High School Musical: Civic Theatre’s "Heathers" tackles tough issues with satire


Ann Arbor Civic Theater's Heathers

Some people remember the carefree days of high school when everyone pulled together as a family to learn and have a great time.

Yeah, and then there were the rest of us, sealed off into our little niches in the social pecking order. High school was a place of snobs, bullies, introverts, social misfits, swaggering athletes, harassed scholars, self-proclaimed social arbiters, and queen bees.

In 1988, Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater starred in a wicked comedy that exposed the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Heathers was a stew of sharp comedy and violent mayhem that still rings true.

In 2014, Heathers, The Musical with music, lyrics, and book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, opened off-Broadway to excellent reviews and has been a popular choice for theater companies across the country.

Ann Arbor Civic Theater will present Heathers, The Musical at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, June 7-10, under the direction of Ron Baumanis.

Asked to compare the musical to the movie, Baumanis said, “I happen to think that the musical is stronger because it develops the characters better and it also takes some of the supporting characters and combines them into one, making for a stronger company of main characters.”

The Heathers of the title are three coeds who rule the social order at Westerberg High School. Heather Chandler is the trio’s leader, Heather McNamara is the head cheerleader, and Heather Duke is the chair of the yearbook committee. Their boyfriends are school jocks and bullies. Veronica Sawyer is at the bottom of the pecking order and upset about the casual brutality of high school and comes under the influence of the Heathers in her efforts to fit in with the “popular” kids. But things change when Veronica meets Jason Dean, known as J.D., a charismatic outsider who also has some issues with violence.

The musical deals with violence at school, suicide, attempted rape, and other issues.

“It’s very timely and not without its controversies,” said Baumanis. “It’s a show that involves teenage suicide, murders, and homophobia. It’s interesting how our young cast members have really taken to the script and what it’s about. They understand that it’s a satire and that in 1989 many of these were unthinkable things that have come true in their lifetime. And the overarching storyline is that the story is not about that, it’s about hope and a community coming together and accepting diversity and not splintering into groups.”

Recent University of Michigan graduate Emily Courcy, 21, plays Veronica.

“Before she becomes an honorary Heather, Veronica is whip-smart, sarcastically funny, nerdy, and disillusioned with how her classmates treat one another,” said Courcy in an email interview. “She is acutely aware of how cruel people are, and of how cruel high school is in itself. She has a strong moral compass and desperately wants to stand up to the bullies and popular girls, especially in defense of the people whose lives they try to ruin.”

Heathers takes on these tough and sometimes tragic issues with a biting satire. The story gets edgy when Veronica meets J.D., a charmer with a troubled home life.

Andrew Buckshaw, 26, plays J.D.

“Honestly, J.D. to me is what happens when the perfect storm occurs with traumatic circumstances,” Buckshaw said in an email interview. “Mental illness already present from a biological standpoint and then you get a traumatic event, like losing a parent early in life and that completely changes the chemistry of a person. J.D. is a wounded and conflicted boy, who truly does not feel he belongs anywhere and he feels unworthy and void of compassion and love.”

Courcy and Buckshaw both describe developing their characters as “fun” and challenging to play.

“Veronica is such a fun, exciting, and weird role to play,” Courcy said. “I think in order for the show to work, she has to come across as damaged, vulnerable, and real, but also incredibly funny and relatable. If the audience isn’t rooting for her, and if she doesn’t keep them laughing, the show can quickly become too dark, and not in a fun way.”

Buckshaw said J.D. has been the most challenging role he’s played to date.

“I think there are two ways to go with a role like this: either you can play it super campy and like a caricature (let’s see those Christian Slater impressions), or you can really dive in and realize just how complicated and conflicted the guy this guy really is,” Buckshaw said. 

Veronica tries to show J.D. that he is capable of compassion.

“I firmly believe J.D. falls in love with her and that raises the stakes even higher because now he must battle this demon within himself and the humanity that Veronica helps him unlock,” Buckshaw said. “If you play the role correctly, people will sob for J.D. and where his story ultimately takes him.”

Though the actors are mostly of college age or a little older because of the adult subject matter, they are still close enough to high school to relate to the musical’s story.

“Anyone who has gone to high school can relate to Heathers,” said Courcy. “From the very beginning of the show, with the entire cast aggressively calling each other names (in song, of course), it’s clear that nothing is off limits. The bullying, the nasty rumors, the lewd, meat-headed jocks, the trio of hot girls who everyone wants to be or be with ... it seems stereotypical, but at its core, a lot of the things Heathers satirizes are things that everyone has dealt with at one time or another.”

The music is central to telling this other kind of high school musical.

“This is an absolutely remarkable score. Every young actor and actress knows the score and plays it on the radio or MP3 player,” Baumanis said. “It’s really become popular with young adults who are using songs from this show for auditions for other shows.”

Baumanis said one of his favorite songs is ”Seventeen.”

“First it’s a power ballad but second it’s Veronica’s awakening that things with her boyfriend are not all that great and they can’t just go back to being regular students,” he said. “I love a song in the first act that belongs to the three Heathers, themselves, called 'Candy Store' and in a three-minute sequence pretty much perfectly illustrates everything that is wrong with those three girls.”

As part of its production, the staff has partnered with OK2SAY, a Michigan statewide initiative designed to empower Michigan students, parents, school personnel, community mental health service programs, and law enforcement to share and respond to student safety threats.

Courcy said she wants audiences to feel the roller coaster of emotions that she had when she first saw the musical.

“I think one of the best parts about Heathers is that it very cleverly disguises itself as a comedy. No matter how dark the plot gets, there are lighthearted moments throughout that keep the show entertaining and satirical,” she said. “At the same time, there are underlying themes that are incredibly real, relevant and not comedic at all.”

Buckshaw says he wants young people to look at the show as a big hug.

“It’s OK to mess up and be weird. Don’t take life so seriously when you’re young, enjoy and celebrate the beautiful chaos that is growing up,” he said.

Other cast members are Amy Vandyke as Heather McNamara, Sam Torres as Heather Chandler, Chloe Grisa as Heather Duke, Zoe VanSlooten as Martha, Dominic Seipenko as Kurt, and Hayden Reboulet as Ram. Ensemble cast members are Vanessa Banister, Nick Boyer, Mariah Colby, Grace Davis, Zachary Morgan, Joshua Smith, Dana Steiner, Jeff Steinhauer, and John Tramp.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre presents "Heathers, The Musical" at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University Ave., June 7-10, with shows Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm.  For tickets, visit a2ct.org or call 734-971-2228.