On-Screen vs. On-Stage: The Case Of Heathers

Artistic expression has a tendency to be perceived differently with different mediums. Even when narrating the same story, mediums as similar as film and theatre can vary exponentially. An example of these differences and their subsequent inequal interpretations can be seen between the 1988 cult classic Heathers and its off-Broadway musical of the same title.

The two versions follow the same plot: a typical high school scenario which follows the three ‘popular girls’ who are referred to as the Heathers (due to all of their first names being Heather), and their friend, Veronica Sawyer, who was previously lower in the clique ladder until joining their group. The premise and stock characters are all almost identical to those of Mean Girls. Where Heathers strays away from every other high school movie is in its larger themes and its unique take on high school.

Veronica’s love interest Jason Dean (known in the film as JD) is a disturbed teenager with a dark past and family issues. He has a knack for staging murders as suicides. He commits these murders to send a message to society and make their high school safer for everyone ‘uncool’.

Heathers, despite being yet another movie about high school cliques, made a name for itself as a dark comedy with its well-written satire, outrageous dialogue, and depiction of teenage suicide. While this was portrayed brilliantly in the movie, it acts as an example of how different on-stage interpretations can be from their film counterparts. The true strengths and limitations of both mediums are seen through a side-by-side comparison of both versions. These can be seen with the different performing techniques employed in both mediums due in part to the varying aspects like audience placement and other fundamentals. As a result, central themes and important character dynamics can get lost in the translation of the story from one form to another.

Musical Theatre and Satire

As mentioned earlier, Heathers is heavily satirical in its portrayal of suicide and the apathy felt towards it by even those close to the victim. Throughout the film, JD is seen murdering his classmates and staging them as suicides. The importance of these suicides lies in the reception of them from the school and the rest of the town, rather than in the suicide itself.

This is where the musical truly outdoes itself. The music, lyrics, and overall presentation of these situations ups the satirical element of the movie with its exaggeration, particularly seen in the over-the-top musical numbers.

An example of this would be the scene in the movie where the English teacher, Ms Fleming, wants to gather the students of the high school in their gym to heal together after the ‘suicide’ of Heather Chandler (the head of the Heathers’ clique, and the “queen bitch” of their high school). This was portrayed in the musical with the track “The Me Inside of Me,” where Ms Fleming’s character, imagining herself as a messiah in this scenario, says lines like, “I’m bigger than John Lennon.” This, combined with the use of an upbeat track with comical descriptions of Chandler being “more than shoulder pads and make-up” or a “source of handjobs,” shows the disconnect of the school from the character, as well as Ms Fleming’s now heightened sense of self due to the “mass healing” that she had created in Chandler’s honour. All of this juxtaposes with the rather serious situation that is the suicide of Heather Chandler. The elements of exaggeration add more comic value to the scenes, as well as the overarching theme of apathy towards the loss of a student’s life.

The movie too depicted this rather well with its dialogue during the staff meeting after the news of Chandler’s suicide broke, as well as by the portrayal of Ms Fleming as an over-emotional hippie. However, the musical version of it has its own set of undeniable strengths, all of which stem from the framework of musical theatre. This is owed to the techniques in stage acting that are a result of the setting within which it takes place. Theatre, being a live performance, depends entirely on the blocking, body language, and projection of the actors, as opposed to film that has more resources such as live locations, and camera work. This limitation of stage performances often serves as its strengths, as theatre demands over-acting from its performers due to the positioning of the actors from the audience. Unlike a movie that has the liberty of using camera angles to make the characters and their emotions more visible to the audience, stage performances require heavier dramatization to help convey character emotions, intentions etc. As Theatrefolk describes it, “actors cannot express sadness with just a single tear onstage, since only the audience members closest to the stage will see it.”

Hence, when this overemphasis is combined with the elements of song and dance, the absurdism portrayed in the film is amped up twofold. This is thereby a major strength of the musical version, which invariably also makes it a lot more entertaining. This is further underpinned by the joyful overtone of the musical numbers.

The Characterization of Jason Dean

While the overplaying of scenarios can often act in the story’s advantage, the same can also be a limitation in other aspects. This is particularly the case with the slightly less satirical characters such as JD. Veronica’s love interest and eventual serial killer, JD, is a disturbed and rather mysterious character who is seen trying to avenge the bullied by murdering the bullies (Kurt Kelly, Ram Sweeny, Heather Chandler). Unlike the other characters who perfectly fit the tropes they play, JD is the one character who is a lot more multidimensional in comparison. His characterization happens in a sort of process throughout the movie, where every scene he is in reveals a new layer to his personality.

Part of what makes him such an enigma is subtlety which is seen almost entirely in facial expressions and body language. While the character’s dialogue does play a very important role in the revelation of his characterization, it is only given life once combined with his non-verbal communication. This is where the limitations of musical production reveal themselves.

As discussed earlier, theatre demands over-acting, thereby making it nearly impossible to display any kind of understated behaviour. It does not provide enough fineness to read between the lines. The novelty of JD’s character stems in his less exaggerated demeanour and actions compared to the other characters. This is very hard to replicate on-stage where actors are supposed to overplay their emotions. The very low-key nature of JD’s character in the movie adds to his mystery and allows the audience to further analyze his motives. There is no room in such a medium for nuances, as that would go against the very techniques that make theatre unique.

These exaggerations are due in part to the most important aspect that distinguishes the two mediums from each other: the camera. The acting techniques employed in both mediums are dependent on the audience’s view of the actors. Theatre actors perform in a way that allows everyone in the audience to see them, resulting in extravagant gestures. Film actors, on the other hand, do not bear the burden of overplaying their emotions and actions, as the camera is responsible for picking up every nuance. This also affects the way the story is perceived by the audience because an on-stage production allows the audience to direct their attention wherever they want — most often than not being on the character(s) at the centre of a dialogue and/or action, The other characters don’t fall into the audience’s radar at all.

Films, however, guide the audience’s attention with the use of camera work. Hence, subtlety on-stage often translates to lack of activity and can lead a character to be dismissed, even if they serve a much bigger purpose.

An example of this would be the scene in the film, where the audience is introduced to JD’s father. Here, the non-verbal aspects such as eye contact and facial expressions speak volumes of the relationship between the two characters. The words that go unsaid are the loudest in this scene, as they depict the unnerving nature of JD’s relationship with and view of his father. Here, the audience is shown how the two characters interact with each other on more than just a verbal level, because the camera almost forces the audience to pay close attention to the quieter and less obvious aspects. This, due to the reasons mentioned above, would not be possible on-stage as it lacks all the technical strengths a film has.

Lastly, musical theatre’s biggest flaw in its depiction of JD is the essence of the medium itself, again owing to the relationship of the actors and the viewers. Apart from the over-the-top, high energy performances in musical theatre, the set up of a live musical performance involves the audience and the actors to face each other at all times. Unlike movies where actors are never allowed to look into the camera, musical theatre actors are told to look at the audience and are forbidden from turning their backs to them. Hence, musical theatre as a medium exposes the fact that it is a spectacle and nothing else. From the acting techniques to the song and dance numbers, to the relationship between the actors and the audience, musical theatre makes no attempt at replicating human interaction. Instead, it wears its showmanship as a badge of pride. It is something to be viewed, experienced, and enjoyed, rather than something that contains symbolism and is open to interpretation. This results in the audience being given little to no room to dissect a character or situation because everything is being spoon-fed to them on stage.

This is a major disadvantage when it comes to the portrayal of a character as complex as JD, as the musical presents him as an expressive character (again, through no fault of the writers, as the nature of musical theatre would not have allowed for a less expressive alternative). We find out at the beginning of the film that he fits into the mysterious bad boy trope that the female lead falls in love with, but this image gets warped as the audience learns more about him. The audience begins to see that his destructive nature comes from exposure to destruction – his father demolishes buildings for a living. He is seen playing a tape of one such demolition while watching it with a smile. JD also watched his mother kill herself by walking into a building she knew was about to be demolished. This, combined with his relationship with his father shows that a lot of his inner demons come from the destruction and conflict he had to grow up with and witness all his life. The beauty of his characterization comes from the slow and masterful unravelling of his past, which also reveal his emotions and motives towards the end of the movie – a lot is revealed about his character from things that don’t always present themselves at first glance.

The musical, on the other hand, being a spectacle that is meant to be heard and seen, narrates JD’s entire life story and personality in the song “Freeze your Brain.” This tells the audience everything they need to know about him, painting him as a psychotic and bloodthirsty villain, when in the movie, he was portrayed as a disturbed teenager who was a victim to his circumstances, seeking revenge for everything he saw wrong with society. JD, in the movie, is a tragic hero who attempts to make the world a better place by eliminating those who cause pain and suffering, without realizing that in an attempt to achieve this Utopia, he became the very thing that he despised. Hence, the limitations of musical theatre as a medium is bound to take away the literary significance of such characters.

Conclusion

Varying artistic mediums must be seen as supplementary to each other, rather than complementary. Their variances in approach make them differ from each other in more ways than one. While it is not the only example of this, a movie such as Heathers perfectly showcases the large gap between theatre and film, due to its multifaceted plot and characters. The techniques employed in the film and musical were often in direct opposition to each other solely because of the strengths and limitations of the mediums themselves. Musical theatre attempts to be elaborate, while film attempts to replicate the human experience when unravelling a story. These fundamentals are what primarily make the two forms yield such distinct results.

~Written by Kalyani Nandagopal for MTTN

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