American high school movies don’t come much more iconic than Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann’s 1988 comedy Heathers. The film gradually grew from box office flop to cult classic, and its bleak, black take on high school politics became hugely influential – you can see traces of Heathers in Gossip Girl, Mean Girls, Glee and loads more.
Inevitably perhaps, it’s now a musical, created by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, and finally transferring to the West End after an off-Broadway tryout and a bizarre, critic-barred run at the Other Palace earlier this year. Andy Fickman’s production is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until late November, courtesy of Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills.
It stars singer, actor, author and YouTuber Carrie Hope Fletcher as Veronica, and Jamie Muscato as JD – the two murderous roles that made stars of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in the 1988 film.
But will this stage adaptation recreate the disconcerting darkness of the much-loved movie? Will O’Keefe and Murphy’s musical make good after its lengthy gestation? Or will the critics take to it with croquet mallets?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
O’Keefe was behind the hugely successful stage adaptation of Legally Blonde, injecting an extra dose of heart and soul into the Hollywood movie. Have he and Murphy managed to do something similar with Heathers?
Most critics reckon they’ve fluffed it. “The musical consistently fumbles the source material,” laments Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★), “Its scabrous wit and weapons-grade cynicism are in no way recreated by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s glossy reimagining. Their adaptation clutches the basic plot points of the cult film about the demise of the eponymous clique of identically- named schoolgirls, but there’s rarely any sense they understood its appeal.”
“Part of the pleasure of Heathers, the cult 1989 movie, is how wickedly it traces a fine line between satire and gleeful bad taste as it tackles peer pressure, bullying, body image, social attitudes to teen suicide and mass school shootings,” explains Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★). “This musical version has its edgy moments, as well it might, given that many of these problems have only got worse in the last 30 years. But the tone of the vivacious pop-rock score, with its droll, snarky lyrics, is predominantly exuberant camp.”
“It remains a story that tackles incredibly serious themes – about bullying, about the need to conform, about teenage suicide,” agrees Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★). “O’Keefe enjoyed huge success with Legally Blonde, and applies many of the same smart tricks here. But in making the tale so breezy, so incredibly loud, both literally and metaphorically, it shouts out all possibility for nuance and understanding.”
“It feels like it’s made by people who neither understood nor especially liked their source material,” claims Alice Saville (Exeunt), while Ann Treneman (Times, ★★) simply asserts that if “you add lots of cheesiness to a storyline about teen cliques, murder and suicide you are on to a loser”.
“As it glosses over Heathers’ grim, sadistic core with shades of High School Musical-style jollity, one can’t help but wish this musical had pushed further toward the terrifying extremes that made the movie such a scream,” concludes Sarah Carson (iNews, ★★★).
On top of that, John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★) isn’t the only one to point out how the show’s plot “often chimes uneasily” with real events. “The ghosts from real-life high school massacres never quite stop haunting this show,” he observes.
Not everyone agrees, though. “It takes a while to distinguish itself from other high school musicals of its ilk,” contends Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “But when the stage version hits the same subversive pitch as the film – when it unleashes its darkness and demons – it really heats up. There’s the same crazed, insanely dark endpoint – now with added music.”
“Be sceptical all you like,” he continues. “It turns out Heathers is a masterful deconstruction of hypocrisy and a hymn to acceptance and tolerance.”
“It matches the original’s ability to discombobulate,” reckons Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). “It can’t offer close-ups on impassive faces or attain the sustained deadpan of the film. But what it does do – using the lever-switching power of song – is send you on a psychological roller-coaster, lurching between sincerity and insincerity, triviality and profundity, challenging you to gag or guffaw at the runaway, rebellious bad taste of it all.”
Most reviews reckon this musical version is a faltering follow-up to the film, then, but how well do they think Fickman’s production does in other ways? How are the songs, the choreography and the design?
“A show should not be hamstrung by its origins; the only thing that matters is whether it works on its own terms, and the answer here is: kind of,” writes Hadley Freeman (Guardian, ★★★). “Heathers surprisingly, and thankfully, plays down the 1980s setting, opting for a more universal sense of teenage life, with all its bullying and neuroses. The audience – who all looked as if they were born at least two decades after the movie came out – shrieked with joy throughout.”
Some critics find the audience’s adulation inexplicable. “Fickman directs a distinctly so-so affair with an uninspired set by David Shields,” complains Treneman, while Crompton finds that “the musical simply can’t modulate to generate any proper emotion, tension or empathy”.
“Wonky sound, stilted action and atrocious lyrics,” complains Treneman, while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★) grumbles about “painfully loud” music and “humdrum” tunes.
Most reviews reckon Heathers is a sufficiently slick stage show, though. “The show displays the kind of fastidious attention to detail the Heathers apply to their colour-coordinated uniforms,” praises Cavendish. “The choreography may not be A* yet it brings hip-swivelling, pelvic-thrusting dynamism to the rampant hormonal intensity.”
Lukowski leaps to the defence of the show’s songs. “The tunes are big, bright things, sweet and crunchy and hooky,” he writes, and Bano concurs. The thrilling score is “full of bopping pop songs and moody ballads,” he rejoices.
There’s as little consensus over the musical’s quality as there is over its content, then. Are the critics similarly divided over Carrie Hope Fletcher and Jamie Muscato’s lead performances?
Finally, we’ve got some agreement. Almost everyone thinks Hope Fletcher nails it. She “has just the right mixture of ruthlessness and idealism” according to Crompton, while Taylor calls her “wonderful gutsy”. Neil Norman (Express, ★★★★) lauds a “killer voice” and Will Longman (London Theatre, ★★★★) writes of “a performance to cement her place as a West End leading lady”.
“She’s a top-flight vocalist, but more than that she’s a great comic actor, cynically commenting on the action or affecting an ironic detachment that cuts through some of the schmaltz laid on here,” adds Lukowski. “She’s nothing like original star Winona Ryder and that’s just fine.”
There’s plenty of praise for Muscato, too. For Crompton, he’s “perfect as JD, with a sly smile that glazes over into a scary stare”, and for Letts he “achieves a chiselled coolness”.
“Muscato, who has a habit of excelling in weird musicals like Big Fish and Lazarus, plays JD with eye-popping intensity,” comments Bano. “He’s got a taut, straining voice that works perfectly for angsty emotional numbers.”
“Muscato manages to be as coldly sinister as a corpse and as hot as a smoking Colt pistol – dressed to kill in a black trench coat, causing Veronica to swoon during slo-mo fisticuffs and memorably singing a number in praise of brain-numbing slushies,” lauds Cavendish. “Fletcher breaks through into the big time here: tuneful, thoughtful, tilting between cattiness and compassion, morality and devil-may-care.”
“They make a lovely couple. No, really they do. Particularly when they sing,” assures Nathan. “Fletcher’s voice is powerful enough to resurrect the show’s dead, though the key to her likeable Veronica is her range of self-deprecating grimaces whenever she puts her foot in her mouth. Muscato is also terrific as the brooding, dashing, murdering JD.”
The reviews are a really mixed bag. Most critics are peeved, some outraged even, at what they see as sacrilegious treatment of a cult, classic, American high-school flick, opining that O’Keefe and Murphy have completely corrupted the original. A few, though, think they’ve got it just right, capturing the uniquely unsettling air of the 1988 movie.
It’s the other way around with the show’s styling, though – several hate it, but most are sufficiently swept up in a wave of 1980s exuberance. There are pretty much only two things the critics agree upon completely: Hope Fletcher and Muscato are great – West End stars worthy of the epithet.