Virgin Suicides: Heathers the Musical brings the 80’s back to Orlando at the Dr. Phillips Center

By : Jeremy Williams
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Dust off your big shoulder pads, pull that teased hair back in a red scrunchie and get the Drano ready,because Heathers the Musical is coming to the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts August 13-23.

Gen Y Productions wants to take you back to the 80’s with a dark and humorous look at being popular and surviving high school, and they have brought in an Orlando flavor with O-Town’s own Kenny Howard directing, choreography by Blue Star and a cast and crew of Orlando’s theatrical finest – well, except for one Vine superstar that they have brought in to play J.D., the role made famous by Christian Slater.

Thomas Sanders of “Storytime” and “Disney Pranks” has more than 6 million followers on Vine, and he is bringing that quick wit and timing from his videos to Heathers the Musical, which should just be so very.

Watermark sat down with director extraordinaire Howard and the lead stars, Sanders and Nicole Visco, to ask them how a 25-year-old movie becomes a musical, how you make teen suicide funny and to finally ask, what’s your damage?

Watermark: For those who don’t know, what is Heathers?

Kenny Howard: In its first incarnation, it was a 1989 film with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. J.D. (Slater) convinces his girlfriend, Veronica (Ryder), to kill popular people and stage it as suicides, then decides to blow up the whole school.

Nicole Visco: Spoilers!

Howard: There are also three very popular girls, all named Heather, and these girls rule the school. They were the original Mean Girls, Jawbreaker, all of those films bore out of Heathers. It’s their clique that is the impetus that is J.D.’s plan to start taking out the popular kids, but you find out that once you take one out, another rises to power. Ultimately I think it’s an antiviolence story told through bombs and blood and poisoning and bullets, and now it’s a musical. It’s a lot of fun but we are doing it a little darker I think than the original production.

What are you adding to it to put your own voice to it and to make it darker?

Howard: When I saw the New York production I missed the settings. They address it in the script with hints in the dialogue of where you are, but the dialogue is fast, so we are running a lot more set elements. The original production was a flat stage with a riser and two sets of stairs, and we have three stories – there are lockers, there are things that turn around and become kitchens and a 7-11, and we have a graveyard, there’s a lot. Also, there is a beautiful foreword in the script talking about the honesty that comes from these characters, even from the asshole football players, how everything comes from wants and desires and it defines that for each character, and I think it was a little broad in the original production. So I want to explore what happens  if we dial it back and make it a little darker, so we aren’t playing into every joke the way it was done originally.

Thomas and Nicole, most people who come in and see the show will most likely be fans of the original movie, how are you differing your take on the characters of JD and Veronica as to not just be copies of Christian Slater and  Winona Ryder?

Visco: In the musical production from New York, Barrett [Wilbert Weed] played Veronica very sarcastic and goofy where Winona played it very dry and serious, and I’m going to look to find a happy medium between those two. I’m looking for a real and honest side to Veronica, I don’t want her to be a caricature. I want her to be a person.

Thomas Sanders: I have been working on my Christian Slater voice [laughs]. I think for the character of J.D., it’s just such a complicated role,because he is going through this journey of being completely numb  and unfeeling since he moves around so much to meeting Veronica, then understanding this mentality of eat or be eaten in this unfeeling world. And he wants to cleanse it. This character isn’tonly a demonstration of what school society can do to some kids,but it’s such a parallel to now. I mean, this movie was in 1989. We have come across young people who have done this in real life, and it makes it a very heavy character to portray, and I think it’s extremely important for us to handle this topic with delicacy and understanding: that society that could lead to this behavior. I think this shows us that we need to pay attention to these kids and the triggers. I think where the movie sparked that, this musical brought out more realism in the character.

Since the movie came out in 1989, there has been an increase in school violence and change in the types of violence in schools, so when you do a show where that is one of the elements, how do you bring humor to it without being insensitive or offensive?

Sanders: Life is hard. It is going to be filled with potential triggers and bullying. I know I have encountered it, and I think that, hopefully, it is balanced out with laughter to lighten it. There will be times when we have to balance out the moods while still delivering the powerful message. When it’s funny, it is funny, but it’s contrasted with some very dark material and that will make the dark stand out more to the audience,because they almost don’t see it coming.

Visco: That’s one thing I love about this show is that it’s not black and white; it’s gray and life is very much like that. Bad things will happen, but hopefully good things will come out of that. I want people to find that in the show these things happened, but here is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Howard: Musically, I think, they flesh it out more, and you get more of a sense of him understanding what he’s done, more than in the movie. I mean, in the movie there is a very martyr move, but in the musical there is an exchange in both dialogue and song between the two main characters that tempered it to a degree that would make it more palpable for a generation that has experienced these tragedies in high school.

Visco: I kind of find it fascinating how the show lets you get into the mind of J.D., of someone who would actually go through with this, and it raises things people have been curious about and haven’t known. It’s something people don’t want to know but really do want to.

Howard: I’m glad you feel that way, because that is totally Veronica [laughter].

Sanders: In the end it ends with hope. They learn from this experience, and that’s what we want the audience to take away from it: there is hope.

Howard: The last moment, the last song of the show, I think it is just fantastic.

Visco: I tear up every time. I mean, ugh, every time.

Howard: I think because I was bullied so horribly in middle school, I’m certainly sensitive to the subject. If anything, we have pushed the bullying extra hard in the beginning, because I feel like we really have to make it clear how tough it is and that is what becomes the catalyst for the plan that is hatched. It is always in the back of our minds what has happened since the movie, and in looking through that lens, we want to make sure we are being sensitive while carrying out these acts.

Visco: But what is art without pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable.

Now Thomas, we have interns in the office [all laugh] who tell me you are internet famous with quite a following through Vine? Is that what got you interested in theater, or did you already have a theater background?

Sanders: I was into theater way before Vine. Theater has always been my passion and my dream, so I had done a lot of theater before – I  think nearly 20 shows – before I got into making Vines. I borrowed a lot of my own theatricalities for the Vines. In fact, I think I was the only one chalking up character acting and singing and nerdy humor, and that was my niche and that’s how I took off. So I owe a lot of my success on Vine to theater, to stage performance, and now I am able to borrow back and forth.

Has being “internet famous” opened doors for you?

Sanders: It has in the sense that I get to travel, going to conventions and meeting people. I think because I knew the producer back before I was even doing Vine videos – he saw me in a production of The Producers and he really loved it and talked to me after that and said,“despite Vine, I would have still wanted you to do this.” Having Vine take me places – I went to Los Angeles, I went to Canada, I was on The View – and all because I’m on my phone too much.

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