Heathers: The Musical | Review

As Heathers: The Musical rolls into town at the Wales Millennium Centre, Emma Schofield tries to unpick what this West End smash hit is really all about.

Very rarely, when I go to see something, I get the strangest feeling that I’ve slipped through the cracks into an alternate reality where I’m watching something completely different to everyone else. It’s as if everyone around me is seeing an entirely different show and I’m stuck looking at a different stage altogether, unable to see what they’re seeing. Perhaps I am, or maybe I’ve just spent too much time lately binge-watching Alice in Borderland on Netflix. Either way, Heathers: The Musical is one of those productions that’s inevitably going to polarise audiences.

For those who grew up singing along to every word of High School Musical and secretly longing to be part of the Plastics in Mean Girls, this is probably going to strike a chord. It’s loud, it’s colourful, it’s high energy and it plays to all of the American high school character tropes that we’ve become familiar with over the past few decades. There are parties, murders, sexy outfits and a really uncomfortable sex scene, all set to the backdrop of a high tempo musical score and a colourful, if basic, set.

Heathers: The Musical
Verity Thompson, Jenna Innes, Elise Zavou and Billie Bowman in Heathers

For me, and I’m conscious that I may be in the minority here, but Heathers is everything that I don’t want to see in a musical. The script is weak, the songs all merge into one and nothing really stands out; except for some of the genuinely awful lyrics (“I like drinking hard; maxing Dad’s credit card”), where everything rhymes and the singing teeters on the brink of shouting. Pair that with the casual presentation of a whole range of issues from sexual harassment, to bulimia, coercive control and attempted mass murder and diminished culpability and it starts to feel uncomfortably removed from the reality of these topics.

Then there’s the entire premise for the plot, which centres on high school student Veronica’s attempts to befriend the Heathers, the cool girls who dominate the school and are worshipped by jocks Kurt and Ram and feared by everyone not in their favour. As part of her transformation, Veronica begins forging hall passes and notes for the Heathers, before starting a relationship with moody, Baudelaire-reading newcomer JD, who eventually manipulates her into unwittingly participating in a murdering spree among the student population. In the film on which the musical is based, the story plays out quite differently in the hands of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, who drew out the black humour and riffed off the sinister nature of JD’s plan to rid the school of bullies. The musical takes the same plot in a very different direction.

Perhaps it’s the fact that this is a musical production which makes it so jarring. At its core, there is something hugely problematic about the whole concept of a musical in which ideas surrounding teen suicide and attempted suicide are so glibly thrown around. It’s also questionable as to whether a musical which culminates in one of its students going rogue and attempting to blow the whole school up is really the direction we’d like our West End musicals to be taking in 2023, but that might be a debate for another day. It’s perfectly possible for a teen-themed musical set in a high school to tackle topics which might be taboo, Grease and Hairspray being prime examples, but Heathers: The Musical has all of the controversy and none of the depth to carry that off.

I’m conscious that I might be a spoilsport in all of this but, even for a production set in the late 1980s, the characterisation is so clearly drawn along hugely outdated gender lines. The majority of the female characters are vacuous and concerned only with looking hot and being popular, while the male characters make endless dick jokes and liken women’s bodies to a Maserati. Even working on the assumption that this is meant to jar, it feels like a cheap way of making the point about male and female divides in a 1980’s high school and the same effect could have been achieved without applying that approach to almost every character in the cast. Perhaps that is, arguably, the problem with a musical as opposed to a film; the nuances in terms of characterisation are so easily lost among the cacophony of noise and razzamatazz.

Nevertheless, there’s a subtle difference between subversive and just plain uncomfortable and I’m not convinced that Heathers, in its musical form, has got that right.

Heathers: The Musical runs at the Wales Millennium Centre until the 26th August. Tickets are available here.