Going back to high-school hell with Heathers: The Musical

An edgy adaptation resurrects the jet-black humour of the 1980s cult film, this time with a racially diverse cast

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      High-school comedies have seldom matched the black humour of Heathers, the 1988 cult film that operated as a wicked tale of revenge against ruling cliques while wading into shockingly dark issues. Bullying, date rape, suicide: they’re topics that resonate, if possible, even more today than they did when Winona Ryder and Christian Slater were still emerging stars.

      And they’re topics that the young Vancouver cast of the new Heathers: The Musical has been wrestling with all week in a downtown studio. The stage version retains the movie’s switchblade-sharp social commentary, and the trick has been finding the right deadpan tone amid the singing, dancing, and ’80s costumes.

      “It’s not a parody,” director David C. Jones stresses, referring to his treatment of an era that’s reflected in everything from the live band’s synth-imbued soundtrack to the prepster outfits worn by the Heathers (an iron-fisted clique of three girls named Heather).

      Jones is taking a break with actor Synthia Yusuf, who plays one of the Heathers, and choreographer Ken Overbey, who also plays several adult roles in the piece. “Sometimes you have to step back and say, ‘It’s too big.’ It should be more like heightened reality.

      “Two jocks sing a song called ‘Blue’ about date rape,” Jones adds. “It would be very easy to make them cute, but date rape is not cute—you should have a sense of danger.” The choreography, as a result, moves into the creepy and disturbing.

      It takes an equal amount of danger to stage the scene where the lead character, Veronica (played in this show by Christine Quintana), semi-accidentally gives the cruel Heather Chandler a drink of drain cleaner. “The choreographer worked with her about what poison would do if it went through to all of your organs,” Jones explains.

      “My death is quite horrific—it’s very dark,” agrees Yusuf, who adds that at rehearsal people laughed uncomfortably during the scene, even though, technically, she’s not doing anything funny.

      This is the first Canadian production of the musical by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, which has received rave reviews off-Broadway and in L.A. It’s being staged here by …Gently With a Chainsaw Artists’ Collective, a name that excerpts the favourite saying of the foul-mouthed lead Heather. Filled with cheeky numbers like “Freeze Your Brain” (about how Slurpees can help numb the pain of your life) and “My Dead Gay Son”, it retells the story of Veronica, who takes on the jocks and the Heathers with a very damaged misfit named J.D. Their dangerous pranks take on a murderous life of their own.

      As Yusuf points out, the story is about “the need to put people in a box”—to label them. It has choreographer Overbey recalling the strict cliques of his own high-school years. “I remembered back in high school I was a jock and there was no way I would do theatre,” he says, admitting he used to peek in at the other students’ stage rehearsals. “They were putting on Grease and I couldn’t cross that line.”

      “There was no way as a gay teenager I could do theatre in high school or I would be beaten up,” Jones agrees.

      But this specific production is fighting the idea of those kinds of “boxes” on an even bigger level. Director Jones has purposely hired an ethnically diverse cast, with over half of its players coming from non-Caucasian backgrounds to reflect the makeup of Vancouver. The result? The group of stage students might actually look like a real high school in this city.

      “Older generations only notice the presence of colour on-stage, but the younger generations notice an absence of colour,” Jones says, explaining he became acutely aware of the issue while serving on Canadian Actors’ Equity when it studied how casting reflects racial diversity—or, more to the point, doesn’t—in 2015.

      “I think you have to see colour when you’re casting,” he says, adding he hunted Yusuf down for the role after seeing her in shows last year, and had a solid, talented group of 181 people apply for Heathers. “It also comes from just being a gay male and being aware of fairness and right and wrong.”

      Yusuf says her ethnicity has definitely affected her ability to find work. “As a young female pretty fresh out of school it’s pretty challenging: there are not a lot of roles for someone who’s ethnically ambiguous,” she says. “People are so quick to label you. People assume I’m half Indian and I’m not. It’s a challenge to fight through that.”

      As a black artist, Overbey says that his skin colour has come into play in auditions over the years. “In musicals, every once in a while they would say, ‘You make us think different about the role.’ But I wouldn’t get the part.” He adds he’s hopeful things might be changing for a new generation.

      The same progress might also be being made on the issue of high-school bullying that’s addressed so bitingly in Heathers: The Musical, he says. “I work on musicals at high schools, and there are programs there built in for bullying, and there’s Pink Shirt Day.…So there’s already been some evolution.”

      But Yusuf adds: “It’s still an issue, even if schools are more proactive.” It’s a problem that Heathers: The Musical, in its own twisted way, tries to resolve by the end—admittedly, after quite a bit of murder and mayhem.

      The world may have changed a bit since Heathers, the movie, came out in 1988, but clearly there is a lot left to tackle. And arguably, worldly-wise young people and their jaded, Heathers-loving parents have developed even more of an appetite for its brand of riotously inappropriate, jet-black comedy.

      Heathers: The Musical is at the York Theatre from Thursday (January 7) to January 17.