Filmed theatre – previously the domain of prestige live-streamed events, often focusing on plays or operas over musical theatre – got something of a boost during the pandemic, when theatregoing was impossible. First, the proshot (professionally shot, multi-camera live capture, usually filmed over several nights and stitched into a single presentation) of Hamilton landed on Disney+ in June 2020. The filming had taken place during its original cast run in 2016, with release plans kept tightly under wraps at the time. Lockdowns and captive streaming audiences created an unmissable opportunity. Then, proshoots of Come From Away and Gypsy ended up on AppleTV+ and Netflix during 2021. Theatres reopened, and now in the US and UK musicals are back up and running in New York, London, and national touring circuits with no pandemic related restrictions. The proshot did not replace the theatrical experience, but provided and still provides a fantastic option to see shows it would otherwise (due to time, location, or pandemic) be impossible to.
Heathers the Musical is the latest proshot to aim for filmed wide release – first as a one-night cinema event, now streaming on Icon Film Channel, and soon available for purchase on other digital platforms, DVD, and Blu-Ray. This full release, which hews closer to a traditional film release model, is an exciting development for musical theatre proshots. The film knows it is not a substitute for attending the show in person – with London and national tour dates currently booking, its life as a live show is far from over. If anything, the enthusiastic cheers of the live audience makes it hard to resist checking for tickets. This, however, is arguably the greatest possible achievement for the infectious 130 minutes of singing and dancing as the mundane dramas of high school (bullying, cliques) give way to murders.
Heathers the Musical features the same story of as the cult classic 1988 film: in an attempt to avoid the worst of high school bullying and ostracisation, Veronica Sawyer (Ailsa Davidson) offers her skills in handwriting forgery to the Heathers, the school’s most powerful and desirable clique. Soon after her social ascension she is captivated by the new kid Jason ‘JD’ Dean (Simon Gordon) – a literary loner who enjoys dark jokes. Of course, the jokes turn out to be far more than that. Davidson and Gordon are both winning in roles created by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater respectively – Davidson playing the transition from sardonic and exasperated to MORE especially well. The show also fleshes out the relationship between Veronica and Martha (Mhairi Angus), giving them a history of friendship that makes Veronica’s betrayal more cutting and her later culpability a bigger driving factor in stopping JD.
Most of the iconic lines have been punched up for laughs and cheers, both of which readily come. The result somewhat tones down the bite and black heart of the film, playing into pop musical theatre’s trademark earnestness. Viewers’ preferences may come down to this tonal shift, but there is certainly space for both versions of the story.
The filming is sharp; however, it is not ideally executed; close-ups and reaction-type cuts between performers are overused when the performances given are for a large space and greater in-the-moment interaction between players. Keeping a camera dead centre in the auditorium (or static from any angle) would heighten the shortcomings of filming a live event rather than attending in person, but a degree of judicious distance would have given the show the framework it was designed for while taking advantage of select close-ups and ‘best seat in the house’ views from many angles. Despite this small shortcoming, the whole experience is a welcome addition to the proshot library.
Film versions of stage musicals have not been universally beloved, or proved universal successes. Moving from theatrical to film mediums, especially working in the heightened delivery of musical theatre, requires a specialised directorial and editorial skill set and healthy suspension of disbelief from audiences. Some musical films work on almost every level (Cabaret, Chicago, both films of West Side Story), some cannot make the cross-medium leap (Dear Evan Hansen), and some are cherished by musical fans but are arguably not filmed well (Les Miserables, Mamma Mia). The proshot may not be perfect, but it avoids many film pitfalls by respecting and celebrating the theatrical space for which these performances are conceived. Heathers the Musical is an exciting new entry to the filmed musical canon, and one hopes many current Broadway and West End shows follow its lead.
Heathers: The Musical is available to stream on Roku and will be available on Blu-Ray & DVD soon
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie
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