Movie Review ~ Heathers: The Musical

The Facts:

Synopsis: Veronica Sawyer does her best to survive her senior year while navigating the beautiful but cruel Heathers, the new to school Jason “JD” Dean, and the constant pressure to fit in with everyone else.
Stars: Ailsa Davidson, Simon Gordon, Maddison Firth, Vivian Panka, Teleri Hughes, Mhairi Angus, Liam Doyle, Rory Phelan, Vicki Lee Taylor, Andy Brady, Oliver Brooks, Benjamin Karran, Chris Parkinson, Jermaine Woods, Eleanor Morrison-Halliday, Mary-Jean Caldwell, Hannah Lowther, May Tether
Director: Andy Fickman
Rated: NR
Running Length:
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Hollywood Movies had been adapted into musicals to varying degrees of success for decades before Hairspray came on the scene, but that 2002 Tony-winning musical was a rare bird. It was not just a good film that got great when producers brought it to the stage; it was a blockbuster success that had a long life on Broadway and around the world, with regional productions still popping up to this day. More than anything, the music was so infectiously excellent that it was hard for anyone to leave the theater without a giant smile. I saw an early Broadway preview, having paid top dollar to do so, and it was some of the best money I ever spent.

A little over a decade later, the theater had seen many shows that tried to recapture that Hairspray magic with unremarkable results. The bigger the swing, the larger the miss; it wasn’t getting any better. Starting in 2009, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy began working on the music, lyrics, and book for Heathers: The Musical. Adapted from the cult film from 1988 written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehman, this was imagined as a period-set musical that maintained the darkly comic tone of the movie and aimed for a smaller off-Broadway house to call home.

Years of development followed, and after a sold-out run in Los Angeles created the kind of buzz that could carry a show into NYC, Heathers: The Musical made its official off-Broadway debut in March of 2014 and ran for just six months. Despite being featured on an episode of the hit show Riverdale, perhaps the movie’s cult following didn’t translate to the stage. Then the UK got a hold of the rights, and that’s where the show’s second life began. Again directed by Andy Fickman, the show received a few tweaks and new songs, making its off-West End debut in 2018. It has enjoyed consistent professional productions in and around the West End ever since. 

Now comes a professionally filmed movie of the latest off-West End production filmed in May of 2022 made up of stars of the recent UK tour of the show and the 2021 revival cast. This “best of” grouping allows director Fickman to select the best of the best, and it shows with each high-belting song and well-sung ballad. It may lose some of (well, let’s be honest, most of) the burnt edges that made the original film such an outrageous viewing experience, but there’s enough energy given off by the cast to fuel several neighboring West End shows.

By and large, the story of Heathers remains the same. Starting her senior year, average girl Veronica Sawyer (Alisa Davidson) knows her place on the food chain of Westerberg High. No one ranks higher than the Heathers, and the queen bee is Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth). Decked out in red and unafraid to literally push Heathers Duke (Vivian Panka) and McNamara (Teleri Hughes) out of the way so she can shine, Heather C. takes no prisoners in the high school game of winners and losers. In the stage version, Veronica isn’t friends with the tricky trio yet but ingratiates herself quickly, becoming a hanger-on and leaving behind loyal friend Martha Dunnstock (Mhairi Angus). (Sorry, Betty Finn from the movie, there wasn’t enough room for you, so your character combined with Martha, who has far more room to grow.)

New to school Jason “JD” Dean makes a huge first impression by putting jocks Kurt Kelley and Ram Sweeney in their place when their toxic masculinity gets the better of them. Finding the dangerous new boy appealing, Veronica makes a mental note to keep him at a distance but not keep him too distant. She gets to know him faster than she imagines when she finds herself on the outs with Heather C. and winds up mistakenly offering her a glass of drain cleaner, killing her instantly. Instead of being the good girl, Veronica follows JD’s lead and turns Heather C’s death into an example for their school, which has a ripple effect on all that get swept up in its wake.

Musicalizing Waters’s film that is ostensibly about suicide (JD and Veronica make this initial death and several others look like it was self-inflicted) is risky. A question of taste hangs over the entirety of the piece. Yet I was shocked at how fun the show was from beginning to end. I hadn’t heard the music in full until I saw the film because I’m not the kind of person that can easily listen to the cast recording of a show I haven’t seen. I find it too difficult to conceptualize the show without having the visuals to go with it. The score and lyrics are often quite hysterical, with rhymes that use slang from the 1989 era it is set and catchy melodies that drive the show like a locomotive.

Performing at a smaller venue can make the stage feel cramped for the smaller cast, but it doesn’t hold the choreography back from being impressively executed by a hard-working ensemble. From the opening number-on, it seems the supporting players are constantly moving around doing something (or playing a double role), and the multi-level set is utilized nicely. Fickman has been with the show long enough (and has directed enough films of his own) to understand how to stage this musical for the cameras, so this works particularly well for at-home viewing. It’s easy to track the action, and it’s shown fully when you want to see the choreography.

Tip-top performances send this over the edge, starting with Davidson and her vocal chords of steel. While everyone in the cast does a great job hiding their UK accents, Davidson tends to get a little gargley when speaking, but the singing is gorgeous whether she’s holding back or belting it out. If Simon Gordon’s JD is a little weaker in comparison, it’s only because he reads a good deal older than Davidson, so it feels like the Silverstone/Rudd relationship in Clueless (did that actually work?), but I did like his singing. As the ignored best friend, Angus spends most of the film in the background, only occasionally popping in as the voice of reason so you know she has a big song in Act II you should be ready for…and she delivers. Bless Fickman for casting studly Rory Phelan and Liam Doyle as football jocks that spend the second act in just their underwear.

Like Mean Girls (also influenced by Heathers, also turned into a successful musical), the trio of popular girls is the most fun to watch as they stalk the stage. Hughes is nicely fragile as always on edge Heather M while Panka lets it rip when Heather D. comes out of her shell. I was particularly fond of Firth’s take on Heather C, especially as the musical opens and we get our first look at her. There’s a lot of work to get you to dislike this character while still wanting to see as much of her as possible, and Firth easily accomplishes this. She’s ever so fun to watch, and the singing is excellent too.

I still think Heathers: The Musical needs a little more trimming before it can be considered complete. With teenage suicide still an issue that faces children today, it may continue to be a sensitive musical to present, even though there is a high school edition available, should an institution be so bold. Hot button topics are often reduced to broadly comic effect, but they were in the 1988 movie, so you can’t take too many points away from the musical either. If you’re taking it on a pure entertainment level (and you should), Heathers: The Musical is so very.

Have some “Big Fun” and catch Heathers: The Musical, exclusively premiering on The Roku Channel, starting today, September 16! I’ll be giving it a second watch this weekend myself!