On Friday night, SRU will be thrown back to September 1, 1989 when David Skeele and the Department of Theatre present Heathers: The Musical, an adaptation of the 80s cult classic film. Starring sophomore Cassie Biltz as Ivy League hopeful Veronica Sawyer and senior Zach Malinak as angst-ridden Jason Dean (J.D.), Heathers: The Musical tackles a number of serious high school issues like teen suicide and bullying in a light-hearted but classy manner.
Heathers: The Musical follows David Skeele’s streak of non-traditional musicals, the most recent mainstage musical having been Spring Awakening. Both productions feature mature content, a rock music-styled score, and characters living out their high school days, experiencing all the issues that come with the teenage years.
When the department was deciding last year how this theatre season was going to play out, Skeele suggested Heathers: The Musical because he knows and appreciates how the students relate to characters close to their own age.
“There was something so special and energizing for the students about getting to perform characters that were their own age [in Spring Awakening],” Skeele said. “We’re constantly asking them to play Elizabethan courtiers or 78-year-old Norwegians, and they rarely get the chance to play people who are wrestling with the same things that either they’re still wrestling with or can remember it from a couple of years ago.”
Dealing with the serious, very real issues this musical tackles isn’t easy, Skeele said, and because the show itself has a good sense of humor, he was afraid to make the 80s setting of the show far too campy; it would distract the audience from the truths it was telling and instead would make them laugh at the goofiness of exaggerated 80s fashion. Costume designer Rebecca Morrice helped with that, taking nods from her own experience as a teenager in the 1980s as well as cues from the movie the musical is adapted from, Heathers.
“My goal was to try to pay homage to the movie without feeling bound by the movie,” Morrice said. “When people come to see it, they’ll recognize a lot of the same things, but we were trying to do it in a way that added something new.”
Working with the idea of living as a teenager in the 80s was certainly a theme during the design process, as choreographer Teena Custer also had fun reliving her teenage years when developing the movement for the cast. This is Custer’s third time choreographing a mainstage musical for the department of theatre, having previously worked on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Spring Awakening.
“Social dances of the 80s are featured a lot in this, because it’s teens growing up during that time,” Custer said of the style of choreography she created. “I grew up during that time, so I felt a special bond to the movement that was happening then, so that’s fun. It’s very nostalgic, for me at least.”
SRU’s Heathers: The Musical also features juniors Keyera Zarembinski as Heather Chandler, the confident leader of the most popular clique at Westerburg High, AJ Sansonetti as Ram Sweeney, linebacker of the football team and Noah Welter as Kurt Kelley, quarterback and Ram’s best friend.
Heather Chandler, Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelley are all unpleasant individuals, constantly and continuously intimidating, harassing and bullying their fellow classmates. Sansonetti said the hardest part about playing Ram Sweeney is getting into the character’s head, and trying to figure out exactly why he treats people the way he does.
“It’s been a questionable journey,” Sansonetti said. “It’s always hard to try to connect with a character that is completely different from who you are.”
In a way, Sansonetti said he felt playing this character was also a relief, getting to play the people he’s dealt with his entire life and finding what makes them this way.
Welter and Zarembinski felt similarly, mentioning that dealing with the content and the themes of this show has been difficult, especially coming from actors who are very different from their characters.
“I try to be as nice as I can, and Kurt is the high school bully,” Welter said. “To get in the head of someone like that has been a difficult thing, to turn my switch off and get to this different place in my head.”
Zarembinski said it’s been difficult, but she’s been able to remember that she is her own self, and this character, this bully that she experienced in high school, is just that: a character. Becoming Heather Chandler was very hard for Zarembinski, but in the end she said she was able to pull the confidence from within her and make it work to the best of her ability.
“I’ve had to gain confidence in what I’m doing,” she said. “This is a character where nothing will stand in her way.”
The three actors credit Skeele for really pushing them to do their best and really bring to life this story of darkness, love and everything in between, and they said they all appreciate the patience that’s been granted by the rest of the design team as they’ve been working, including Custer and Morrice.
Heathers: The Musical opens Friday night in the multipurpose room in the University Union, and will run until Thursday evening. Tickets can be bought online, at the front desk of the Smith Student Center or at the door. Contact Tyler Hahn at email@example.com for more information.