Before Rachel McAdams was eviscerating Lindsey Lohan in “Mean Girls,” a teen comedy in the mid-aughts, Judy Greer was taking down Rose McGowan in 1999’s “Jawbreaker.” But a decade before that came the start of all the mean-girls cult films with “Heathers.” Winona Ryder and Christian Slater banded together to take down evil teenage oppression, even if it meant murder. The movie became an instantaneous classic, thanks to its campy, dark comedy, where over-the-top actions bore the same reactions. Yet, at its heart, a message rang relevant to teens watching: Bullying is way uncool.
And so the message carries forth—maybe even more so in today’s digital age. Kids with Facebook, Snap Chat and Instagram accounts can actually reach swaths of people to spread rumors or tease others with one fell pressing of an “enter” button. Thus, it’s not a bit surprising to see “Heathers” have a resurgence of popularity. It hit off-Broadway in 2014 as a rock musical, with music, lyrics, and book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. Later on this year it will become a series on TV Land. Locally, Panache Theatrical Productions will launch the musical’s debut on a Wilmington stage at the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre in Thalian Hall.
“I discovered ‘Heathers’ in the early ‘90s,” director and Panache cofounder Anthony Lawson says. “A friend quoted, ‘If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn’t be human. You’d be a game-show host.’ I asked him what it was from and he told me ‘Heathers.’ I fell in love with the movie instantly.”
The premise of the show consists of three of the school’s most popular girls, all named Heather, who get away with bullying and belittling outcasts of the school—basically anyone who isn’t a jock, cheerleader, thin, and pretty. Though Veronica Sawyer hates the dramatic social hierarchy the Heathers create, she becomes one of them and even sacrifices one of her childhood friends, Martha, by playing a prank on her. However, after meeting J.D. Dean, a smart, attractive rebel who wants to get back at the Heathers for the despicable imprint they leave on high-schoolers, Veronica ostracizes herself from the group. At the behest of J.D.’s leadership, she becomes involved in a killing spree-faked-as-suicides against the popular kids in school.
“I was always on the fringe of all of the different social scenes,” Lawson tells of his own high-school days. “I wasn’t popular, but I also wasn’t the nerd. I wasn’t a joke; I wasn’t any specific thing. I had friends in all different circles, yet always saw myself on the outside. In many ways, Veronica was me.”
Lawson—who codirected last year’s rock opera “American Idiot,” and has played in rock musicals, like as Uncle Ernie in “Tommy”—wasn’t sold on the idea of one of his fave ‘80s movies becoming a musical. “I first thought, ‘Oh, hell no! Don’t you dare touch that perfect movie.” Yet, the very day the soundtrack came out, Lawson bought it. “Then I thought, ‘Shit, this is really good; I will have to direct this,’” he says. “The show very much depends on scenes and music (musically, it will be directed by Adrian Varnam). But it’s not like ‘American Idiot’ or ‘Tommy.’ It’s not a rock opera; it is a musical along the lines of ‘Rocky Horror’ or ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ or anything with horror in the title.”
Playing lead lady Veronica Sawyer is Hunter Wyatt, who had been practicing “Heathers” songs with local playwright and musician Bryan Putnam months before the audition. “I wanted it that badly,” she says. It’s her biggest role to date. To have to follow in the footsteps of Ryder could be buckling pressure for any young performer. But Wyatt is most enjoying showcasing Veronica’s more awkward parts. “[Ones] that Barrett Wilbert Weed brought out on Broadway,” she says. “My goal is to keep her intelligence and dry wit, while making sure she is likable, and finding part of myself somewhere in the mix.”
Wyatt is shedding one of Ryder’s most well-known attributes: her dark hair. Wyatt’s red coif felt more appropriate to represent someone who is one-of-a-kind and doesn’t fit in with the in crowd. “I went back and forth on it, and Anthony and I decided red hair makes Veronica even more of an outcast,” she explains. “My hope is audience members will attend with an open mind and recognize love for the piece, even though it isn’t an exact copy of the film.”
In the play, the role of Veronica’s overweight friend, Martha, is a combination of two people, including another of Veronica’s childhood friends, Betty Finn. Elizabeth Flora plays the part.
“Martha carries most of the emotional (and physical) weight of the show,” Flora tells. “Her vulnerability is something we can all relate to no matter our size, and I’m just trying to capture that. . . . I think Martha doesn’t always know [her weight] is what people are seeing. As if she forgets she’s fat until she’s reminded. She’s just trying to live her best life. Each time she’s picked on, even though it’s every day, it destroys her a little.”
Flora, who is a part of the comedy troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps, says it’s a dramatic departure from the roles she’s used to doing. Comedy is her forte in acting and in life. “My character gets bullied,” she says, “and where I would normally laugh it off, it really hurts Martha. It’s hard to remove 20 years of defense mechanisms and allow myself to appear wounded.”
J.D. Dean will be played by Ty Myatt. Passion fervently rules the character. More so, he wants the world to be filled with people doing their best and giving their best. The irony is, while he’s preaching for kindness, he’s enacting atrocities to ensure it. “J.D.’s passion can come across as overzealous and just plain crazy, but there is no denying his commitment,” Myatt says. It’s the first villainous role the actor has played. He calls J.D. an “enigmatic sociopath.” He is smart, charming and compelling. He’s tough and a bad guy, too. “The biggest challenge is trying to fuse charm with manic in a way that can’t really be deciphered,” Myatt tells.
Myatt’s favorite tune comes in a show-defying moment at the end of Act I in “Our Love is God.” The turning point will reveal his character’s motives. “It’s at this moment we find out who the true villain is and can only imagine what will happen in Act II.”
Lawson has designed the set to be stripped down and minimalistic. Six color-changing blocks move throughout the small stage to form each scene. Original artwork by Kyle Page was designed specifically for the show and will screen on a backdrop.
“Heathers” opens Wednesday night at 8 p.m. and runs through Sunday, with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. The show continues its Thursday through Sunday run through April 1.