The Pollard Theatre presents campy production Heathers: The Musical

W. Jerome Stevenson said he was just the right age to see the 1988 cult comedy Heathers in its original movie release.

Yet, somehow, the film that helped launch the careers of Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty initially passed under the radar for the present-day artistic director at Guthrie’s Pollard Theatre.

It wasn’t until Stevenson was much older that he saw the movie version, but that has not affected his love for the story or his appreciation of the real-life world it foreshadowed.

Stevenson directs Heathers: The Musical, an onstage adaptation of the film, opening Oct. 7 at The Pollard, 120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie.

It might be for the better that Stevenson was late to the Heathers party. The story might be more relevant today than it was in the ’80s.

“When you look at it from 2016’s eyes, it’s really prophetic and in a lot of ways disturbing and telling and a cautionary tale,” Stevenson said.

School camp

In the film, students at a fictional high school are grouped into a social hierarchy ruled by three friends all named Heather. The Heathers invite Veronica (Ryder) to join their clique, but their rude and selfish behavior soon turns her off to the group. Veronica falls under the romantic influence of loner J.D. (Slater), who is later revealed to have dark and murderous tendencies.

Stevenson said the rock musical adaptation by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy also features a score that has become popular among young performers. The director still remembers the first time he heard the play’s opening number, “Beautiful.”

“Your hands are sweaty and you’re a little nervous,” he said. “Things escalate and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is a real rollercoaster ride and I’m fully engaged at this point.’”

Stevenson said Pollard decided on Heathers because it was looking for a darker, newer addition to its season. In the past, it has done Evil Dead: The Musical and other horror productions. Heathers seemed to fit that bill and was especially appropriate for the Halloween season.

The film version of Heathers is a serious story with dark humor elements. Stevenson said the musical production plays up the campiness and lets the darkness take audiences by surprise. It takes the typical Mean Girls-type story and turns it on its ear.

“It really kind of brings into question, ‘How are we complicit in this era of bullying? How are we complicit in this environment of violence and not listening to people when that’s so clearly what they need?’” he said.

Stevenson had the Heathers script for a long time before Pollard finally decided to put on the show. When casting started for the musical, organizers found many young performers were already captivated with the popular 2014 Off-Broadway production. They had actors from across the state respond to the casting call.

“When we announced the audition for it, there was a palpable energy and excitement about that,” he said. “When we held the audition, we saw lots of unique people — people we had never seen before.”

Hannah Finnegan plays Veronica in the Pollard production. She previously worked with the theater in its 2012 Legally Blonde musical. Jared Blount was cast in the role of J.D. fresh off his turn as Johnny in this summer’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot.

Emily Pace, Claudia Fain and Mariah Warren make up Pollard’s trio of Heathers. Stevenson said all the leads are incredibly strong actors well-suited for their roles.

“They inherently get the environment that the show takes place in, but they also get the larger story, which is that the audience should really question whether or not these girls are the villains,” Stevenson said. “I think we inherently think of them as the villains and that’s a little bit of a misjudgment.”

Common angst

Stevenson praised “Beautiful” as a textbook opening song that lays out exactly what the audience needs to know. He compared it to other great openers like “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof and the opening ballad in Sweeney Todd.

The score also contains songs about high school insecurities and others containing overtly sexual jokes and romantic frustrations.

“It really touches on that high school angst and really helps the audience understand, through the course of the evening, that it is not unique, that most people go through it,” Stevenson said. “You just feel like you’re alone because you don’t know how to communicate it.”

Heathers will be a popular draw among Generation Xers who want to connect with the ’80s film in a new way. Stevenson said because of the complete and unfiltered picture the musical paints of the high-school experience, the production also should find an audience with current high school students and parents. The musical, he said, could open eyes to the legitimacy (at least as perceived by a teenager) of trauma and the high school experience.

“It can be much more difficult to process this when you’re only 16 and everything is so urgent,” he said. “You don’t have the perspective of being 43 and realizing that this, too, will pass.”

Print headline: Severe Heathers, Guthrie’s Pollard Theatre puts on an even campier musical version of the ’80s cult film.

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