Article I wrote about HEATHERS in Breaking Character Magazine

As a member of the high school class of 1987, you would think by now that I’d be over the days of teen angst. Remarkably, I’m not in many ways, which I will explain later. But at that time, my angst was different than what we know it to be today…well, in some ways. Sure, there were some bullying issues, issues with self-identity, body image, jock envy (because I was an artsy-fartsy kid) and the general hormonal imbalance that sets us all on our ear for about four to five years or so. For some, maybe more and others less. 

But my teen angst centered around having a voice, being heard, making a difference, standing out in a crowd any way I knew how and, as an only child, most often being the center of attention. SO OF COURSE I JOINED THE DRAMA CLUB! Having now made theatre my career/life choice, I don’t know whether to thank my parents for allowing me to discover such an amazingly rewarding profession or blame them for letting me follow my financially unstable passion. At the end of the day, being in theatre did what it needed to do, especially during that awkward yet hopeful era we fondly remember as the 80’s. I had purpose, I was accepted for who I was and what I was becoming and people listened to what I had to say – even the jocks and the brainiacs. I learned about collaboration, leadership, friendly and not-so-friendly competition, public speaking, hard work and getting results because of the hard work. I learned what it meant to step outside myself and walk in someone else’s shoes. I learned that no matter what happened on stage, I was part of something bigger than myself. Everyone involved knew it and felt the same. We astonished ourselves and others at what we could accomplish. It was a natural high that brought many, many people together – no drugs or alcohol needed. For a short while, every fall and spring, I belonged.

And that’s how I got through high school. The drama club saved my life. Becoming addicted to doing theatre, I was sheltered from all the bad stuff I could have gotten into. “Play practice” was my modus operandi and I loved every second of it. When we were in rehearsal, I couldn’t WAIT to get out of school and do what made me feel the most ALIVE (even if it meant that my mother spent hours in the parking lot reading while she waited for me to be done). You’re probably nodding your head in complete agreement and hopefully laughing a bit or smiling because of your own memories. 

But the power of theatre is not what this article is ultimately about, even though theatre should be required curriculum in every single high school that exists because of the positive effect it has on young people; not to mention how it should be prioritized on an equal playing field with all sports and academic programs. I digress.

What this piece is about is the importance of producing a show like Heathers. So fast forward to the Internet, email, texting and social media – a whole new way for kids (and adults for that matter) to get in trouble, but on an overwhelmingly easy and public level. We live in a time where reality television is usually scriptedpeople are so obsessed with themselves that even Narcissus would stop and take note, along with their homework kids think nothing of bringing deadly weapons to school, the lack of respect for fellow human beings is clearly evidenced by the way people speak, tweet or post about each other not to mention the way they drive, consideration and politeness are things of the past, we’ve lost faith in our justice system and no one knows what the word integrity really means. 

What’s most infuriating is that people don’t think before they speak and worse, don’t care what the repercussions may be to what they say. Bad behavior is as addictive as heroin and the media feeds it to us non-stop because supposedly we can’t get enough. So much so, that our society will even elevate and applaud a U.S. presidential candidate notorious for poor behavior, disgusting rhetoric and many, many bad choices. I’m surprised we haven’t blown ourselves up yet. But clearly, we’re on the path to do so…just turn on the news.

And the youth in our society have access to all this information via every possible medium. After all, it’s a veritable “current events” buffet that apparently we can’t stop watching. Couple that with bad parenting and a failing educational system and here we are… a society in big, big trouble. 

Enter Heathers: The Musical, which is actually an important part of our new musical theatre canon, in my opinion, but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. You might think me mad and purists are rolling their eyes while Richard Rodgers rolls in his grave. But hear me out. The show is similar to a bawdy Moliere farce for present day audiences, poking fun at how ridiculous a society we’ve become on both sides of the slamming doors. Not that it should be played that way, nor lean towards camp by any stretch of the imagination. What makes it work is its audacious sincerity presented subtly within an infrastructure of outlandish, hysterical circumstances. It’s the type of comedy that if not played honestly with tongue firmly planted within cheek, it doesn’t work at all, hits way too close to home and becomes a greek tragedy of present day horrors with no appeal whatsoever. We’ve already got plenty of that.

So here are some reasons why I think Heathers wins. Firstly, the relatable characters. We’ve all known a “Heather” at some point in our lives. We’ve all known “Kurt’s,” “Ram’s,” “Martha’s” and that estranged, but oddly sexy “J.D.” type that everyone was just a little bit scared of for one reason or another. Perhaps some of us were a “Veronica” waiting to bloom out of our misfit existence. Even the adults in this piece are true-to-form stereotypes. But they’re built as a stereotype because why? Because if these people didn’t really exist, there would be no stereotype. I know how un-PC that is, but dial it down a second and remember that this is musical theatre! The characters have to be relatable in order for the piece to achieve what it sets out to say. 

Secondly, it’s so perverse and raunchy but yet so delectable and touching at the same time, that we happily applaud its well-intentioned achievements screaming “YASSS! Give me more truth!” And while we’re at it, let’s hear it for a well-written, intelligent, strong female lead character who doesn’t take sh*t from anybody and exudes an authenticity we appreciate and root for every step of the way. Sure, she falters a bit along her journey (and who hasn’t?) while making some co-dependent choices that clearly don’t serve her well, but it helps add a much appreciated complexity to the storyline. She “fails” so we can learn.

Thirdly, there are lessons on how to treat people better to be learned everywhere. Because the show satirizes the characters and events in such an incredulous “I can’t believe they actually did/sung that on stage” manner, it’s like a “Family Guy” episode on crack and we can’t stop watching the “in your face” shenanigans because it still has something honorable to say. Its no holds barred attack forces us to look at what it’s really like being a teenager during a time that’s supposed to be the best years of adolescence and what those poor kids have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s no joke, and they need all the help they can get to make it out alive. Each and every one of them. Of course my answer is always going to be, “Go join the Drama Club!” as unrealistic as that may be. But Heathers is such a magnificent example of what not to do that it should be required producing in every single high school across the country. It’s certainly more entertaining than any anti-bullying presentation I can think of and exceedingly better written with its intelligent, provocative humor and cadre of one-liners.

Thankfully, this show has major wide-spread appeal and cult-like following among today’s musical theatre geeks, that a High School Edition was recently created (more info here)…and hallelujah because the more young people who experience the powerful lesson of “bad behavior gets you nowhere” learned within this story, the better. Maybe (reference above) we can get out of this pickle.

Make no mistake, Heathers is deliciously seductive because it presents characters who appear to “win” because of their bad behavior, but look deeper and realize they really don’t. Thankfully the writers succeeded in taking out a lot of the glamour that usually goes with the depiction of despicable characters and chose to elevate the positive choices of our heroine as the piece resolves. And if you look even deeper still, you come to realize that every character has an underlying positive aspect to them, from the seemingly homophobic dads to the most psychopathic of the bunch, J.D. His devotion to Veronica is real, very real and on some level a wonderful achievement for someone who has lacked strong parental support and affection.

So, for some odd reason, I gravitate towards directing angsty teen musicals because I still haven’t finished saying what I need to say in that arena. And thankfully, many of those shows address the issues I feel most passionately about. Hence not being over my teen angst. But moreover, I still want to make a difference, especially with the next generation, because I believe they’re worth it and like many true educators out there, I too believe that the best education possible is the key to solving many of our society’s issues. At least it’s a good start and worth the investment.

I dream of the day when bullying and school violence is just a memory of a time when our ignorant society just didn’t know any better and couldn’t help themselves from searching out and destroying others who were different on any level. Unfortunately, we kill what we don’t take time to understand. And sadly, it’s a human trait that repeats itself over and over again since the dawn of time.

Heathers lets us take a small breath for a moment and laugh at how ridiculous this concept really is, while acknowledging that it can totally be rectified just by getting to know someone and finding a way to love and accept them for who they are. How can you dislike someone without getting to know them?

If a raunchy, guilty pleasure, pop musical is what it takes, Heathers should be required viewing. So come see it!

BWW Interview: Jeremy Quinn of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL at White Plains Performing Arts Center

I had the opportunity to speak with Jeremy Quinn, Producing Artistic Director of the White Plains Performing Arts Center regarding the *NY REGIONAL PREMIERE of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL.

I guess my first question is, is “Heathers the Musical” loyal to the original movie? 

To be honest with you, I haven’t watched the movie again because I didn’t want to be influenced by it when I was looking at the script. I wanted to focus on what I’m being given to work with, if that makes any sense. I may take a peek at it though when I’m in rehearsal, but I usually try to avoid that. I really try to focus on the text.

I see.

Yes. I will say from what I can remember, it’s very true to the original story.

Is it going to appeal to, say, the Wicked crowd or is it too dark for them?

It definitely will.

BWW Interview: Jeremy Quinn of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL at White Plains Performing Arts Center
Mary Mondlock, Melody WilsonDeanna Giulietti
Photo by Kathleen Davisson

Teenage girls could see this and feel empowered?

Yes, absolutely. They just released a junior version of HEATHERS actually.

Really?

Yes. There were so many people who were clamoring to produce it in their high schools, because it’s so good, that they went back through and took out all the questionable material making it more possible to present at the high school level, which I think is very smart. At its core, it’s an important piece for young people to see.

High school pressures and cliques.

My whole platform for being excited about this, wanting to do it, is the whole concept of “the other” and how we as humans destroy what we don’t understand. We kill who is not like us, does not think like us, does not look like us. Sadly, it’s a human trait. It happens all over, if you just turn on the news. It happens every single day.

Absolutely.

For me, personally, you’d think that as a member of the high school class of 1987, I would be over directing shows about adolescents and teenage angst, but I’m not. I’m not because we haven’t, as a society, learned to love and accept each other for who we are. Until we do, I have to do something. I feel compelled to teach the younger generation to learn acceptance because there’s way too much teenage suicide and unnecessary bullying. Unfortunately, as humans, we find it necessary to put others down to elevate ourselves. It’s my hope that we can someday learn there’s power in numbers, you can learn from others who are different than you and combine forces to collaborate and produce better results.

I take that from the theatre. The theatre to me is all about collaboration. You have a story you need to tell and I love empowering everybody from the creative team and cast to the designers and crew to figure out how to collectively do it. That’s the best way to work in theatre, period, as far as I’m concerned.

I mean, I think about “Heathers” in general, like the different archetypes in the show with the jocks and the dark antihero characters, especially since I have a 15 year old of my own who’s going through it. He constantly feels like because he’s only doing music and not sports that he’s not popular or he is not accepted. I think it’s interesting how this show sends a message that each clique has its own destructive way of thinking.

Yes, yes. The interesting thing is that when schools put so much focus on sports teams and they don’t elevate academic and arts at the same level or celebrate them as much, of course those kids who don’t participate or excel in sports are going to feel less than. They aren’t less than. They’re just different. 

For me, when I was in high school, I was one of those different kids. I was involved in the arts. I excelled in all the arts, languages and certain academics like history, English and literature. Like many creative people, I wasn’t good at sports or math…and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how I’m wired.

You can’t do it all. If you’re going to commit to doing the arts, you can’t do everything. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do it all, with the same level of commitment.

Absolutely. For me, however, the breakdown occurred because there wasn’t as much priority and emphasis placed on the arts, any art, up to the same level as sports. My big question was always, why not?

Absolutely.

If you end up with an Oscar winner that graduates out of that high school, they’re going to be a heck of a lot more famous than somebody who played high school football, and more likely to give money back to their school for fundraising if they had a positive experience. When it boils down to brass tacks, who do you think is more important to prioritize? The high school jock or the kid in theatre who may win an Oscar?

So true!

Just my humble opinion. But clearly, we want ALL kids to be positively supported in whatever they choose to do. I just think the arts should get equal prioritization and support. It saddens me that so many schools are discontinuing their arts programs. As an arts institution, we have to pick up the slack. But it takes funding. Believe me, I get it.

No, it’s great and will send a positive message to the “art” kids!

People will definitely understand why you’re doing a show like Heathers at White Plains. Why not do, say, Beauty and the Beast?

Beauty and the Beast is overdone and should be saved for a holiday slot anyway. Plus, the rights are currently unavailable.

Or High School Musical.

The interesting thing is that we are doing two high school-centric shows this season. It really kind of just happened, it evolved naturally. Heathers we chose first, but our Conservatory program is doing High School Musical. 

Are you trying to cater to the young demographic then?

Not necessarily on purpose, but I do think that we should leverage these choices and have a voice about the current state of youth in America and where the education system is failing our kids. Obviously, two completely different perspectives that handle conforming to a community’s need for “the status quo” (High School Musical) or adversely trying to break the chains of it(Heathers).

Would you say that Heathers the Musical is a real “triple threat” kind of show?

No. The performers have to be very, very strong singer/actors because the characters are so three-dimensional. Of course, there’s still some choreography that needs to be executed, but the characters are so complex with so many layers, especially the two leads, that you need great singers who can also act. It’s more intricate and not a piece of fluff at all.

It’s not your everyday piece of light musical theater fare. It’s smart, very direct, cutting edge, contemporary musical theater. I think that’s why it’s attractive to today’s audiences. It’s equally attractive to me as a director. I usually direct musicals like I would direct a play and vice versa. I direct plays like I would direct a musical. That’s always been my approach. Just because it’s a musical doesn’t mean you skip over the acting. It doesn’t mean you skip over the character development. It’s extremely important and Stephen Ferri (the Heathers Musical Director) and I are constantly striving to find the best combination of both great acting AND great singing. But it’s getting harder and harder to find musical theatre performers who are also great actors.

Really?

BWW Interview: Jeremy Quinn of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL at White Plains Performing Arts Center
Nathan Cockroft and Kerri George
Photo by Kathleen Davisson

There is this bizarre breakdown in musical theater education. You’ve got performers who can sing and dance extremely well, but their acting skills are just not equally up to par. It’s very, very difficult to find pure triple threats or even singer/actors who can do both equally well these days.

In shows like this, it’s imperative that you can do both. The way the music is written, these kids are singing their faces off. Even some of the adults have to sing their faces off. But they also have to be able to act. The comedy in this particular piece is so dark…you either have those chops or you don’t. The style is very specific and something that I can’t teach in two weeks.

It sounds very innovative!

Indeed. I’m really excited about it because it’s raunchy fun with an important message that needs to be heard. That’s the kind of theatre I gravitate towards – shows that have pertinent social commentary.

Maybe my nine year old shouldn’t go, but she’ll want to. I’ll have trouble keeping her away.

It’s pretty out there. I mean, I would certainly listen to the CD first to judge for yourself. But we’re not staging it in a way that’s going to offend anyone. It’s all in fun with comedic flair. But as a parent, you may have some explaining to do. But at least it may get parents talking to their kids about the important issues our society is grappling with.

Even family friendly is not so family friendly. Matilda’s very dark and even Wickedhas some somber moments. These kids are sort of getting desensitized at younger ages, I would think.

I agree.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe being so protective does them a disservice because then they get older and they’re like, “why didn’t you tell me these things?”

No kidding. Protecting them from the true realities of the world lessens their ability to process and cope with the difficult challenges that face them nowadays. It’s so different from when I grew up. I think the pendulum swung really far in the other direction during the ’90s and early 2000’s where everything was sugarcoated and every kid was a winner. There’s other ways to teach self-confidence. Doing theatre is one of them!

Anyway, this is so insightful. I am so happy to talk to you and not just about Heathers, but learn about your whole process. It’s been very educational. 

I hope so. I think it’s a very important show for us to be doing because there’s no other theatre in Westchester County who’s going to touch it.

Maybe it’s because of the risk involved, but sometimes as an artistic institution, even if you’re playing it safe, you have to take risks.

You have to. Especially considering the world we are currently living in.

I think that’s actually what makes WPPAC special….we embrace our own uniqueness and individuality as a production company by doing shows that others may stay away from. Otherwise we’d fall into the trap of bland, uninteresting programming that people are tired of seeing. You’ve got to shake things up or there won’t BE a next generation of theatergoers.

Thanks, Jeremy. I am so looking forward to seeing it!

Thank you so much.

Have a great run!