Based on the 1988 film, Heathers is now a stage musical. It still shares the dark comedy and emotional heft of the original, but now features a stellar rock and pop score to go along with the highs and lows of navigating the world of high school popularity, and the choices (and costs) involved.
While the idea of a "musical comedy" usually brings to mind something a bit more light and frothy, Heathers - the Musical doesn't pull its punches when it comes to the themes facing high school students. While taking some of those themes to the extremes of dark comedy, song titles like "Dead Girl Walking" and "I Am Damaged" speak to how seriously the emotional highs and lows can be for anyone that age.
It's a fine line to walk, but fortunately it's in the hands of the talented Karla Kash and her amazing cast.
"This show is really good for our students since most of the roles are pretty age appropriate, which is usually hard to find," says Kash. "I've always been a big fan of the film. It came out when I was in junior high school and knew every single line by heart; I saw it so many times."
Others in the cast have had similar experiences with the original movie. Maddie Sell, a Drake student who plays one of the Cheerleaders at the fictional Westerberg High, grew up with the original movie as well.
"I am the daughter of an eighties movie fanatic, so I watched the movie long before I had seen the musical. I'm a huge fan of the movie. I think it is a fantastic film."
"Doing this as a musical allows for a wider variety of emotions. For example, the students that are in the ensemble are huge and over-the-top with everything, so it allows some of the leads to really hit the audience with HUGE emotional switches."
The fine line is also evident to Maddie. And expressing some of those concepts presents its own challenges.
"It has been a little hard for us as a cast to deal with some of the topics in this show, like eating disorders, bullying, school violence, etc. A lot of us have had to work hard to understand that we are helping spread a deeper message to the audience about all these things. For me, I have trouble singing some of the lyrics like 'Why not kill yourself?' and 'freak, slut, homo' because I have had to deal with bullying and teenage suicide personally. So it is kind of hard to put that on someone else, even if it is in a fictional universe."
Maddie is also a Dance Captain for the show, meaning she gets to make sure everyone in the ensemble is together and looking clean in their movements onstage. Since director Kash is also a choreographer and dance teacher, you can bet Maddie and her castmates are expected to rise up to a pretty high standard.
"Being a dance captain for Karla is fun. There is a lot of dancing, but also the cast is very hard working so it hasn't been too challenging. I cannot stress enough how amazing this cast has been at picking up choreography and practicing. They make our job very easy. All the people who have less dance experience have been practicing and getting extra help from the dance captains outside of rehearsal, so when you come see the show you will have no clue who came in with tons of dance training and who didn't."
Revisiting the world of high school in Heathers - the Musical has been an interesting experience for these now-college students. It's been a chance for some of them to reexamine their own experiences, and what they've learned in the intervening time. Madison Moran, now a senior at Drake, plays Veronica Sawyer, the central character who is navigating the minefield of high school society (with deadly results).
"In high school, I was pretty dorky," Moran said. "I never went through the transformation that Veronica went through, but learning to admit when I'm wrong is a big thing that Veronica has taught me. The fact that she can own up to killing someone shows that I can own up to the things I've done. Obviously, I've never killed anyone, but the smaller things."
Maddie Sell has her own retrospective. "I think that high school taught me that being an individual is okay, and wanting to blend into the background is okay. Everyone is their own person, and that is what is so unique about human beings. That really helped me in college, because I am very comfortable in myself as a person, and I'm very happy because of it."
"I think that one thing that I wish I knew in high school is that people want friends. If you are a nice, kind person, people want to talk to you. I didn't have a lot of friends and didn't talk to many people in high school because I was shy. Then, in college, I was just more myself and talked to more people, and made more friends. It was so weird to me how people really weren't annoyed with me and wanted to be my friend."
Karla Kash hopes everyone can navigate the potentially rough waters of personal interaction, and if Heathers - the Musical can shine a light on some of those issues, they she and her cast have done their job.
"I hope people can look at their relationships and how they treat others, and how they might be able to treat each other a little better," Kash said. "There are moments in the show that get really raw and honest and I hope in those moments, people can think about that. There are bullies in your life all your life, it just may not be as obvious as it was when you were in high school. So hopefully people can think about how they can be a little nicer to others."
Heathers - the Musical is presented November 17 - 20 on the mainstage at the Harmon Fine Arts Center on the Drake campus.