Heathers has only grown its fan base since its initial release in 1988. While the dark comedy isn’t one you immediately think would work as a musical, Heathers: The Musical has entertained theater-goers for over a decade. The eventual TV show adaptation wasn’t so fortunate.
‘Heathers’ Was Considered A Flop At The Box Office
Throughout the ’80s, John Hughes was the master of the high school flick. From Pretty in Pink to Sixteen Candles, Hughes defined the genre of lighthearted teen comedies. So, when Daniel Waters set out to write the screenplay for Heathers, he wanted to directly contrast the optimistic vein that ran throughout Hughes’ most popular films. He asked, “What if Stanley Kubrick made a teen film?”
What he came up with was a nihilistic black comedy about high school politics and teenage suicide. While Heathers has retrospectively been revered by critics for its vicious writing, biting social commentary, and impeccable acting, it wasn’t looked at so kindly upon its release. Reviewers criticized the R-rated teen flick for relying on shock value and abandoning all moral delicacies in favor of bleak cynicism.
It took years, but after the film’s VHS release, it slowly started to develop a cult following. Heathers has become far more famous in its afterlife than it was upon its initial release. It carved out a place in pop culture with its timelessly quotable dialogue and inspired both a stage musical and an ill-fated TV show.
Winona Ryder Begged To Be Cast In The Film
As it turns out, casting was a struggle for Daniel Waters. Word had gotten out about the film’s controversial subject matter, and parents of prospective teen actors didn’t want their children involved. For example, a young Heather Graham was offered the part of Heather Chandler, but her parents made her turn it down. However, the film’s dark themes didn’t bother 15-year-old Winona Ryder.
Fresh off filming Beetlejuice, Ryder was still relatively unknown. After reading the script for Heathers, Ryder became determined to land the role of Veronica Sawyer. She begged Waters to cast her in the part, even offering to act in the film for free. Her agent was so opposed to her pursuing the role that she got down on her hands and knees and begged her not to take the part, insisting it would be the end of her career.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Ryder’s turn as Veronica Sawyer has been praised over the years as some of her best work. Fortunately, Ryder feels the exact same way. She still reveres it as one of her favorite films of all time. “I looove this movie—to the point where I talk about it like I’m not even in it,” Ryder gushed in 2014. “If it’s on TV, I watch it. I’ve probably seen it 50 times. Like, I can do it by heart.”
Her co-star Christian Slater approached his role as JD with similar care. He was so invested in getting the part that he recalls throwing a “big tantrum” after the audition thinking he bombed it. Once filming began, his castmates recall him embodying his aloof character. He and Ryder even had such undeniable chemistry as an on-screen couple that they had a brief fling after filming.
‘Heathers’ Is Reborn On The Stage
In the late ’00s, Andy Fickman was approached to direct the first ever stage adaptation of Heathers. As a longtime fan of the 1988 film, Fickman wanted to distill the film’s themes into a musical format while staying faithful to the source material. In 2009, the production team began workshopping the play in Los Angeles. It slowly evolved from private readings to small, intimate concerts until finally premiering at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in 2013. The very next year, the play made its Off-Broadway debut at New World Stages.
The play was mostly well received. Some reviewers criticized how the play candy-coated the film’s purposefully sour tone. Nevertheless, it was a hit with audiences. The musical was popular enough to warrant a stint on London’s West End. It even spurred authorized productions in Australia and Brazil. Most recently, a professionally filmed rendition was released on The Roku Channel, bringing the musical to audiences at home.
Winona Ryder And Christian Slater Approve
Andy Fickman recently revealed that Winona Ryder has, in fact, seen the musical. Apparently, the Stranger Things star went to see it in Los Angeles with writer Daniel Waters. “At that point, Dan knew the show inside out. Afterward, Winona came up to all of us and she was so supportive, but she said we had cut a line from the movie that she loved, about patronizing bunny rabbits,” Fickman recently told Collider.
From that day on, Fickman never directed a performance of Heathers: The Musical without the line. “Kevin, Larry, and I looked at each other and we knew it was not in the script, so we promised her, at that moment, ‘Tomorrow, it’ll be in the show and it’ll never come out.’ That line is the most protected line in the show. It has never come out.”
Slater also got a chance to see the musical. “Christian was such a lovely person, as well. In New York, we snuck him into the theater to see the show, and then he went on stage afterward and put on the trench coat,” Fickman recalled. “He was also nothing but supportive for all of it.”
The Other Life Of ‘Heathers’
It’s worth noting here that the film did inspire a heavily controversial TV show in 2018. The series was accused of mishandling the film’s subject matter. Combining the more tame critiques with abominable timing as a slew of school shootings had just rocked the United States, the series premiere was delayed several times. Finally, it quietly dropped on Paramount+ in late 2018 and has seldom been talked about since.
Ignoring the misguided TV adaptation, it’s clear that Heathers is an evergreen piece of pop culture. Fortunately, Heathers: The Musical is a rare example of continuing a beloved film’s legacy without butchering it. New generations are able to experience Daniel Waters’ timeless dark comedy through the musical adaptation, now streaming on The Roku Channel.