A couple of years ago, sitting at my kitchen table reading my iPad and slurping up a bowl of cereal, I happened upon the stellar news:
“Heathers: The Musical” was coming to off-Broadway.
No, I did not have a brain tumor for breakfast. This was the real thing: a legit production, something I could plan a trip to New York around. Joy and rapture. My 20-something self’s favorite all-time movie was being made into a stage musical – my all-time favorite genre! My Slushie cup runneth over.
Which brings us to the Selma Arts Center and its new production (first in the central San Joaquin Valley) of “Heathers: The Musical,” which opens Friday, Aug. 5.
For decades I’ve proselytized the greatness of the 1988 cult-movie classic, which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in a comedy so black that Andre Breton, the French surrealist who coined the phrase “humour noir,” would have passed a kidney stone in celebration. I’ve preached the word. And, yes, I’ve made some converts.
As the musical version opens locally, I feel it my duty to pass on my passion for the subject. Here’s a personal rundown.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty of the “Heathers” plot, think for a moment about the time in which it was born. This was the High Flying Eighties, the era of Ronald Reagan and Swatch watches. Jordache jeans, feathered hair, neon and mullets, and “Miami Vice” ruled the school. But while “Heathers” gives a nod toward nostalgic trends, it’s much more about an attitude. This was the time of Greed is Good, of crushing the opposition, of making a killing. (You were supposed to make money, not sit around singing “Kumbaya.”) It’s no surprise that a film skewering the decade would take that relentlessness and push it even further.
Veronica Sawyer (Ryder), a smart and good-hearted girl navigating the menacing social hierarchy of Westerberg High School (which, incidentally, was named after the lead singer of the band The Replacements), dreams of joining the most powerful clique on campus, a trio of ruthless girls all named Heather. She gets her wish. But when a bad boy named J.D. (Slater) moves to town, all bets are off when Veronica nabs him as a love interest and his sociopathic tendencies (i.e., killing several of the popular kids) become blatantly clear. As Veronica muses: “Are we going to prom, or to hell?”
I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, at the time the film came out, a green (and half-frozen) entertainment writer, and I was entranced. I edited the weekly entertainment tabloid at the Anchorage Times, and I made “Heathers” the cover story, which was kind of daring, considering that one of the famous bits of dialogue was about a sexual act with a chainsaw.
“Heathers” doesn’t just involve murder; it uses teen suicide as a comic device. But before you get all swoony with 2016-style outrage, remember that the film – and the musical – is a biting, push-the-envelope satire. If you were young in the ’80s, you’d been raised on a steady diet of “social message” after-school TV specials about such issues as teen drinking, teen pregnancy and teen bulimia. There was something so drippingly earnest about the effort by TV-land adults to get chummy and personal with teens that it made you want to spew burrito chunks. (And then there were all those John Hughes teen movies in which all the misfits magically got along.) What “Heathers” does so brilliantly is spoof the way the media seized upon and thus monetized significant social issues of the time. It also caustically reminds us that a supercharged consumer culture trains us to crave whatever is hot and new. When the popular girl in “Heathers” appears to have committed suicide, she starts a trend. (“If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?” Veronica asks one of the Heathers. The answer: “Probably.”)
One of the great joys of “Heathers” is the cacophony of “Heathers speak,” which thankfully has been preserved online. I don’t think teens ever really talked the way they do in “Heathers,” but the writing is so bitingly witty that it’s easy to imagine they did. My favorite line: “Bulimia is so ’87,” which one of the Heathers proclaims. For a movie that came out in ’88, that’s timely. (Note: The stage production is rated R for language, simulated violence and sexual content.)
The black comedy divide
Almost 30 years after “Heathers,” I’ve come to a thoroughly researched conclusion: Some people like black comedy. And some don’t. This isn’t any kind of value judgment: Pushing-the-boundaries satire just rubs some folks the wrong way, and others it sends into transcendent fits of giggles. (Maybe it’s genetic?) I think that in order to appreciate the genre, you have to suspend your embrace of the literal and be willing to see sacred cows skewered in a figurative sense. “Heathers” is just a story. It doesn’t advocate teen suicide or bullying, but it’s happy to shock you to make a point. I know one thing for sure: You could never get a movie like “Heathers” made today. We live in a different, more careful time. People would squawk too much.
Finally, one last word about the stage version. I saw the off-Broadway production of “Heathers” in New York and gave it four croquet mallets of approval, the highest score possible, for the way it preserved the integrity of the movie while standing on its own as a peppy and insightful piece of musical theater. I’m happy, as a “Heathers” devotee, to have both. Am I happy every day? Of course not. Then I’d be a game-show host.
Heathers: The Musical
- Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5; runs through Aug. 20
- Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma
- www.selmaartscenter.com, (559) 891-2238
- $20, $18 seniors