Each night, before the Footlight Players production of Heathers: The Musical begins, the company will take a somewhat unusual step. The musical director of the play will come out and have a discussion with the audience, warning them that, much like the original film version from 1989 starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, the musical is a dark comedy with plenty of references to suicide, in-school violence, and bullying.
The sad fact of the matter is that the times we live in have dictated the pre-show conversation far more than the musical itself, which was first produced in 2010.
“The subject matter is so prevalent in schools today,” says Don Brandenburg, the Footlight Players’ artistic director and the director of Heathers: The Musical. “So we thought we would talk about the charities that have been set up to help students deal with the school shootings recently, and we will probably even take some donations that will go to those charities. But it’s mainly to prepare the audience before we start that this is some very serious subject matter that’s been made on the campy side, so they should take it from that perspective. We’re certainly not making light of it because we think it’s a very serious subject matter.”
Brandenburg said the decision to preface the performances came after colleagues of his that were educators reached out to him about it.
“We’re letting the audience know up front that you can still laugh,” he says. “It’s OK to laugh. It’s a dark comedy, so there’s a lot of humor in it. And hopefully if someone does come in and has no clue what they’re about to see, this discussion will help them make the decision whether or not they want to stay.”
To be sure, the material in the film and the musical have made an impression on Brandenburg. He’s seen the film only once, but the story, about a teenage girl named Veronica who is flirting with popularity by allying her self with a group of merciless mean girls known collectively as the “Heathers” before she and her increasingly unhinged boyfriend, JD, start killing people, stayed with him.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really strange and dark,'” he says. “But I still remember it all these years later.”
Brandenburg was unfamiliar with the 22-song musical, written by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy as well, though song titles like “Our Love Is God” and “My Dead Gay Son” will certainly sound familiar to those who loved the movie. But members of the musical theater community in Charleston kept telling Brandenburg that the Footlight Players should try and produce the play, so Brandenburg finally sat down around six months ago and read the libretto and listened to the soundtrack.
“Initially, I just kept thinking, ‘How in the world can they take that and turn it into a musical?'” he says. “But I was being hit from all sides, so there was obviously something that was resonating with people. So I sat down and listened to the music, and when I did, I realized it was really good. And I read the libretto, and I really liked the way the creators of the show made it very campy, so that it was an entertaining piece of theater that helps you digest these bitter pills of teenage bullying suicide, violence in schools, and all the things we seem to be dealing with in the news every day.”
Even after the Footlight Players announced their performances during Piccolo Spoleto, people were still reaching out to Brandenburg to talk about Heathers.
“I was really surprised because I immediately heard from a lot of young people who were familiar with it,” he says. “I realized it was touching a lot of people. It makes light of a lot of the subject matter, even though it’s a dark comedy, with situations that are a little too ridiculous to be true, but it shows how people can grow and change into something better.”
That might sound a little odd if you’ve only seen the film, which ended with Veronica reaching out to help a bullied friend and destroy the students’ hierarchy of popularity but also featured her shooting JD after he attempted both to kill her and blow up her school.
“Veronica wasn’t really that likeable in the film,” Brandenburg says. “In this piece, she is. She’s able to make her way through the maze of hate and bullying and go back to being her true self, which I find very moving. It’s almost hard for me to listen to the last song, ‘Seventeen,’ without tearing up. It’s that beautiful.”
The roles of Veronica and JD, the central figures of the musical and the film, are tricky to play, because they have to convincingly be homicidal and sympathetic. For those pivotal roles, Brandenburg says he found the perfect pair in Rebecca Weatherby and Michael Okas, a couple in real life.
“In my mind, they’re what I see when I look at the script,” he says. “They are the picture of Veronica and JD for me. I couldn’t have been luckier to have them audition for those roles.”