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Heathers: The Musical wants to know your damage 

Bombs, mean girls and song abound in Whale Song Theatre’s Heathers: The Musical.

click to enlarge Blazer envy with Heathers: The Musical. - EMILY JEWER
  • Blazer envy with Heathers: The Musical.
  • Emily Jewer

Heathers: The Musical
To Feb 26
The Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen Street
facebook.com/whalesongtheatre

"What's your damage, Heather?" asked Winona Ryder in Heathers, the gleefully R-rated, violence-laden satire of high school that contains a sobering message about the emotional and physical repercussions of bullying at its wry centre. That was 1988, but the film's legacy has endured as a cult favourite in the vein of The Craft and Jawbreaker—Rory Gilmore asked her mother the same question in 2004—and it moved to the stage in 2010, with an Off-Broadway run in 2014. It's landed in Halifax this week as the first production for Whale Song Theatre, and it sold out weeks ago.

"It's been overwhelming and incredibly humbling," says Whale Song's artistic director Laura Thornton, sitting in the window of The Bus Stop Theatre a few days before opening. "The movie has a huge cult following and the musical has a huge cult following. I've been sort of laughing as the ticket sales come in—it's people I don't know. People love musical theatre."

"People are so excited that 10 minutes ago someone showed up thinking there was a show today," adds musical director Sarah Richardson. "They have tickets for the matinee on Sunday—just the wrong Sunday."

Selling out any theatrical run in the dead of a Halifax winter is a feat for any company, let alone a brand-new one, but there's lots to recommend with this production. A very trendy nostalgia, first of all; great music co-written by Laurence O'Keefe (Legally Blonde: The Musical); a cast of 16 leaning young and new, plus the relevance of Heathers' story—a group of school bullies, most named Heather, who have revenge exacted upon them—which has resonated across three decades. (Proceeds from the production will go to Phoenix House, part of Thornton's goal of "bridging community outreach to theatre" with each Whale Song show.)

"Bullying is always going to be a theme for teenagers, something that happens no matter what," says director Emily Jewer. "It's become worse these days with social media—you don't have that aspect in Heathers, but the bullying in Heathers is so severe, and school violence is still a huge thing. Last week a kid at Citadel was arrested for having a gun at school. Those issues aren't going away."

The film's dream sequences and murders staged to look like suicides feel outsized as a vestige of 1988—"When I was watching this, that was so fantastical," says Richardson. "No kid went to his school with a bomb"—and The Musical pushes them even bigger, giving voice to most characters' inner thoughts the way a movie can't, wrapped in a choreographed, pop-rock package.

"They pulled out specific lines from the movie and wrote entire songs around them—the movie was campy enough to translate well to a musical world where people sing their feelings, especially teenagers who are full of overwrought emotions," says Jewer. "Everything's heightened in the musical world, and Heathers sits on this weird surreal plane of existence as a film."

"There's pop music, there's rock music, there's gospel music, there's country music," says Richardson, who also plays piano in the show. "There's so much. You won't be able to come to this show and not be able to enjoy one piece, because something's gonna hit you the way you want it to."

A play that appeals to multiple generations, pop culturists, Winona stans, musical theatre babies and contemporary teens, contains an important lesson and has dancing? No wonder it's a tough ticket to come by. (All hope is not lost: Unclaimed seats will be released for resale five minutes to showtime.)

"It's so exciting," says Thornton, "and so gratifying."

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