If you’re someone who’s never seen the 1988 film Heathers, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s an 80s high school comedy which centres around some bitchy popular girls.
And you’d be right.
But you’d also be, well, wrong.
The film was cleverly adapted into a musical which premiered on Off-Broadway in 2014, and it is being presented by GSODA from October 6th.
Sure, it’s about popularity and the female alpha pack at a high school, but it goes so much deeper than that. It deals with issues of teen suicide, bullying, homophobia and gun use.
Director of GSODA’s Heathers, Christian Cavallo reflected upon the relevance of the show in today’s society.
“Someone commented to me the other week that Heathers was more powerful than Rent. I considered the thought, complete with flashback to my time standing in a line across the front of the stage singing about the number of minutes in a year, and replied in disbelief ‘Really? Why do you say that?”. They replied that while the story of Rent is indeed powerful; the AIDS epidemic isn’t something we have all encountered in this generation. We appreciate the story of Rent somewhat retrospectively now. Meanwhile, we’ve all been teenagers, we’ve all searched for that sense of self, or self-worth. We’ve all had to find our way through high-school. We’ve all been through friendships, both great and not… and in many ways, the themes of Heathers hit home harder a personal level. And in that, I realised that this show is perhaps even more powerful than I had realised. I think many people will identify with this show in a strong way for these very reasons”.
In a show with such evocative issues, it was apparent to Cavallo the importance of making the rehearsal room a safe space for all cast to be able to openly chat about anything that was stirred up. “There have definitely been some discussions of discovery with this piece where cast members have shared and related their own personal experiences, and it’s left me heavy-hearted that as a community, we have all been affected by things such as suicide, assault or bullying”, says Cavallo. “Most of this cast are under 24 years old, so we’ve definitely had discussions about how to support or be there for anyone who related on a personal level, or was triggered by any of the show’s themes”.
Nicole Kaminski plays the “mythic bitch queen” Heather Chandler (Kaminski describes her Heather as part Clueless, part Mean Girls, and part Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf), and while she’s now in her mid-twenites, like most of us, she has vivid memories of her teenage years. “I still remember being in high school and being so conflicted by the influence of my peers, my teachers, my friends”, comments Kaminski. “Growing up is hard, and it’s confusing, and we don’t always make the right choices, but I think this show reminds us that we aren’t alone. People don’t always wear their problems on their sleeves, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need each others help. […] I have learned the value of a true friend, and the value of surrounding myself with people I trust, and that’s one of the lessons the characters in Heathers learn”.
It cannot be denied that portraying the characters of such a cult classic brings with it its own pressures. Shani Clarke has big shoes to fill in taking on the role of Veronica Sawyer. “There is always a thought in the back of my mind that people are going to expect to see/hear Barrett Wilbert Weed’s much loved version (Veronica in the off-Broadway production)”, says Clarke, “but I believe I’ve been able to find a really cool blend of the cool OG Winona Ryder, a bit of your classic Barrett angst, a bit of Emma Stone in there, and a nice big slice of dorky Shani, all wrapped up in one. That’s my Veronica! I just hope everyone loves her as much as I do”.
From the outset, Cavallo could see the importance of treating the story and its subject matter with respect. “It would be easy to simply paint the show as a black comedy and not look for any further depth… but then we wouldn’t be doing it justice”, he says. “Understanding the show’s hard hitting themes, exploring the feelings and meanings associated with each event in the show and then finding a way to strike the right balance of irreverence and physical humour so that the piece is equal parts light and shade was the most important thing for me”.
If you’ve not seen the film or listened to the soundtrack of the musical, Clarke offers up this description: “Think of [the film] Mean Girls… now add more angst, emotions and dark humor, with some sex and guns – it’s a bunch of fun!”
GSODA’s Heathers opens on Friday October 6th at the Playhouse Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, and runs through until Saturday October 14th.
Tickets are available from www.gpac.org.au or ring on 03 5225 1200