Stepping away from the movie world for a month – but not that far really – I thought it would be interesting for followers of this page/column/blog/site to check in on the journey the 1989 cult movie classic HEATHERS is making to the stage. My guess is that when Dan Waters wrote his darkly irreverent anti-John Hughes movie, he never guessed it would become a stage musical. And if he did, he probably didn’t think it would take 25 years to happen.
I was first approached by friend Andy Cohen in fall of 2007 about the possibility of getting the rights to HEATHERS for a show. Part of those rights were pretty simple. Through separated rights (part of the WGA rules), original screenwriter retained those rights. But to fully exploit the title, we also had to make a deal with the original studio, New World Pictures, which had sold its library to Lakeshore Entertainment. Fortunately for us, our first creative teammate, director Andy Fickman (whose film credits include GAME PLAN, SHE’S THE MAN, ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, YOU AGAIN, and PARENTAL GUIDANCE, as well stage credits including REEFER MADNESS and JEWTOPIA), had a good relationship with Lakeshore and a deal was struck. Andy was also the key to book writer/lyricist Kevin Murphy (who was head writer on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES at the time before going on to run several other shows and now runs the Syfy hit show DEFIANCE). They had collaborated on REEFER MADNESS as a stage musical and Showtime movie. The last piece of the creative puzzle was composer Laurence O’Keefe whose credits included BATBOY and LEGALLY BLONDE, for which he received a Tony nomination. My wife Amy Powers, a lyricist and songwriter in her own right, joined as a producer and our 6-member team was born.
Our option for the rights had a relatively firm schedule of milestones, that included staged readings, workshops and first class production dates. After several months of working on the book and songs, we had a reading of our first act (and a little more) at the Endeavor screening room (way before the William Morris/Endeavor merger). Friends, agents and Daniel Waters settled in to see what we had wrought. Watching Daniel Waters furiously scribble notes during that first reading made us nervous, but to our delight, he was elated with our progress and excited that we had found ways to solve problems on the stage that he was never able to on screen (like keeping the dead characters around!).
Encouraged, we went on to additional readings in LA at the 99-seat theatres on Theatre Row in Hollywood – this time with a full script and all the songs worked out. We were very fortunate to have Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars herself) play the Winona Ryder role for these first few readings, as well as a host of other Broadway and Hollywood types in the other roles. Finally, we realized we had to do a reading in New York and had a smashing three night reading at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre downtown, where lines literally snaked around the block to get in. This time Annaleigh Ashford (currently starring in KINKY BOOTS) took over the lead role.
But it was still the original six partners financing everything and it was time to find a home for our first production. La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director Chris Ashley offered us a slot, but the cost of “enhancing” a show at a wonderful theatre like La Jolla’s can run north of a million dollars. And was that really our core audience, we wondered? We were then approached by a successful London producer, and for the better part of a year we negotiated a possible London production. But it was not to be for many reasons. With time running out on our contract, we considered a Boston-based production but then confronted the reality of moving entire team to Boston from LA (except Larry who is based in NY). It was going to cost us over $100,000 just for all of us to be there before spending a dime on the show.
And then planets began to align for our current Los Angeles production. Scott Prisand (a producer on ROCK OF AGES) had formed a new company called Big Block with financier Bruce Bendell, and they agreed to come in as our first partner and finance – much to our weary checkbooks’ relief – the Los Angeles production which is set for the last two weekends in September and the first weekend of October with an all new very young cast (much closer to the high school age of what would be the real characters in HEATHERS). We auditioned about 300 people in Los Angeles and New York and wound up with an amazingly talented group of actors. The show has already sold out its scheduled 11 shows, and as this goes to press, we’re exploring ways to extend the run, the primary purpose of which is to attract financing for an Off Broadway production during 2014, which is our next contractual deadline.
It’s been five years just to get to this point. We’re hoping the next steps to New York are much quicker, but I’ve learned that theatre moves at its own pace and requires patience and finesse. My wife Amy co-wrote the musical for DR. ZHIVAGO (which did premiere at La Jolla Playhouse before touring Australia and Korea), and that’s taken eight years from the time they assembled a completely new creative team from its original one who worked for years prior.