A Different Kind of High School Musical

Allison Rhodes

Rider University’s Musical Theatre department is taking us back to the 80s with their production of Heathers: The Musical. Heathers is based on the cult classic film from the 1980s, which centers around two teenage lovers plotting to kill the most popular girl at their school. The musical has developed a cult following of its own, a fact that surprised the director Rebecca Simon.  

“I know the students are really excited about it. Alumni and current students have been asking about tickets since it was announced that we are producing this show,” she says. “There really is this passionate cult following that I did not know existed! This show is based on a movie that I knew of growing up, but it kind of faded into obscurity for a bit. It has exploded in popularity since the release of the musical.”

Heathers tells the story of Veronica Sawyer’s gruesome and violent senior year. Veronica is eager to leave high school behind and head off to the ivy-covered walls that await her in the future. However, when she is presented with the opportunity to rise to the top of the social hierarchy of Westerberg High, she jumps at the chance.

“Veronica gets caught up in this power dynamic, as she simultaneously falls into lust with J.D. She scarifies her oldest friend and goes to the top of her food chain,” says Simon. “That feeling of acceptance she feels is so empowering. It was a very human and selfish thing to do. Sometimes we sacrifice important people when we make certain choices, and then we realize our mistakes in the end.”

The familiar high school narrative is sure to attract audiences. Veronica’s desire to feel accepted by the elite members of the in-crowd exposes a kind of vulnerability that many will remember feeling in high school.

Heathers originally opened at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Los Angeles in 2013. It ran for a limited time before it made the move to Off-Broadway in 2014. The music, lyrics and book were written by Kevin Murphy (Desperate Housewives) and Laurence O’Keefe (Bat Boy, Legally Blonde).

This past February, Laurence O’Keefe came to Rider University to teach a master class. Personable and incredibly charming, he came prepared with valuable advice and encouraging words for the cast of Heathers.

“I’m envious! You guys are in an amazing period of transformation,” he said. “You can be anything you want to be, and I love that I have the opportunity to learn from you guys.”

Offering his wisdom, he gave constructive criticism about their song choices and tips regarding audition etiquette. He left a significant impression on each student and faculty member in attendance.

O’Keefe, a friend of Simon, has been a constant presence throughout the production process. “Up until we started rehearsal, we were getting new edits from him. He’s given us a new song, it’s called “You’re Welcome.” It replaces a song from the original production. He was literally sending us material up until the day we started.”

Simon believes that this has given her cast the experience of a lifetime: “It’s almost like they’re doing a brand-new musical for the first time,” she says. “When you’re doing a Broadway show while it is in previews, you’re still getting new pages. So, pedagogically it’s been a great experience for them.”

It will be an amazing experience for audiences as well, as they will be seeing this new material before it is performed anywhere else in the world. It is not a show that you want to miss.

Heathers: The Musical debuts at the Yvonne Theater in a preview performance on Wednesday, April 25. Tickets for this performance will be sold at the door, for $9 each. The show then runs from Thursday, April 26, through Sunday, April 29. Students with a valid Rider ID can purchase tickets for $5. Admission for adults is $20, and it is $15 for seniors and non-Rider students. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 609-896-7775.