For Stanford University’s Ram’s Head Theatrical Society, Stanford’s oldest and largest student theatrical organization, the first step to producing a groundbreaking, virtual production of Heathers The Musical (US/UK) was an email to the show’s authors.
In the email, they wrote of their affinity for Heathers, calling it a “thought-provoking musical” that had been “pivotal to them as creatives.” They then put forth the following proposal: changing the leading male role of J.D. in the musical into a leading female one, and along with that, turning the central relationship of the story into a queer one. To the group’s delight, the authors accepted their idea, and then some, working with the students to rewrite the role and rework the music.
“We’ve approved productions that have had a female [actor playing] J.D.,” said Kevin Murphy, one of the show’s co-creators, “but the character of J.D. has always been male. And it’s not that we weren’t open to doing something else, it’s just that that requires work.”
Changes like this do require the authors’ permission and, ultimately, playwrights get final say over the presentation of their work, not only because of the skilled labor that goes into rewrites, but because even minor changes to a staged work may change the show’s overall meaning and messaging. “I’ve learned a lot from my predecessors just about how to go about licensing shows, and the unspoken rule is that – we all know – you can’t change a script,” said Kaitlyn Khayat, Executive Producer of the show. “But if there’s something that you really want to change, there’s no harm in asking. We really approached it like that.”
“It allows the two leads in the musical to be queer. And I think that’s worth doing.” – Kevin Murphy
“They were doing this for the right reasons, and we talked about it and were like, well, maybe it’s not as hard as we think it is,” said Kevin. “It allows the two leads in the musical to be queer. And I think that’s worth doing, especially for show that appeals to young audiences and teenagers. That’s great that there’s a role out there that someone can feel ownership of.”
Under the authors’ guidance, they met virtually and reworked the script. Together, they ensured that it wasn’t only J.D.’s pronouns that were changing, but that all changes to the character were handled with care. “We believe it is important to show that queer relationships can also be nuanced and complex and that women are also capable of causing harm towards other women,” said Diana Khong and Gwyneth Phagnasay Le, the Ram’s Head co-directors. “In this show, the relationship will be one that is harmful. And as two directors, this is something we are particularly considerate of and will be pursuing with as much intentionality and care as possible.”
“We believe it is important to show that queer relationships can also be nuanced and complex.” – Diana Khong and Gwyneth Phagnasay Le
For changes to the music, the show’s co-creator, Laurence O’Keefe, worked with the vocal range of their new J.D. for the right keys and recommended appropriate changes. “J.D. is not hard to change cause most of his songs are self-contained and he doesn’t do group stuff with everyone else. In other words, to change Veronica’s gender is four times as much work as this was. J.D. was a happy accident that it was that easy.” Concord Theatrical’s transposition services (US/UK) assisted as well, helping to transpose some of the music for J.D.’s solo songs.
“They were very dedicated to making sure that the characterization made sense in their rewriting of it,” said Kaitlyn. “They did change lyrics and songs as well, to make sure that things were more consistent and really represented J.D. as a woman.”
“They were also very receptive to any changes that existed outside of gender as well, beyond just the queerness of the show,” said Diana. “Also as a production that is predominantly people of color.”
The finished product, streamed over a secure site, got great viewership.
“I receive so many emails with people [writing], ‘This is such a great story. The visuals are incredible,’” said Sierra Porter, a producer on the Ram’s Head team. “I think every aspect of our show was very intentional and trying to create the director’s vision. So I was very appreciative of how receptive the audience was to the show.”
Given the enormous shift in attitudes toward racial and gender disparity, it’s likely that playwrights, composers and theater makers, working cohesively within the theatrical licensing process, will continue to reimagine and revision their own works in more inclusive and dynamic ways. For the authors of Heathers The Musical, efforts like these can help create a more all-encompassing world – something fans of the show will, no doubt, find beautiful.