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!

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