HIGHLAND PARK – With cyberbullying on the rise and the epidemic of school shootings, Highland Park High School Theatre Arts Director Scott Shallenbarger decided to listen to his students by tackling the controversial show, Heathers, The Musical, (High School Edition).
Heathers, The Musical is a dark comedy based on the 1988 film Heathers that became an off-Broadway cult classic by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe (the latter is one of the composers from Legally Blond, The Musical). The Paramount Network will also debut Heathers as a TV series on March 7.
Shallenbarger explained that his students had been asking for years to perform what he describes as “a cautionary tale about bullying in high school.” But after initially reviewing Heathers, The Musical, Shallenbarger told his students that he loved the play as much as they did, but he thought it would be too difficult to attempt at the high-school level.
“We are very well supported with our fine arts program in Highland Park historically, and I’ve had the affirmation of the administration and the Board of Education to do things that typical high schools don’t always get to do, and even for me the explicit language and violence (in Heathers, The Musical) seemed too much,” said Shallenbarger.
Then last spring, Shallenbarger learned the creators wrote a new version of the show: Heathers, The Musical, (High School Edition) that enabled them to take out the explicit language and deal with the violence in a different way without “stealing the heart and soul of the story,” which Shallenbarger felt would be more accessible for the kids, as well as the audience.
The musical revolves around Veronica Sawyer, a smart and beautiful teen who joins the most powerful school clique, the Heathers; three popular and superficial “Mean Girls” all named Heather, only to be alienated from the group, and her dangerous new boyfriend, J.D., who encourages her to get even.
The original Heathers was written in 1988, and many of these problems are heightened today.
“I’ve been a teacher at HPHS for 28 years and I believe that adolescence is harder now than even in previous generations because of social media,” said Shallenbarger. “I have so many meetings every week with kids that have been cyber-bullied or have made social media choices by themselves or others that have led to confusion, fear and depression at times, because social media is such a huge monster.”
With the advent of school shootings, Shallenbarger said he chose Heathers, as a platform in which his students could have discussions about it in a safe way. The musical, he hopes, will provide the context for that kind of educational exchange.
While he was staging the finale, the students shared personal stories about bullying, and one remarked that she didn’t have to respond to a text if it felt toxic.
Shallenbarger described his greatest challenge in bringing this controversial show to Highland Park.
“The biggest challenge was ensuring that the moments of violence and dark humor didn’t become gimmicky and weren’t used for shock value,” he said. “It would be irresponsible as both a teacher and a director to handle material like that, so it was finding that fine line to make it entertaining and theatrical, while ensuring it was rooted in deep truth that the audience could sense.”
Shallenbarger said he is proud of the students who have worked so hard to do the best work to deliver this production.
Over a 28 year career of theater at HPHS, Shallenbarger took great joy in seeing former thespian Rachel Brosnahan win the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Series Musical or Comedy for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon.”
“I screamed so loud that I think I scared my dog,” said Shallenbarger. “Rachel is a delightful human being and I think she’s on record in some of her interviews as saying she had rarely done comedy, so I was so darn proud of her when I watched her in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” She also won best actress in a comedy series at the Critics’ Choice awards.
He added that Brosnahan was always a hard worker who had no ego. She appeared as Margot, Anne Frank’s sister in The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as other HPHS productions.
Will any cast members from Heathers follow in Brosnahan’s footsteps?
Shallenbarger said there are some seniors who are auditioning at colleges right now. “I always ask do you have the discipline, the drive, and are you teachable? The reality is that one percent of all actors work full-time for a living wage in America, but I always come back with, there are those that make up the one percent,” he added.
Here’s a look at some of the cast members:
- Veronica Sawyer: Maya Garfinkel (senior)
- Jason (J.D.) Dean: Roi Lavi (junior)
- Heather Chandler: Sophia Varones (freshman)
- Heather McNamara: Maddie Jaffee-Richter (senior)
- Heather Duke: Marissa Mongoven (senior)
- Ram: Drew Grant (junior)
- Kurt: Owen Klee (sophomore)
- Martha: Hannah Greenberg (junior)
Shallenbarger explained that the character Martha is the “fat girl” in the show who is the target for the Heathers. The student who is portraying her, junior Hannah Greenberg, will be wearing a fat suit.
There are 70 students in the cast with a total of 135 students participating in the performance. This includes the cast, stage crew, and orchestra.
“The students have done an amazing job and I think they’re passionate about equality and justice,” said Shallenbarger.
Shallenbarger said throughout the story you see all of the negative consequences of bullying, but it ends on an optimistic note. Though the play is hilarious, he hopes that the community can come together to discuss these issues with their children.
The PG-13 rated Heathers, The Musical (High School Edition) will be shown over two weekends: February 9 and 10, and February 17 and 18 at 7 p.m., at Highland Park High School. Tickets can be purchased during the day at the HPHS Bookstore, or at the Main Auditorium box office prior to each performance.