“September 1st, 1989. Dear Diary . . .”
So starts the world premiere cast recording of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL, penned by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe and premiered in 2014 Off-Broadway. Though it never transferred, the cast recording has grown a significant cult following. I found the album thanks to a recommendation from my undergrad roommate, and the witty, dark, often emotionally raw material hooked me from the opening number.
If I’m being honest, I could pontificate on almost every song on the original cast recording, both because of the strength of the writing and the performances given (Elle McLemore’s “Lifeboat,” Katie Ladner’s “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” and Ryan McCartan’s “Meant to Be Yours” all are among my favorite performances ever). But because the 2014 production never transferred to Broadway, the cast (and heavily-edited book) currently on the West End in London will likely be the first point of contact for theatergoers just now encountering the show. I’m super into the version on West End, but the significant alterations Murphy, O’Keefe, and the creative team have made to a show that tackles murder, suicide, bullying, and sexual assault give us a great opportunity to examine how different our approaches to some of these ideas are now compared to just a few years ago.
Arguably the biggest change to the framing of the HEATHERS narrative, besides giving Heather Duke an actual part, was the creative team’s decision to rewrite the scene were popular football players Ram and Kurt attempt to sexually assault Veronica, our protagonist. The change wasn’t unexpected; various people involved with the show since its Off-Broadway debut had previously stated in interviews that some of the material should (and likely would) be revisited. “Blue,” the original almost-rape song, was the obvious focus of that concern.
Why? Because “Blue” is THE CATCHIEST FUCKING SONG. It’s a persistent ear worm—it’ll stay in your head for days. It is upbeat, at times stunningly earnest, well-performed, and features beat after beat of well-timed comedy.
That last part, I suppose, is where people started getting nervous. The humor had to be a little over-the-top to really sell the scene; the entire premise depends on it. See, Ram and Kurt had taken Heathers Duke and McNamara out on a date, gotten at least a little drunk, and proceeded to try to rape them. The heathers fled to the car, phoning Veronica for help in the process but failing to share the exact details of their situation. Once Veronica arrives, they lock her out of the car, presenting her as a sacrificial offering. Kurt and Ram are thrilled, and they (literally) fall all over themselves trying to coerce Veronica into becoming their victim.
Now, this premises is as plausible today as it was in 1989, especially since most “advice” on avoiding rape still boils down to “make sure they rape somebody else instead.” In the original version (which, again, came out in 2014), Veronica gets away from the situation by offering Ram and Kurt more alcohol and evading them until they pass out in front of her. In this context, the increasing ridiculousness of “Blue”‘s lyrics (the opening line of which, by the way, is “you make my balls so blue”) mirrors the assailants’ increasing intoxication. Here’s a snippet from near the end:
They will protect you/Defend you/Respect you/Befriend you/Genius (imagine these lyrics being traded around Ram, Kurt, and the Heathers)
Like Winnie-the-Pooh!/Winnie-the-Pooh!/Baby, baby, baby, they’re so blue!/
My balls will work for you/They will obey ya!/They really need rescue!/Like Princess Leia!/
Baby, you’ve gots to come through/Teach them to smile!/
You got no clue how much these two/Depend on you/Please help them through!/
My balls are in your court!
The West End reboot takes a significantly different approach. Rather than Ram and Kurt guiding us through all the action, Veronica’s inner monologue is interspersed throughout—I’m not a fan of making characters rap lines because it’s cool and not for a reason supported by the plot or format, so I wish they would’ve given her a melodic line, but “You’re Welcome” does very firmly anchor us in Veronica’s experience and perspective, whereas “Blue” was more a window through the fourth wall without much additional direction.
Where “Blue” coats its predators in an almost saccharine obliviousness, “You’re Welcome” distinctly frames Ram and Kurt as Bad(TM). Even before either boy sings, we hear Veronica assess—”they’re a hundred pounds heavier./They have my keys./I’m a rat in a trap—correction:/I’m the cheese.” At times, the predatory language Ram and Kurt utilize telegraphs a little too much, feeling like Murphy and O’Keefe are beating the audience over the head with a neon sign that says, “HEY! THEY’RE TRYING TO RAPE HER, AND THAT IS MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE!” (Admittedly, that’s a lot to fit on a neon sign, but still.)
“You’re Welcome” also intermittently paints the boys as competitors for Veronica’s body, though they’re largely on the same side. It’s an interesting and smart writing choice; each boy seemingly recognizes the other as a threat, though that’s only important to them as it affects their individual claims on Veronica.
One of the most interesting comparisons here, for me, is how differently the two songs represent Kurt and Ram’s sense of entitlement to Veronica’s body. Anyone who’s even breathed in the direction of a creative writing class is probably familiar with the idea of showing versus telling, even if not by name. “Show, don’t tell” is a common refrain, but one of my performance teachers at CalArts explained it to me best. Showing, as a concept, is most effective when you give your audience just enough information to see something for themselves. You’re implying something is there and inviting them to look, rather than taking all the thrill of discovery away by describing that thing in detail. “You’re Welcome” outright tells us Kurt and Ram will stop at nothing to get what they want, from the dialogue that cues in the beginning of the song:
“Aw, you can’t just leave!”
“Not when you’re dressed like THAT.”
“You’re Welcome” uses almost every linguistic dogwhistle in the book to remind us, about every two lines or so, that oh yeah, they’re trying to rape Veronica. Some of these are truly chilling—I remember the breathless “oh shit” that left me the first time I heard the, “HEY! You wanted to be popular!” immediately preceding the second chorus—but the oversaturation of smaller, weaker moments dilutes the powerful ones.
“Blue,” on the other hand, does almost none of this, opting to imply the danger Veronica is in through Veronica’s interactions with the Heathers as it focuses on the boys’ desires above all else. “You’re Welcome” is presented as the boys inviting and pressuring Veronica to partake in something she’s gained access to by virtue of being popular, but “Blue” takes an almost subservient tone as Ram and Kurt maintain a façade of friendliness (and silliness) throughout. “You’re Welcome” is demanding and confident; “Blue” is persistent and pleading almost to the point of desperation.
Both of these are true-to-life. Which version (of these two approaches and others) depends mostly on the predator and the environment in front of you.
For that reason, I’m not here to trash either song. I find both extremely impactful. “Blue” can lose some of its teeth when taken out of the context of the rest of the musical, but the incredulous horror I felt on my very first listen still returns every time I listen through the world premiere cast album. “You’re welcome” doesn’t even pretend to sneak up on you in the same ways, and Veronica escapes the situation by (rather implausibly) physically outwitting the boys, but the empty, cold “you’re welcome”s and the raw “SEE YOU IN HELL!” Carrie Hope Fletcher brings to life ring true to the trauma, dissociation, and anger that many experience in the aftermath of a rape or attempted rape. Personally, I think “Blue” is the more effective of the two because its narrators trivialize assault away to a persistent request—come on, Veronica, can’t you help me out with this real quick? I’ll do anything you want!
The heavy lifting “Blue” doesn’t do also allows the subsequent song, “Our Love Is God,” to hit harder—we as an audience feel the weight of Veronica’s emotional processing in a single moment, rather than spread out over the preceding seven-plus minutes of the show (as the updated version inserted an additional song, Heather Duke’s “Never Shut Up Again,” between the two). Granted, there are other factors at play here—many of the American accents on the West End recording are spotty, which definitely breaks my immersion every few minutes, and Ryan McCartan’s performance as JD on the original album truly turns every moment he’s in to magic, and my own rape was a much-less-overt coercive ordeal much more similar to “Blue” than “You’re Welcome”—so I won’t pretend this is an objective analysis. (Those don’t exist.)
The thing that really sticks in my brain, though, is that Murphy and O’Keefe chose to retool this moment in the show, for a production that opened in 2018, by making the attempted rape more obvious. Part of me immediately goes, “We’re post-#MeToo! We should be able to imply more now!” And I think that’s true; there should be more room to hint at the edges of something ominous and predatory and expect our audiences to follow us there.
But the rest of me knows there are still too many rapists who don’t know they’re rapists: too many people who could listen to “Blue” and not understand the gravity of Ram and Kurt’s actions. So even though both my artist self and my assault-casualty self think “You’re Welcome” is extremely on-the-nose sometimes, I’m also glad it exists, both for the rapists who need the clarity and for the victims and almost-victims who need to see themselves more clearly represented.
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