As "Heathers The Musical" opens during the film's 25th anniversary year, comparisons between the two versions of Daniel Waters' original script have become as unavoidable as one of the film's own Heathers. Over at The Atlantic, Alan Zilberman mourned the off-Broadway remake, writing that the musical version doesn't recreate "the genius bleakness of the original." Although, it's not so much that the musical doesn't strike the same chord as its predecessor, but that it's a different sort of thing entirely. Co-writer writer Kevin Murphy said he aimed to open up "the themes of hope and optimism" with the "Heathers" story. As such, there are fundamental differences between the film and musical, but each of the works are pretty "very" in their own right.
The musical provides a backstory for Veronica's friendship with the Heathers ...
We meet Veronica as a nobody, dressed out of the scheme of primary colors, she is lost in a sea of comically intense hazing, but then her penchant for forgery brings her into the Heathers' good graces. It's not major difference from the film -- which simply highlights Heather Chandler taking advantage of the skill -- but it emphasizes the fragility of Veronica's precarious position in the group and general willingness to be used.
... and that's fitting for the more innocent version of Veronica we see on stage.
The Veronica of the musical is decidedly more innocent than Winona Ryder's iteration of the character. As the casting call put it, she "burns to be both cool and kind, but doesn’t know yet how to be both at the same time ... Thinks she's an old soul, but she's still innocent enough to be blindsided by love/hormones (or shocked by cruelty)." Over the course of the show, there's an enduring element of desperation not featured in the film version, which shifts the narrative to allow for Veronica's coming of age in face of her pre-existing desperation.
Martha Dunnstock is a fully developed character, who sings a kick-ass ballad about kindergarten nap time.
In the film, Veronica's interaction with Martha is limited to a fleeting cafeteria prank. But in the musical, Martha (not Betty Fin) is positioned as Veronica's life-long best friend. She becomes a symbol of the ramifications of bullying, providing more flesh (no pun intended) to the toxicity we see in the film. Also, at one point, Martha belts out an entire song about wishing we could go back to kindergarten, and it is no wishy-washy "Glee"-type ballad, but a touching yet tongue-in-cheek representation of what it's like to be left out of the "big fun."
It shifts the film's use of rape as a central theme.
It's arguable that, in the sense this show could be likened to an episode of "Glee," there is perhaps too much humor glossed over the darker elements. The driving force for Heather turning on Veronica is shifted from date rape to bullying. Yet, where the movie highlights a scene of a lesser Heather being sexually assaulted in the background of a touching moment between Veronica and JD, the musical features an entire slut-shaming number about having a (penis) sword fight in Veronica's mouth.
The musical medium allows Heather Chandler, Ram and Kurt to live on as ghosts.
In the movie, Heather returns in a dream sequence, but she is mostly absent following her untimely "suicide." The musical prominently features her alongside Ram and Kurt long after they've been killed off, and that's excellent, because they're awesome characters. “They’re some of the most hilarious parts of the movie,” said Ryan McCartan, who plays JD, “With the magic of musical theater, just because someone dies doesn’t mean that they disappear from the show. We get to keep [them] 'alive.'"
The show ends with the entire not-blown-up school singing about being beautiful and 17.
There is closure and hope in the show. That's not necessarily a strengthening change, but it's certainly not detrimental to the presentation of an ugly high school environment. There is hope after high school. It's called the entire rest of life. And, hey, what's a musical without a reprise of a major feel-good number.