There comes a point in every lifelong theatre lover’s career when you suddenly wake up and wonder: am I simply too old for this? Ben Brantley, former chief critic of the New York Times, hit this particular critical nail on the head when he ended his review of the 2018 off-Broadway summer run of the cult musical Be More Chill (before it was propelled to Broadway in turn) by advising,
“It may be helpful to think of this bounding, exhaustingly enthusiastic puppy of a show as the theatrical equivalent of one of those high-pitched dog whistles that only those under 25 can hear.”
The same is somewhat true, too, of Heathers, another musical that originated Off-Broadway (but is yet to make it to Broadway, but is now on its second West End run). Both shows began their UK lives — in different original productions to their US premieres — at Victoria’s Other Palace Theatre, during its tenure as a theatre specialising in new musicals (but which Andrew Lloyd Webber, its current owner, now has up for sale; you do have to ask that if he, with his deep pockets and infinite access, can’t make a go of running a specialist musical theatre house, who can?)
It is, however, testament to the success of the programming of his former artistic director there Paul Taylor-Mills (who has also worked as an advisory producer for Lloyd Webber) that both Heathers and Be More Chill are now in the West End, with Taylor-Mills himself producing their runs there in partnership with veteran Bill Kenwright; while Lloyd Webber’s own Cinderella, now in previews at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, also had its first outing at the Other Palace.
And part of that programming success is to do with seeking out younger audiences with shows like these. And that those audiences will not be reading critics like me. The audience finds shows like these online. where they stream (and scream) and discuss them endlessly.
As Ben Brantley again mentioned in his 2018 review of Be More Chill, the show — previously only staged in a production at New Jersey’s Two River Theatre in 2015 —
“went on to become a disembodied hit with an audience that discovered the show online (via videos and a cast recording that has been streamed more 150 million times worldwide) with little or no prompting from its creators. This is a grass-roots success story that could have happened only in the age of social media. And audiences for this show’s current New York incarnation, which is only its second professional production, arrive with a fierce sense of proprietary pride. Be More Chill really is all about them.”
So no, Be More Chill is not targeting me. But all power to Bill Kenwright for targeting that next generation of theatregoers. Of course, getting them through the doors to buy a ticket may be another story: it’s one thing downloading and listening to an online stream for free, another entirely to invest, in every sense, in buying a theatre ticket.
But those that do will be greeted by a bright, engaging production (directed by Stephen Brackett and designed by Beowulf Borritt, reprising their Broadway duties) that’s designed to speak to them specifically, especially the ‘outsider’ theatre geeks amongst them which its story foregrounds.
These are the kids who find refuge in the “putting on a show” after-hours theatre clubs; its the equivalent of the Mickey and Judy putting a show on in a barn story. Like the inevitable Disney’s High School Musical, and its television offshoot Glee, this is a teenager coming-of-age story that turns them from outsiders to insiders and stars of their own story. They really are the coolest kids in town!
That their crippling social anxiety has to be medicated here — and mediated by — taking a strange Japanese drug called a Squib that invades their brains and directs their behaviour lends Joe Tracz’s book a futuristic, sci-fi element; it is embodied by a human actor who presents himself as a Keanu Reeves look-a-like (never mind Joseph’s amazing technicolor dreamcoat; Stewart Clarke’s outfit in the role turns him into a amazing striped dreamboat, pictured above).
I was reminded of the plant in Little Shop of Horrors that also takes on a human voice and ultimately has to be destroyed to stop its quest for global domination. Just as discovering the plant in that show gives Seymour purpose and confidence but ultimately is intent on destroying him, so the Squib has a darker purpose that our dweeby hero has to ultimately resist.
As played by Scott Folan (above left) with a mixture of intensity and insecurity, Jeremy is a lost boy who finds himself in the theatre tribe, and although his Squib forces him to break with Michael, his best friend of twelve years standing (delightfully played by Blake Patrick Anderson, above right), they are ultimately reconciled, and are taught a powerful lesson about the value of friendship. The British musical Loserville that had a brief West End run in 2012, co-written by James Bourne (the co-founder of Busted) , had a similar resolution; and an altogether similar vibe, though Bourne’s songs were better than most of the ones Joe Iconis has provided here.
The exception is a song called Michael in the Bathroom, a haunting ode to social isolation as the rejected Michael laments his lost friendship (“Everything felt fine/ When I was half of a pair/ And through no fault of mine/ There’s no other half there/ Now I’m just/ Michael in the bathroom”), that has become the show’s signature song. Anderson performs it with an aching sense of grief that stops the show.
There’s more teenage angst in the classroom (and school bathrooms) in Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s musical Heathers, based on the 1989 film of the same name, that was first seen off-Broadway in 2014. It never made it to Broadway; but its sold out Other Palace premiere in 2018 — directed by Andy Frickman, who also directed its original US premiere — is now on its second West End run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
A feel-good show about a feel-bad subject, namely a teen revenge murder plot, disguised as suicide, to “fix” the school bullies, it’s an unsettling cross between Mean Girls, High School Musical and Carrie. As exuberantly performed by a crack cast led by Christina Bennington as Veronica, who infiltrates the unholy trio of Heathers (the bullies who dominate the school) and proceeds with her twisted boyfriend JD to avenge them, it is simultaneously creepy and compelling.
The production benefits from the luxury casting of West End veterans Lauren Ward and Simon Bailey doing double duty as parents and teacher/coach, but it is the Heathers — Jodie Steele, Bobbie Little and Frances Mayli McCann — and Jordan Luke Gage as JD that provide the dramatic momentum and jeopardy.