Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
Watching the macabre 1989 high school movie Heathers, you might not have thought it required show tunes. But after an off-Broadway run, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s brutally funny, candy-colored musical became a West End sensation. It will embark on a tour of the UK and Ireland this month, while continuing a residency at London’s Other Palace, hosting sing-along performances, serving “freeze your brain” cocktails and fans wearing official Heathers lip gloss and colour-coded scrunchies.
Is this the future for Christian Slater’s next teen movie, Pump Up the Volume? The film, a portrait of alienation and rebellion in which Slater plays the role of shy college student Mark who is a pirate radio DJ by night, was adapted as a rock musical in the US just before Covid. It has now reached London as part of MTFestUK, showcasing a slew of new musicals, including versions of the TV show Come Dine With Me and Gogol’s The Government Inspector.
An abridged version of Pump Up the Volume was presented in workshop form to a small audience at the Turbine Theater on Monday and I’m pleased to report (relieved, in fact, as my childhood bedroom was filled with photos and slogans from the film) that it channels the same unruly spirit. Jeremy Desmon’s book and lyrics retain the mix of rancor and salaciousness that characterized director Allan Moyle’s screenplay. But it also retains the compassion of a movie that didn’t satirize the students, but seemed to genuinely care about them. (Moyle’s original story was inspired by a friend’s suicide.)
The Pump Up the Volume soundtrack introduced me to bands like Pixies, Cowboy Junkies, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, and Soundgarden. Richard Hell’s screeching, helter-skelter Love Comes in Spurts is a favorite of Slater’s enigmatic DJ, Happy Harry Hard-On, known for his on-air masturbation stamina. But his listeners mostly revere his brand of jaundiced truth-telling in a world where, to quote his signature song (Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows), the good guys lost and the fight was settled.
While some of the film’s scuzzy quality has been ironed out, the musical’s rousing, often anthemic rock score by Jeff Thomson is established with the opening number, Speak to Me, which shows how the students of a small-town Arizona school become Harry’s disciples. , religiously tune in to hear it at 10 p.m.
Directed by Dave Solomon, the workshop performances – which run until Wednesday – are backed by a small band under the musical direction of Debbi Clarke, with props limited to a boombox, a mixtape and the red stationery used by Harry’s fan, Nora. Nora, who is successfully played in the film by Samantha Mathis, gains more freedom of choice in the musical and becomes a crusade journalist for the school newspaper, her activist streak immediately inspiring Mark.
In the musical, Mark’s father is a tough police lieutenant (rather than a school commissioner) who raises his son alone. He is often absent – and not the best detective if he doesn’t know what Mark is up to in the basement – while the film showed Mark’s parents as present, well-meaning liberals who acknowledge his isolation but resign themselves to not knowing him. reaches. it.
The ruthless and corrupt headteacher, Principal Cresswood (played demonically onscreen by the great jazz singer Annie Ross), is somehow both more monstrous here – firing the drama teacher for performing Fahrenheit 451 – and more humanized. She gets a solo built around the line “I’m the signal, he’s the noise” in which she rails against the “incessant chatter” of teenage life and tries to find a way to break through and establish her authority. Cresswood still represents a sense of national rot as the US enters the 90s and the musical adds a perhaps unavoidable gag to Donald Trump, who was reportedly bankrupt at the time, so “we never have to hear from that bastard again “.
Today, of course, Harry would just have a podcast like everyone else. The musical has to work hard to establish the renegade spirit of pirate radio, just as the movie Moxie did for riot grrrl zines. Like Heathers: The Musical, it also uses humor to take us back to a less interconnected world with rudimentary technology. (At the Other Palace, where Heathers has a huge fanbase of digital natives, the public is instructed to turn off their smartphones because it’s the 1980s and “they haven’t been invented yet”.)
Related: Be More Chill and Dear Evan Hansen: How Teens Made the Musicals Go Viral
But there are also parallels to more modern teen musicals, most notably Dear Evan Hansen in Mark’s uneasy adjustment to his role as an inspirational figure and the exploration of adolescent mental health. One song assesses the expectations and pressures placed on children being told “take one for the team, take two for the pain”.
“All the great themes have been used up – turned into theme parks,” Harry sighs in one of his tirades. A cynic might say that all great movies just became musicals. But this hour-long, no-nonsense, script-in-hand evening — starring Noah Harrison and Jaina Brock-Patel both strongly — suggests that Pump Up the Volume could become a musical tailored to a post-pandemic cleric. teen health crisis and a new era of disillusionment. The merchandise stand could sell Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi and Black Jack gum. As Harry says: so be it.