Heathers the Musical and why I write for young people

I’m not crying — you’re crying. Okay, it was me choking up last night when I finally saw HEATHERS THE MUSICAL in Edinburgh, based on Daniel Waters’ 1989 black comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Since then, it’s morphed into a cult West End hit thanks to a phenomenal production and inspired lyrics and music by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy.

If you know the story only by reputation, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just a tale of high school angst a la THE BREAKFAST CLUB, but things go very dark indeed when students start being murdered one by one, beginning with the lead mean girl.

The carnage is thanks to the blow-in bad boy, JD. He’s stolen the heart of main character Veronica, an outsider who’s recently been adopted by the popular girls — all named Heather — who decide to remake her in their image. JD can see that Veronica’s not that into them, especially because fitting in means dumping Veronica’s lifelong friend, the unpopular Martha. Then JD orchestrates the death of the lead Heather accidentally-on-purpose, and convinces a rattled Veronica to forge a suicide note that will become the first in a series.

But as more students start dying and almost-dying in copycat suicide attempts, Veronica knows she has to make a break from the psychotic JD to regain her humanity –- and her friendship with Martha –- in what is a genuinely explosive ending.

Mean girls in children’s fiction

If you write for children, especially teen and tween readers, you have got to check the lyrics of this musical. My own debut novel FRIEND ME has mean girls of its own, and there’s a reason they’re so widespread in fiction for this age range: for many young people, school becomes a daily, barely tolerable ordeal, laced with the fear of being singled out but also with resentment for having to hide their true selves.

So many of the audience in the jam-packed Edinburgh Playhouse theatre -– which hosted the closing night of the touring production to more than 3000 (masked and vaxxed) people — knew the lyrics by heart. It was a very young crowd, many either in or not far beyond high school years, and it choked me right up to see what may have been their own thoughts, belted out on stage:

Why do I cry myself to sleep?

Somebody hug me
Somebody fix me
Somebody save me

Send me a sign, God
Give me some hope, here
Something to live for

Maybe it’s the 1980s design aesthetic, but Heathers powerfully recalled for me what a snake pit middle school and high school can be. The song Lifeboat was especially poignant, reminding me of how hopeless and endless it can feel, shackled to a group of classmates you grew up with, but who may well contain none of your forever friends…especially if there’s anything different about you.

Being different isn’t a liability

The whole HEATHERS THE MUSICAL experience reminded me profoundly of why I write for young people: I want them to reject any thought that being different is a liability, or that popular kids’ opinions mean more than other people’s…or that school is all of life. School isn’t life, even if it’s your daily life right now.

Larry O’Keefe and I went to Harvard at the same time and he was and is one of a kind. At one of our early college reunions, he sat on a panel called Life in the Arts with other classmates who worked in film, fiction and stage. Larry talked then about how writing musicals is an inherently hopeful, optimistic act. Since then, he and his wife and collaborator Nell Benjamin have picked up a bunch of Olivier Awards, a Tony nomination, and a WhatsOnStage award for Best New Musical for Heathers.

But it’s what Larry said about hope that I kept thinking on as I watched last night’s performance and listened to his lyrics. Amidst all of the dark jokes about suicide and jocular despair are numbers like Seventeen and Beautiful: it’s impossible to listen to these and not feel them like a gut-punch.

For all you beautiful people, young and old, who wonder if it’s worth sticking around for another day, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of the Heathers soundtrack or the book of the script and song lyrics for HEATHERS THE MUSICAL.

If you’re lucky enough to be within reach of London, HEATHERS THE MUSICAL is on at The Other Palace in December 2021 and January 2022

Main image: https://twitter.com/HeathersMusical

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