t as prudish as they were a few decades ago, and Richardson ISD, while raising its eyebrows at some scenes, ultimately allowed Heathers: The Musical to proceed. And the community’s response has been overwhelmingly supportive.
The high school version tones down the original film, but not as much as one might think.
“In the high school edition, they write out any of the sexual content,” Biddle explains, “but they [Veronica and J.D.] still hook up.”
“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” is gone, but the body count hasn’t changed. “Everybody still gets murdered,” Biddle says. A song about date rape was rewritten but retains a satiric edge. J.J. Pearce students are the first to perform the new song.
Some have accused the high school edition of being a “Kidz Bop” edition. “Sure,” Biddle says, “if Kidz Bop had a really cool older cousin with a fake ID.”
Trevor Norris, who plays mysterious, leather-jacket-clad new kid J.D., pushes back against that Kidz Bop complaint, too.
“At the high school level, and being a show about high schoolers and being a show about 17- and 18-year-olds, we find so much — every teenager loves this show because they find so much relatability. It’s the relatability that makes the show.”
He says both cast and audience members have experiences, or friends and family with experiences, that parallel the depression, alienation or social pressures faced by the characters in the show.
“The show is too relatable to worry about if you’re force-feeding a message,” Norris says.
“We’ve had people reach out — people who were deeply thinking about hurting themselves, or knew that somebody else was, and they were able to help them or understand why they shouldn’t do it," he says. "The show's about knowing you have someone to go to and somewhere to hold on to. We’re so thankful for that.”
Before going to the International Thespian Festival, Heathers is doing a final run of shows at J.J. Pearce at 7:30 p.m. June 15-17. Then, funded by those ticket sales, the cast and crew will load up scrunchies and shoulder pads and drive for 12 hours overnight to Nebraska to perform at the festival. Only a handful of high schools in the country — nine, plus all-state contingents representing Nevada and Georgia — received an invitation.
Biddle is hopeful that this production will mean more Heathers nationwide. The show’s creators, she says, reason that "if we can get this to work in the Bible Belt, everybody in the world should be able to do it.”
And, so far, it has worked, which comes down to the message behind the murders.
“The show is, at the heart of it, be kind to each other, take care of each other, "Biddle says. "Everybody is going through something.
“We stopped telling our kids it’s OK to tell us you’re not happy. We live in the Instagram world — you don’t have to always have a smile on your face. This show gives people ability to know it’s OK that you’re not perfect. Social media is all about that, it’s all, look, everyone, I’m so happy, I’m so happy! It’s so hard for these kids because everyone looks happy and smiley and 90 percent of the time, they’re not. It’s OK to talk about the dark stuff sometimes.”
Heathers: The Musical, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15, through Saturday, June 17, at J.J. Pearce Auditorium, 1600 N. Coit Road, $15-$20 at ticketstothecity.com.
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