CW: brief mention of eating disorders, suicide & sexual assault
This week it was announced that Heathers: the Musical will be returning to the Theatre Royal Haymarket on the West End for a second run. The musical adaptation of Mean Girls is also still planned to open in London, and Bring It On is being revived this August. The West End is increasingly set to be populated by shows about high school hierarchies, their teenage heroines taking their places alongside the Hamiltons, Phantoms, Elphabas, and Mormons. So many teen movie musical productions lie in wait for when theatres reopen, fuelled by a year of theatre fans multiplying via platforms like TikTok… but will they ever be able to find commercial and critical success outside of the digital sphere?
While it may seem like a recent phenomenon, the teen movie musical has been part of the fabric of musical theatre for decades. Arguably the first teen movie musical was 1988’s Carrie: based on the 1974 book and 1976 film of the same name, the Broadway musical became one of the most famous flops in theatre history, closing after only five performances. Other teen movie adaptations, however, have taken their place as musical theatre classics – for example, 2002’s Hairspray, now perhaps one of the most popular musicals ever, was originally based on the 1988 film of the same name. Following this, 2007 saw the hugely successful stage adaptation of Legally Blonde, which spawned a casting reality TV show called The Search for Elle Woods and a West End transfer. In 2012, Broadway then welcomed Bring It On: the Musical, with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame.
It was in circa 2018, however, that the teen movie musical really became its own genre. An illegal recording of the Off-Broadway production of Heathers: the Musical went viral on YouTube, and the show’s suddenly massive online following led to an Off-West End run at The Other Palace in 2018, followed by a West End transfer. In the same year, the theatrical adaptation of Mean Girls opened on Broadway, giving iconic lines like “That’s so fetch!” and “On Wednesdays we wear pink” a second life. In the wake of these two productions, numerous other adaptations were attempted. 90s teen movies became a particular target, with the jukebox musical adaptations of Cruel Intentions and Clueless using almost exactly the same soundtrack – to be fair, ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia is a pretty perfect fit for some retro teen angst.
A huge part of what makes adaptations like Heathers and Mean Girls so distinctive are their fan bases – it seems unlikely that Heathers would ever have made it to the West End without its impressive online following. It was also helped by Hamilton spawning a sudden boom in young musical theatre fans on platforms like Tumblr and Twitter and thus forming the perfect environment for a catchy show about teenagers to take off. Young people make up a huge amount of the audience of musical theatre, and therefore shows that feel like they have been made for them are bound to find an audience. In addition to this, these films often include subjects that feel highly relevant to teens but aren’t often seen in other productions; shows include topics that range from popularity politics and eating disorders to teenage suicde and sexual assault. This intense fan culture extends to live audiences: I saw Heathers twice in London and both times was surrounded by young people dressed up (‘cosplaying’) in red scrunchies, blue blazers, and black trench coats.
The primary issue these productions face is the discrepancy between fan popularity, commercial success and critical opinion. No recent productions have had very long runs, despite their massive online fanbases. In fact, Mean Girls had to resort to some of the least successful stunt casting in recent history, with recordings of Vine star Cameron Dallas as love interest Aaron Samuels going viral for just how incredibly out of tune he was. This is firstly because young people as a target audience are often less likely to be able to buy tickets: West End and Broadway tickets are increasingly extortionate, and teenagers are also less likely to be able to easily travel to London/NYC. Secondly, most of these shows receive mediocre to negative reviews, meaning they tend not to appeal to older theatregoers. With their primary audiences often unable to come, and those who can turned off by poor reviews, it’s not easy for a teen movie musical to sustain its run.
In spite of this, these musicals keep cropping up. Heathers, Mean Girls, and Bring It On are all set to be on the West End soon, and there are always more productions being workshopped (currently including musicals based on the 2010 indie film It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which centres mental health, and the 1999 cult lesbian film But I’m a Cheerleader). This is because teen movies naturally make excellent subjects for musicals. They combine ensemble casts of distinctive, eccentric characters, a comedic, feel-good tone, some kind of light moral lesson, and, of course, the teen movie musical holy grail: a party scene. While it’s true that the similarities can make these shows feel derivative, they also prove that the format works. For example, the party scenes in all of these productions allow for key plot points to intersect with iconic costume moments, strobe lights, and flashy dance sequences. We see this in ‘Big Fun’ from Heathers, ‘Someone Gets Hurt’ and ‘Whose House is This?’ from Mean Girls, ‘A Night We’ll Never Forget’ from Carrie, and the iconic playboy bunny moment in Legally Blonde. All four shows also share at least one song that breaks down the high school/college food chain and speaks to the pressures of that kind of social environment: ‘Beautiful’ from Heathers, ‘It Roars’, ‘Where Do You Belong?’, and several other songs from Mean Girls, ‘In’ from Carrie, and ‘The Harvard Variations’ and ‘Blood in the Water’ from Legally Blonde.
The truth is that when these productions take into account the current cultural and political climate and introduce catchy, original music, they can be really excellent examples of musical theatre. Heathers continues to be a success because it manages this – it walks the line between genuine heart and satire expertly, and the music is well-written and catchy. For this same reason, productions like Clueless and Cruel Intentions are unlikely to ever really take off. When using a story that’s already well-known, introducing original music is more important than ever to offer audiences something fresh.
Even successful shows like Heathers and Mean Girls, though, have continually struggled with awards and critics: Heathers received zero Olivier nominations, and Mean Girls had to resort to poor stunt-casting before closing in the pandemic. The reason for this is that musicals centred around teenagers are destined to become ‘cult’ shows: their audience is intrinsically niche, and, due to their youth, unlikely to be able to sustain commercially and critically successful runs, leading these shows to fan-centric cult status. The importance of internet culture also feeds into this, urging us to reconsider how we measure a production’s success.
Looking to the future, it seems like we could be walking into a renaissance of the teen movie musical. With Heathers and Bring It On both in London this summer, combined with the way that the pandemic will have spawned a new generation of young theatre fans eager to get into theatres, we’re unlikely to see a decrease in demand for stories about young people on stage. It remains to be seen, however, whether these shows will ever manage to break into the musical theatre canon and win awards and glowing reviews. It doesn’t look like adaptations are slowing down, in spite of criticism of the lack of original stories in theatre: with the TikTok musical versions of Ratatouille and Bridgerton making international theatre news, who’s to say which film will take to the stage next?
Image Credit: Brecht Bug via Flickr & Creative Commons (License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)