"To Prom or To Hell"
I discovered Heathers: The Musical when I was entering my senior year of high school. I was seventeen-years-old, the exact stage of life as the protagonist, Veronica. I didn’t know its original form was a 1980s cult-classic movie, and regardless, I was much more susceptible to the charm of a quirky underground musical. A peripheral theater kid, I bought signed soundtracks of Rent and Parade off eBay, paid $7 to see amateur productions of Mary Poppins, Sleepy Hollow, and The Music Man on weekends at local theaters, and sold tickets and popcorn for my high school’s productions of Cinderella and Les Miserables. Heathers was unlike any of these productions. It is florid and over-the-top in such a direct and satirical way that it could bring Book of Mormon to its knees. While the songs are beautiful, the lyrics frightened me. If I listened to “Our Love is God” before going to sleep, I would end up crawling into my little sister’s bed in the middle of the night, succumbing to nightmares. Heathers is about high school. But, not only did I not relate to the mentions of lunch table royalty and drunken house parties with absentee parents, I completely failed to grasp the darker elements of high school that it brings to the table: pain, loneliness, and total invisibility.
Bonded by a mutual love of Broadway, Heathers brought my three best friends and me together, even though it is about everything that our all-girl college preparatory school was teaching us not to be. The three protagonists of Heathers, all named “Heather,” are catty and mean; they drink too much and tear their fellow women down. With the car speakers on full volume, we belted out lines about tequila shots and fat-shaming that we wouldn’t have dared say in normal conversation and would have cringed to hear spoken aloud. Already friends, we were further united by a fictional high school experience, so far from our own, that we couldn’t even fathom its possibility.
A few months after having first discovered Heathers, I saw a performance of it at the Ray of Light Theater in San Francisco. Watching Heathers acted out in front of my eyes made me unbearably sad. The actors, at least a decade older than the characters they were portraying, wore thick foundation and short plaid skirts, hair teased to mimic the eighties movie that the musical is based on. The satire of high school cruelty hit me in the gut. My friends and I loved Heathers because of our interpretation of it as a blatant absurdity. In our world, no one was that mean. No girls were that malicious. No one could be heartbroken like that, could have parents that neglectful, or could have teachers that selfish. But here I was, watching thirty-year-old amateur actors singing about blowing up their high school with the conviction of true angst-ridden teenagers.
Since graduating from high school, the four of us have come to different conclusions regarding Heathers. Some of us still see it as creepy, out-of-touch, a melodramatic spoof on what high school truly is. We switch the songs when they come on in the car, uncomfortable by the hurt in the actors’ voices. The soundtrack still gives me nightmares, but now I can trap the reason under glass: people, people I now know, had real high school experiences far different from my own. They were ignored and demoralized and abused. They did not have teachers who invited them over for coffee or friends who championed their successes. High school was a living hell and a welcome relief to leave behind. There is a reason that Heathers is so relatable to so many people: it is a story of the hurt and fear of both the predators and the prey in the high school arena. Those who used cruelty as a teenager to gain a foothold in the social scene can feel the characters’ pain just as well as those who have been bullied. While Heathers is overdramatic (it is a satire after all), it allows those both in the midst of high school and those who have left it fifteen years in their wake to regard the other side, bully or bullied, with compassion.
Maddie Woda ’20 is from Columbus, Ohio and is studying English and American Studies at Columbia University. She is a board member of the Columbia Review and the CU Gospel Choir. She is currently working on her first chapbook.
Heathers: The Musical
Based on the film Heathers (1988)
Music and book by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy