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What’s Your Damage? by Lia Van de Krol

Posted by on Friday, September 25, 2015 in News, , , .

On August 29th, I had the pleasure of seeing Street Theatre Company’s production of Heathers: The Musical and walking out stunned. The magnitude and weight of the themes combined with the talent of the performers shook me to the point of only being able to say “wow” as I replayed scene after scene in my mind. The melody of “Seventeen” was stuck in my head and thoughts would not stop racing about the sadness of watching the main character, Veronica, find herself drawn into what became an abusive relationship that cost the life of multiple students. Heathers shook my world with a plot that included social hierarchy and bullying, suicide, slut shaming and attempted rape, acceptance of gay children, and the importance of slowing down to appreciate life for what it is today rather than letting life’s trials force us to mature too quickly. This show is important in today’s culture because all of these are issues we still battle. For each heart-wrenching topic, there are hundreds of news articles published each day. The mental wellness struggles of social fit, depression, abusive relationships, and suicide are extremely relevant in American culture at all ages as well as on Vanderbilt’s campus.

This musical is set in the 80s because it is based off the cult classic movie from that time. But if the directors took away the artistic choices in costume and set that scream 80s, this show could take place in 2015 without seeming out of place. There are a few exceptions because of plot points that do not apply to today’s culture, such as the red scrunchie that represents social power or the mineral water that represents homosexuality (Paskin). Nevertheless, the issues and relationships between characters in Heathers are just as true today as they were then. Some of the main relatable topics appeared again in very popular recent media: “Mean Girls” the movie in 2004 and “Glee” the television series starting in 2009. Both of these tune into the struggles of fitting in and betraying friends if you are not true to yourself at the cost of popularity. In Heathers, Veronica allows the peer pressure of maintaining her reputation outweigh her lifelong friendship with Martha, who is overweight and unpopular. The elite group of three girls named Heather, called the Heathers, have Veronica forge a flirty party invitation from Martha’s long-term crush who is now a popular athlete. Desperate for acceptance instead of being bullied, Martha believes the note and ends up humiliated when she arrives at the party. A similar plot appears in “Mean Girls.” Betrayal in a friendship because of social pressure is a sad story that many teenagers succumb to, whether that is in the 80s, the 2000s, or today.

Producing a show that deeply resonates with its audience is not new for Street Theatre Company (STC). As STC’s mission statement says, “Our aim is to engage our audience with universal stories that speak to the human experience and challenge conversation” (STC). The story in Heathers is universal across time and people. A middle-age person who watched the show when it first came out could understand how issues of unhealthy relationships and appreciating the present continue to be a big part of life beyond high school years. Yet 30 years later as a 21 year old, I watched the show and could tell dozens of stories from my life that relate to the avoidance of drama and problem of slut shaming and rape in today’s culture. I have friends who have felt trapped in an abusive relationship and I had a family member commit suicide. The universality of these social issues is upsetting, but remains true over time. Heathers fulfills the other part of STC’s mission statement by sparking dialogue on all of these important problems. Each of these discussions currently takes place on Vanderbilt’s campus.

Heathers contains truths that are significant to Vanderbilt students both in stereotype and reality. The typical Vanderbilt student fits into the mold of the popular high school crowd: beautiful, wealthy, well-dressed, and dramatic. Whenever I walk to class, I pass dozens of girls who would be a Heather. This is an example of hegemony because many people strive to fulfill that culturally prescribed definition of feminine success. There is an inherent superficiality to this type of person and I have heard many Vanderbilt students express the frustration of this disconnect with peers. It is common for students at Vanderbilt to put on facades of being well put together, but the truth is we are all struggling, learning, and growing on a consistent basis. College is not an easy process. We were ranked #1 for happiest students in the country for the second year in a row (Kingkade), yet we also rank #8 for most stressed college student body (Pueblo). The rates of depression, anxiety, and overall lack of sleep and other self-care are monumental. Vanderbilt students have a habit of appearing cool, calm, and collected, yet most people I know feel inferior in comparison to the average Vanderbilt student. Our Psychological Counseling Center has more demand than supply. I called for a first appointment and had to wait five weeks. In 2013, suicide was “the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. In that year, someone in the country died by suicide every 12.8 minutes” (AFSP). As silly as it is in Heathers, suicide is no distant concept for making jokes. It is a very real concern even here at Vanderbilt.

On a relatively positive note, the mental struggles of Vanderbilt students do not usually reach the degree of the main character J. D. in Heathers. His difficult childhood culminated in his mother’s suicide and he grows up seeking ways to numb the pain and get revenge on people who hurt him. Taken to a clearly exaggerated extreme, this revenge is in the form of murder disguised as suicide. His unstable actions almost lead to the death of Veronica and the entire student body from a bomb at a pep rally. One of the ways J. D. enlists Veronica’s help is when she nearly escapes being raped by two drunk athletes. She is later ridiculed by a rumor that she had a threesome with them, which convinces her to be a part of their murder. The problems of drunken sexual pressure and slut shaming are both hugely present on Vanderbilt’s campus. The fake reason for suicide of the jocks was that they were hiding their romantic relationship together. Though it is comical in the song “My Dead Gay Son,” the serious concern of acceptance or rejection after coming out as gay is extremely worrisome today on Vanderbilt’s campus.

As serious and heavy as the topics of Heathers are, they are woven into an entertaining, funny musical that is both relatable and thought-provoking. The intended messages through the comedy and struggles will be received differently by each audience member. The weight of getting swept up in a whirlwind of trouble is true in every person’s life at any age. Struggling to achieve mental wellness is a story that was and will continue to be decoded uniquely by audience members as long as Heathers is on a stage.

 

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2 Comments on “What’s Your Damage? by Lia Van de Krol”

While I did not have the chance to see Heathers, I have always loved musicals that challenge audiences to face serious issues while still being able to celebrate life and all its nuances. Probably my all-time favorite musical is Spring Awakening, which ran on Broadway from 2006 through 2009 and is currently running a limited-time revival production. The musical is based on a play written in 1891. The musical holds the setting of the original work (just as you described Heathers as doing) by placing the characters in late-19th century Germany, and following their lives as they, like the characters in Heathers, struggle with growing up in difficult world. Similar tough themes such as sexuality, rape, abortion, abuse, and suicide arise in Spring Awakening. When you strip away the setting, these themes are things that we relate to and struggle with today and always.

Theatrical experiences like Heathers and Spring Awakening are unique because they place us in a different time and place but they all tell the same story of the human experience. They are easy to relate to because we see our families, our friends, and ourselves in the characters on stage. I particularly like that the music from both of these musicals is very modern-sounding rock, and different from what one normally thinks of in terms of musicals. The use of rock music further emphasizes the fact that the characters’ experiences are so similar to our own despite the different cultural contexts in which we dwell. Additionally, neither musical shies away from the raunchy or the controversial, which pulls in people (particularly young people) who otherwise may not be avid theatre-goers and starts a dialogue not only about the plays’ subject matter, but about why plays like this are important, creating a whole new group of people who appreciate theatre.

Lindsey Nestor on October 8th, 2015 at 11:20 pm

I agree that the issues posed in Heathers are ones that are quite relevant to not only Vanderbilt students, but also society as a whole. As was said in the post, 30 years later, kids, adolescents, and adults are all being plagued by the same problems, and I fear that there is no permanent solutions to these difficulties—only ways to bring awareness and help those that are suffering. What I would add is the presence of adults in this play and how clueless and self-serving they are. The only characters whose parents are shown are Veronica and JD, and both have odd family lives. JD’s father acts more like a friend than a parent, refusing to mention JD’s mother or talk to his son about her suicide. Veronica’s parents, though caring, border on imbecilic. They don’t notice any change in their daughter, even though the weight of not only changing herself to fit in with the Heathers, but also being an accessory in the murdering of several of her classmates has taken a visible toll on her. She’s not the same girl the audience meets at the beginning of the piece, yet her parents notice nothing, content to read the paper and watch television. A similar notion is present in the relationship JD has with his father. Their relationship seems to embody two roommates coexisting, rather than a father and a son. JD’s father is completely oblivious to the pain JD endured with the death of his mother, and if the father did notice a change in his son, he’s too busy exploding buildings and exercising to care. The school administration isn’t much better. The counselor uses the student deaths to bring publicity to the school, rather than doing her job and helping the students grieve in an appropriate way. Instead suicide becomes sensationalized as something the “cool kids” are doing, rather than being treated as the tragic mental health issue it is. It’s almost as though Heathers is emphasizing the role of parental support and guidance in the raising of children, and some of the consequences that can happen when parents are virtually absent.
One point that I somewhat disagree with is the red scrunchie and mineral water as unrelated to today’s culture. Though a scrunchie might not represent power and hierarchy in today’s society, there are plenty of symbols that do, even on Vanderbilt’s campus. The letters of different organizations of Greek life, represent the unspoken, and sometimes spoken, “tiers” that exist within and outside that group. Vanderbilt also gives/sells merchandise to these collectives, such as backpacks and t-shirts to differentiate students from one another. It’s not difficult to pick out who is a member of Greek life, who is an athlete, or which club you are in. Students are constantly branded, and though it’s way to show pride for what activities you participate in campus, it’s not much different from the cliques in Heathers who had costumes to differentiate themselves. Although the scrunchie and mineral water are no longer applicable in 2015, these symbols have simply been updated to serve the same purpose as representations of social structures that exist within our society.

marinove on October 11th, 2015 at 10:26 pm

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