Stillpointe Theatre co-founder, actor and director Danielle Robinette is herding her cast and orchestra together in a church basement for the sitzprobe of “Heathers: The Musical,” Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s 2014 adaptation of the darkly comic 1989 cult film. The cast members of Stillpointe’s production, which opens Dec. 20 at the Ottobar for the first of three nights, mill about checking their phones, flipping through copies of the book and doing some vocal warm-ups.
Music director Stacey Antoine sits at the piano among some of the musicians running through bits and pieces of the score. Robinette announces the guitarist is running a little bit late, but they’re going to get started anyway and see if they can make it through the complete show.
Should they gather around the piano for this first run through with the band to try it from the stage? Quick vote with a show of hands. Circle around Antoine it is.
During a break, Robinette paces a bit looking for a place to sit and chat, and confesses that she’s a nervous wreck—she’s always a nervous wreck, she says, and pre-show she always gets a bit more so. She also says that she kinda feels like she’s in high school, with a compact stretch of intense rehearsals leading up to a weekend of shows instead of Stillpointe’s typical four-week run. It’s liberating.
And she maybe feels manic about it because they’re doing all this work for three nights. She shrugs, gesturing that she’s riding that roller coaster of emotions that every theater worker knows is the hard work, blood, sweat, tears, anxiety, tears, troubleshooting and maybe even a few more tears that go into mounting a show.
“I love directing because I’m a control freak,” Robinette says. “But I hate directing because I just want to get up and do it.”
Robinette and Ryan Haase launched Stillpointe in 2010 as the theatrical home to their shared aesthetic of barbed popism, an ability to find the edge in otherwise mainstream musical theater. For most of that time, Robinette’s big voice, wicked sense of humor and dramatic fearlessness established her as one of the company’s most indelible actors.
“I’m a performer at heart,” she says. “And directing is hard because it’s like having to be in labor for weeks and weeks and weeks and then you deliver the baby and somebody just picks it up and walks out of the room with it. You don’t get the catharsis of going out and performing it. So it’s a tricky feeling to navigate. I’m going to be helping out and in the booth on performance nights, but if I had my way I’d be outside chain smoking, Just tell me when the baby comes out.”
In short, she’s exactly the person you want helming a musical adaptation of “Heathers” staged as a rock concert. The original movie involves a smart, popular high school girl and her rebel outsider boyfriend responding to the Me Decade’s mind-numbing homogeneity by killing and then faking the suicides of their popular peers.
Yes, it’s a parody of 1980s suburban teen dramadies that pushes the first-world problems of affluent white suburbia to absurdist extremes—rewatching it for the first time since the 1990s last week, I was struck by how cartoonishly it skewers the ostensible realism of John Hughes’ movies—but it’s still a story that includes suicide, murder, bullying, guns in school, homophobia, classism, abandonment and a bomb threat as plot points. Looking back at it from 2018, you might wonder how the hell it ever got made.
“I remember watching it in high school and thinking, This is amazing,” Robinette says. “It was one of those first times I thought, This is fucked up, and I love it.”
Composer Laurence O’Keefe and writer/lyricist Kevin Murphy have a knack for adapting fan favorites (see also: “Legally Blonde: The Musical”) and keeping what’s beloved about them intact. Still, when Robinette the “Heathers” fan first heard the original soundtrack recording for their musical adaptation, she wasn’t impressed. “I hated it,” she says. “This is one of my top-10 movies, and I thought, They just ruined it. It didn’t feel gritty enough to me, because the movie has this kind of dark edge to it.”
“But I had a friend who loved it,” she continues, “so she was always listening to it, and the more I sat with it, and the more I got to know more of O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s work, I grew to appreciate it and then ended up falling in love with it. Now I know ‘Heathers’ is some of the most beautiful music in musical theater. It’s gorgeous.”
“Heathers: The Musical” keeps the 1989 setting, and it’s musically aware of its decade. Robinette notes that the score calls for a fair amount of synths, with moments that feel a little Huey Lewis and the News-y here, a little Depeche Mode-y there, and even kinda Cure-y at times. It’s also quite challenging, calling on performers who can really sing. (“I could act in this, but I could never sing it,” Robinette says.) As a result, while the musical has amassed its own cult following, it’s a big ask to produce. And after witnessing how well Stillpointe’s production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” worked at the Ottobar last December, Robinette wanted to do “Heathers” as one of her favorite things: concert stage versions of musicals.
“A really cool fusion of theater and rock concert is something I’ve always been obsessed with,” she says. “Growing up, not every musical had a film version, but PBS did concert versions and I’d tape those off the TV—there’s a ‘Titanic’ one that I love. And there’s virtually nothing to them. They’re just a great singer standing at a microphone with a beautiful costume on. And I think that if your actors are amazing and your material is good, that’s all you really need.”
Robinette’s challenge: trimming a contemporary’s big, two-act book down so there’s never more than 60 seconds between songs, making it feel like a rock concert while keeping the story intact. She’s forgoing major set changes in favor of scene-setting projections (courtesy video artist Johnny Rogers). And she eliminated costume changes entirely in favor of a solid visual idea for the entire performance. She turned to the first season of “Saved By the Bell,” which debuted in 1989, John Hughes movies and old MTV commercials for visual inspiration, and costume designer Kitt Crescenzo came up with the appropriate wardrobe.
The goal was to zero in on what’s relatable about “Heathers” and amplify that into a concert. “The setting is a dayglow, generic high school, as this could be anywhere,” Robinette says. “There’s characters you recognize—a geek, a goth, a stoner chick, a blow-dried preppy guy. They’re staged at microphones, and it’s being done like they’re all rock stars putting on a show.”
For main character Veronica, Robinette needed somebody who could both sing the part and have that kind of stage presence. She found her Veronica in Amanda Rife, who fronts the local rock band Community Center. Rife also sang Van Morrison in Moveable Feast’s fundraising concert last month, where local musicians performed The Band’s “The Last Waltz” concert at 2640 Space. Rife didn’t merely steal the show, she nailed Morrison’s oddball energy, right down to the humblebragging stage exit before the song had finished.
“‘Heathers,’ both the musical and the movie, has such a cult following, in the theater world and in pop culture, that I know I had a big responsibility when doing it,” Robinette says. “I trimmed some of the fat, but some lines had to stay in there — ‘It’s so very,’ ‘what’s your damage?,’ ‘did you have brain tumor for breakfast?’ The die-hards will draw and quarter you in the streets if you don’t keep those.
“As silly as it sounds, though, I think it’s a timeless story,” she continues, noting that it addresses some of the bleaker aspects of adolescent alienation—bullying, depression, and suicide—in blackly comic ways. “Everyone hates their lives when they’re a teenager, even the most popular girl in school, which is something you realize when you get older. There’s still kids that are mean and there’s still people that will do crazy things to be popular. And it ends on a weirdly happy note—we’re not OK, but we’re OK with not being OK.”
Which is kinda where she is in the rehearsal process. “It’s Sunday, it opens Thursday, and we can’t get into the space until Tuesday morning,” she says. “Once I’m in it and working I won’t be stressed about it. But right now? Stressed. It’s like I’m waiting for someone to pick me up to go somewhere. I’m sitting on my front step with my bag, tapping my toe. Waiting.”
“Heathers: The Musical” will be performed on Dec. 20-22 at 8 p.m. at The Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., (410) 662-0069, theottobar.com, $20.