When Heathers: The Musical debuted Off-Broadway in 2014, the rock musical gained a cult following just like that of its cinematic predecessor. Written by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, the musical adapted Daniel Waters’ film about Veronica Sawyer’s quest to fit in with the hottest high school clique, the Heathers (Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara, Heather Duke), while falling for an unhinged vigilante classmate.
The show was first presented as a concert at Joe’s Pub at the Public in downtown Manhattan in 2010, starring Annaleigh Ashford as Veronica and Jeremy Jordan as Jason Dean (a.k.a. J.D.). In 2013, the show played Los Angeles’ Hudson Backstage Theatre before a run at New World Stages Off-Broadway.
But what earned the show’s place in the upper echelon of niche hits is its smart writing in libretto and music, and its references to the movie while carving an identity of its own.
“One of the tricks we learned to use in the show is using positive language to convey ugly ideas and depict cruel behavior,” the writing team tells Playbill. “We tried our best to have our characters express positivity even when they’re doing terrible things. This outlook is more conducive to fun songs than one dwelling on misery and negativity, and it sets a tone that affords the audience permission to laugh even while exploring serious issues like bullying, teen suicide, and violence in schools.”
Here, Murphy and O’Keefe take a deep look into the plot points, movie references, and musical scoring in this track-by-track breakdown of the Heathers cast album, starring the original Off-Broadway cast, released June 2014.
And if you can’t get enough Heathers, tune into the Roku Channel to stream the film capture of the London production, filmed at The Other Palace and directed by Andy Fickman.
Call us crazy, but when we first saw Heathers the movie, we didn't just see a cruel nightmare high school dystopia. We both saw a girl trying to make her world better and more just. In the movie, Veronica has a great diary entry:
Heather told me she teaches people real life. She said, real life sucks losers dry. You want to fuck with the eagles, you have to learn to fly. I said, so, you teach people how to spread their wings and fly? She said, yes. I said, you're beautiful.
Very early in our writing process, we made a list of ideas from the film that might lend themselves to songs. The word “beautiful” was at the top. We loved that it’s a word that can be used sarcastically, as Dan does in his screenplay, but it’s also an aspirational word. We love the original film, so it was important to us to honor the plot, but one question Dan Waters chose not to answer in his screenplay was how, when, and where Veronica got invited to join the three Heathers. “Beautiful” came out of a desire to answer that question and explain the social pressures that drove a kind, bright and sensitive young woman like Veronica to start changing herself to try to belong to the alien world of the popular kids.
In composing the music, a fun rhythmic idea kept asserting itself: a missing beat. Meaning, the intro vamp that weaves throughout the song is only 15 beats long, instead of a symmetrical 16 (so every fourth measure is a 3/4 bar instead of a 4/4). That means new verses and important events show up a beat earlier than expected, crashing the party too soon. It helps keep audiences off-balance, showing that these characters are often hurried and harried, and that this world is out of joint.
This replaced an earlier song called “Human Connection,” which was well-crafted, solid and professional, but which never fully landed. That original song showed Heather Chandler using twisty Orwellian logic to smarmily justify her cruelty to Martha (“WE MAKE HER SMILE, WE DRY HER TEARS…” ) We realized this approach weakened Chandler’s character. As undisputed dictator of the school, Chandler would have no reason to lie. She fears nobody and nothing, so she readily admits to Veronica that she enjoys hurting people because she can. Adhering to our rule of keeping the language and ideas aspirational, we dug deeper and found a song that makes Heather’s cruelty feel fierce and joyful.
We knew we needed a distinctive rhythm and feel, and this is one of the only pieces in the show in 6/8 time. We were hoping for something menacing and industrial, maybe with a feel like Depeche Mode or Alice In Chains or even the fierce stomping triplet-feel pop songs of the Katy Perry / Britney era. Then we got the pit band in, and with the live horns it sounded totally different from what we’d envisioned: a more retro sound that felt a bit like Ann-Margret and Amy Winehouse were throwing a party with En Vogue. A happy accident and fun to dance to too.
“Fight For Me”
This is a sneaky, manipulative number, and yet a heartfelt song. In “Fight For Me,” Veronica gets a guilty erotic charge from watching mysterious hot new kid J.D. kicking the crap out of two bullies. [Director] Andy Fickman’s brilliant slow-motion staging was laugh-out-loud funny and consistently stopped the show. By the end of the number, the audience is cheering and applauding a violent act of retaliation. This sets the necessary tone for the rest of the story early on, helping the audience feel okay laughing at some pretty harsh and cruel stuff, while building evidence to make our later argument that harsh and cruel behavior is no laughing matter.
Musically this song is one of our favorite bits of 1980s timbre and color. While throughout the score we tried to avoid resorting to cliched ’80s harmonies and melodies, we sure enjoyed boning up on the keyboard textures and guitar pedals used in many ’80s ballads. Shout out to chorused guitars and Roland electric piano.
“Freeze Your Brain”
This was one of the first songs we wrote and an important litmus for us. We were writing a story in which a smart young woman falls in love with a psychopath in J.D. If we couldn’t make the psychopath sexy, sympathetic, and worthy of our heroine’s time and interest, we had no show. The central metaphor was inspired by one of the poems from Flowers of Evil. The Baudelaire version (translated from French) is:
You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth You have to be continually drunk.
J.D.’s numbing agent of choice is a Slurpee.
(By the way, sometimes people ask why we changed the name of the convenience store. In the film, this scene happens in the “Snappy Snack Shack” and in the musical it takes place in a 7-11. The answer is that we’re honoring the source material; it’s 7-11 in Dan’s original screenplay. They couldn’t get permission to set the scene in a 7-11 and were forced to change. For similar reasons, the high school in the musical version is spelled “Westerberg” instead of “Westerburg.” The studio executives thought “Westerberg” would look too Jewish on the signage and asked that the spelling be changed. Since the school was originally named for Paul Westerberg, the lead singer of Winona Ryder’s favorite band, we decided to reinstate the correct spelling.)
Anyway, “Freeze Your Brain” was designed to be feel like the inside of J.D.’s brain: seemingly clear and forthright, but leading the listener gradually into stranger and stranger places. At any given moment the chords make sense, but they keep mutating into new chords, patterns and keys. As J.D.’s rage builds, the accompaniment climbs higher and the keys keep changing with it. Each chorus ends with three chords (call them “VI flat - IV minor - I minor”) that show up in many other songs in this show, including “Dead Girl Walking” and “Seventeen.” We don’t know if it qualifies as a leitmotiv, but you might call it a musical idea, and it tends to crop up around moments in which a lead character refuses to submit to fate. That wasn’t a conscious compositional plan, but we like to pretend it was.
This replaced an earlier party song called “Beer and Booze,” which had a rowdy, shouted Beastie Boys feel.
BOOZE AND BEER! BEER AND BOOZE! A PARTY’S NOT A PARTY TILL YOU PUKE ON YOUR SHOES! RUNNING IN YOUR UNDERPANTS LIKE TOM CRUISE! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! BRING DAT BOOZE!
That feel was juxtaposed with a bouncy patter song for Veronica wandering through the party, disgusted by the gross drunken antics of her classmates, dreaming of escaping high school and finally arriving at the promised land of college. But this didn’t satisfy. We felt it was more powerful to show Veronica having a blast at the party. That way, she makes a real sacrifice when she dares to oppose Heather Chandler. Once again applying our aspirational language maxim, we decided the party should be “Big Fun,” which is an iconic phrase from the original film. Plus, it’s a fun ’80s dance song with lots of rubbery bass, chorus guitar and gated snare drum. Music to trash your parents’ house to. Dude.
“Dead Girl Walking”
At this point in the movie, Veronica has just been excommunicated by Chandler. Veronica returns home and descends into self-pity, writing angrily in her diary. J.D. surprises her by climbing in her window. But for the musical adaptation we wanted Veronica to sing here, processing the enormity of what she’s just sacrificed and the danger she's put herself in. In the musical, Veronica drives the plot forward more consistently than in the movie, and we didn’t want to take our foot off the accelerator, so we realized it was stronger to have Veronica be the one initiating things. So Veronica throws all caution to the wind and “celebrates” her final moments by climbing into J.D.’s room and bluntly seducing him.
This song is a pivotal transition for J.D. Later, in “Our Love Is God,” J.D. sings:
I WAS ALONE. I WAS A FROZEN LAKE. BUT THEN YOU MELTED ME AWAKE – SEE, NOW I’M CRYING TOO.
This is the moment where that begins. If Veronica had left well enough alone and stayed out of J.D.’s life, he would have probably kept his murderous rage frozen and dormant. In teaching J.D. to love, she inadvertently awakens a sleeping monster. Compositionally, this song is a melting pot; there must be a dozen musical genres thrown in, genres ranging from AC/DC to Pink Floyd to Stevie Wonder to Sondheim to Kurt Weill. We knew this one had to be both funky and metal, both a lamentation and a celebration, both a howl of despair and a party war cry. It might be our favorite song.
“The Me Inside of Me”
Despite the epic scope of this song, it was relatively easy to write because by this point in our writing process, we’d written several other songs and fully understood our positive language rule. The text of Heather Chandler’s fake suicide note was noble and aspirational and helped us show our very human tendency to glom onto someone else’s tragedy and make it all about ourselves. There is a nice soupy, mawkish quality to this fake anthem, evoking memories of those self-indulgent charity singles like “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” that were so popular in the ’80S. While this is one of our most traditional-Broadway songs, but we kept trying to change up the tropes. Verses full of Sondheim and Weill darkness followed by uplifting pop choruses that could be sung by Lionel Richie at Live Aid. And this is one where we gave in to our constant urge to change keys in the middle of a verse. It’s just so fun! But it does wreak havoc on vocal arrangements. We’re lucky our singers didn't murder us. Especially our altos.
By the time you read this, the song “Blue” will have been retired. We’re now in the process of replacing the song for all future amateur and professional productions. It has been replaced by the far superior song “You’re Welcome,” which we wrote for the Heathers High School Edition. Some fans miss “Blue,” so we might as well say a word about it.
Although it was fun to write and it’s fun to perform, “Blue” has always been polarizing. Some thought “Blue" was wonderful and all in good fun. Others were offended, feeling we were treating date rape as a laughing matter. It went onto our list of things we knew we needed to alter or replace. As happens in musicals, you reach a point at which you’ve run out of rehearsal time and are forced to lock the show as is. That’s what happened with “Blue.” For us, the main issue with “Blue” is that it was lazy. It’s a variation on that old musical theatre trope, the “list song” and it lacked any real or human insight into the idea of date rape and the culture of teenage male entitlement that allows it to exist. Additionally, the fact that the number often plays successfully makes it dangerous. It plays into the lie that sexual harassment or assault can be trivialized as “locker room talk” or “boyish antics.” Unlike “Blue,” “You’re Welcome” doesn’t shy away from showing that Veronica is in real danger from these two drunk football assholes. In “Blue”, Veronica says about three words total. In "You're Welcome” she gets to articulate her fear and her dilemma, and then she gets to solve her problem and score a victory over her tormentors. We’ve tried to do a better job with “You’re Welcome,” and we hope audiences agree as Heathers moves into the next phase of its life.
“Our Love Is God”
At this point, Veronica has been publicly humiliated and J.D. has been beaten up by Kurt and Ram. Our lovers are at their absolute low point. They comfort each other by imagining the destruction of this cruel and insane world and starting over. We took the title for the song from one of the many iconic lines in the movie. When J.D. says “Our love is God. Let’s go get a slushie,” Christian Slater delivers it in a rakish, off-the-cuff manner. But that first sentence really resonated with us. “Our love is God.” Wow. It’s an incredibly narcissistic thing to say, but that’s how we remember feeling about relationships in high school. On the other hand, it’s also the kind of thing a serial killer would say to justify his actions. Throughout the first half of the song, this seems like a romantic notion, a “you and me against the world” empowerment fantasy. We were kind of imagining a sort of alternate-universe-version of West Side Story's “Somewhere” where Tony and Maria fantasize about an asteroid obliterating the cruel world that keeps them apart. The twist comes when J.D. reveals that he's not being metaphorical.
After killing Kurt and Ram, J.D. reprises this refrain:
I WORSHIP YOU. I’D TRADE MY LIFE FOR YOURS. WE'LL MAKE THEM DISAPPEAR; WE’LL PLANT OUR GARDEN HERE... OUR LOVE IS GOD.
It’s nearly the exact same words and music he sings earlier in the song, but having just committed two murders, he no longer sounds like a dreamy rebel. Veronica and the audience now realize he is a dangerous psychopath.
Compositionally, this was a fun musical puzzle. We needed a melodic and harmonic vocabulary that could serve in the early, gentle verses as a sensitive emo ballad, but then turn terrifying once J.D. has shot Ram and Kurt, as the unseen scary choir swells behind the murder scene. We shared a J.D. grin when we hit on a bass line that rises slowly for the first four bars, then climbs down ominously for the next four: sort of a climb towards heaven followed by a slide into hell.
“My Dead Gay Son”
The original, iconic movie joke—while hilariously depicting Ram’s homophobic conservative dad changing his heart because he’s been fooled into thinking his son was gay and his death a suicide—wasn’t quite enough to sustain a full song. We needed more surprise, more plot and more heart. So we added a plot twist: Ram’s dad sings not just to declare his change of heart, but to chastise and educate Kurt’s dad, who can’t let go of his own homophobia and shame. Then we added an even bigger plot twist, which we don’t want to spoil here.
Rather than write these dads as goofy and out of touch, we tried to explore the real emotions of fathers processing horror and grief, struggling to overcome their own fear and shame and replace it with love and kindness.
The first draft of this was titled “Damage.” We wanted Veronica here to take a stand not found in the original film. She gives J.D. an ultimatum: Stop murdering people and try to be a human being, or you lose me forever. What would be Veronica’s best argument to wake J.D.’s humanity up and arrest his slide into rage and madness? You have to offer hope of something better. We recalled some of our personal high school histories, when as teenagers we’d had to intervene to try to save people although we weren’t qualified and the job should never have fallen to us. We had thrown up our hands in defeat, thinking “can’t we just be seventeen?”
The music here seems to be a favorite for a lot of people. We think it could be partly due to that weird unexpected V-minor chord under “can’t we be seven-TEEN.” We also like that even this ballad has that missing-beat phrase (31 beats instead of 32 in the chorus).
Plus we’ve discovered there seems to be no limit to how slow “Seventeen” can be sung. It seems the slower you sing it, the stronger the emotional impact. It might someday break “My Heart Will Go On” for the slowest pop single in history. Of course, first we have to get someone to put it out as a single. Anybody know Beyoncé?
“Shine A Light”
The last song we wrote before opening in New York, about a month before previews. (Sorry, Michelle.) We’d tried earlier versions of this school assembly scene, when Mrs. Fleming tries to stop the “suicide epidemic” by engineering a big public Kumbaya spectacle to encourage kids to let down their guards. Having sat through similar well-meaning, excruciatingly awkward assemblies in high school, we wanted to capture that weird energy you get watching an authority figure whose heartfelt performance can’t quite conceal some distracting personal issues. Strangely, until this song we’d never tried having Fleming herself sing.
The music has a utopian ’60s feel — we are all children of “Free To Be You And Me”, the Jackson Five and “Hair” — but we also wanted it to feel like the music of high school educational videos. It was fun to imagine some 1980s board meeting at Scholastic Productions where some creative exec says “We gotta start using this thing the kids are all going nuts for, it’s called ‘rap’...”
This is where Heather McNamara falls for Fleming’s Kumbaya bait and reveals her fears to the whole assembly. Researchers in adolescent psychology have described being in high school as being like trapped in a very small lifeboat. Crammed in a tiny, unstable space with far too many of your peers, you’re trailing behind a huge ocean liner containing all your teachers and parents. The grownups are tethered to you by a thin rope, but too far away to appreciate the danger you’re in. That metaphor felt appropriate for Heather Mac, and it’s been gratifying to see the audience’s understanding of Mac change instantly. And we like that it’s the simplest song in the show. Just one key change!
“Shine A Light (Reprise)”
Heather Duke gleefully humiliates Mac for her public confession and drives her out of the assembly to try to overdose on pills. The audience always gets a fun jolt of dark energy watching Duke pervert Fleming’s utopian song and weaponize it, getting inside Mac’s head and driving her to despair. A fun nightmarish moment, but we always felt bad for the actors playing Duke, because this is one of Duke’s few short solo moments in the show. ...For now. That may change very soon. You heard it here first.
One of the authors was actually engaged to be married, at age 5, to a kindergarten classmate. Sadly, by first grade her family moved away. Years later we get to turn painful memories into money. Thanks, Becky, wherever you are.
Kevin brought in an early lyric draft to Larry and asked if it could be a song. (“Sure, the scan and imagery are great... but hang on, where are the rhymes?” asked Larry. “Exactly,” said Kevin.) We had both grown up with Sondheim’s dictum that rhymes connote education or sophistication. So we realized that at this point in the show, with Martha’s kindergarten boyfriend dead and gone, she is so beyond caring about earthly things that she wouldn’t even bother to rhyme. Musically, we enjoyed holding back all orchestrational forces as long as possible, using only piano, waiting until the final bridge to unleash a glorious fanfare as Martha soars away into her fantasy world with the love of her life.
“Yo Girl & Meant To Be Yours”
These two songs are really one sequence. This was a fun adaptation and a slight departure from the film, calling both for psychological and logistical changes. For the musical adaptation, we felt we needed to dig deep into J.D.’s psyche, to find the core of grief, loneliness, wounded pride, rage, and desperate love that could drive a teenage boy to kill dozens in an insane attempt to remove the obstacles (i.e., people) he thinks are preventing his beloved from loving him. Even though in the movie J.D. think Veronica is dead at this point, to amplify the urgency, we had J.D. start the song thinking Veronica’s alive, still trying to win her over to his awesome romantic murder plan. J.D. sings his monstrous manifesto to a Veronica who has locked herself in her closet. Only at the end of the song does J.D. kick down the closet door, discovering Veronica (apparently) dead.
And of course this song is the hardest music in the show. (Sorry, J.D.’s. And music directors.) Lots of dropped beats, meter change-ups, key changes, the whole kitchen sink, in keeping with J.D.’s frantic mental state. But again the positivity rule helped us — J.D. sees his murderous plan as a solution to win back love and make the world a better place.
And we like that every few months someone tells us “Omigod, I only just noticed that the melody of the dead teens singing ‘Yo, girl, keep it together’ is exactly the same melody as J.D.’s “I was meant to be yours’.” Thanks for noticing!
“Dead Girl Walking (Reprise)”
Our Positivity Doctrine helped us a lot here. Here is where we really tried to write a Heathers for our current era. The original movie did a great job blowing the whistle on the lies and self-deceptions of the Reagan era. But once you’ve blown the whistle, what then? It wasn’t enough for our stage version to just replicate those criticisms. We needed to take a further step, and clarify that we, and Heathers The Musical, abhor violence, and we have to keep looking for ways to help angry people before they lash out in anger; and that we have to change the ways our schools and communities are run and prioritized. And so in these angry and often brutal times, we try to remember that Veronica believed that J.D. was redeemable all the way to the end. She reached out to him instead of pushing him away. It seems a good way to live.
“I Am Damaged/Seventeen (Reprise)”
Another pair of songs that’s really one song, and another departure from the movie scene.
We were also excited to realize that in a happy accident we could smoothly segue a reprise of “Seventeen”...
CAUSE YOU BEAT ME FAIR AND SQUARE. PLEASE STAND BACK NOW. ...LITTLE FURTHER. DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS THING WILL DO. HOPE YOU’LL MISS ME.
WISH YOU’D KISS ME —
...into a reprise of “Our Love Is God”:
— THEN YOU’D KNOW I WORSHIP YOU. I’LL TRADE MY LIFE FOR YOURS. AND ONCE I DISAPPEAR, CLEAN UP THE MESS DOWN HERE...
We were surprised (and relieved) to realize that no new song did a better job of ending this show on a high note than a simple reprise of “Seventeen.” It seemed to encapsulate Veronica’s journey from fear (thinking there’s this huge monolithic monster called “SCHOOL” out to get her)—to acceptance (realizing that SCHOOL is made up of individuals just as scared, human, and redeemable as she is). That’s the real love story in Heathers. Veronica + J.D. are the doomed love story; the real love story is Veronica and her flawed yet redeemable classmates.
This song contained another moment that wasn’t finished until we were nearly in previews. When Martha re-enters in her wheelchair and Veronica invites her over to popcorn and watch videos, we originally had Martha agree immediately, which felt rushed. So in one of our last adjustments before we opened, we gave Veronica a moment to apologize to Martha. Giving Martha time to listen to Veronica, and forgive her, made a difference. It made the song more vulnerable, and, according to our actors, it caused some really good ugly cry faces in the audience every night. So looks we did at least one thing a bit right.
Thanks for letting us ramble! We appreciate you reading. We’re honored. Our love is God. Shut up Heather, Kevin & Larry