Bailey Wolf went to a high school without “defined” cliques, but she, like most young people she encounters on stage and off, finds the subject imminently “relatable.”
That relatability has made the 1989 movie “Heathers” into a cult classic and the musical based on it equally popular.
With music, lyrics and a book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, “Heathers: The Musical” arrived off-Broadway five years ago.
Rockville Musical Theatre is now producing the show, with Wolf playing Veronica, a girl eager to join the most-popular-girl clique, the Heathers, in her high school. Besides the dramatic content, Wolf likes the “pop belting rock music – which you don’t see that often in (traditional) musicals,” she said.
Director Lee Rosenthal, who saw it the film back in 1989 and then the musical off-Broadway – the latter with her teenage son – and suggested it to RMT. Because the theater is staging “Heathers” at Arts Barn’s 99-seat theater, as opposed to its usual venue at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, the Gaithersburg Arts Center had to approve her proposal.
“The musical really has a cult following,” Rosenthal said. “People drive from all over to every production.”
The 26-year-old Wolf was so eager to appear in it that she is drives an hour each way to and from rehearsals. She had her heart set on Veronica, a lifelong “nerd” who has been made fun of. Veronica desperately wants to be popular, and the Heathers let her into their group because of a talent she has – the ability to copy other people’s signatures.
But she’s torn between her desire for acceptance and the cruel way the Heathers treat other people, including old friends of hers, said Wolf.
The plot gets more fraught when Veronica becomes preoccupied with JD, a transfer student with a murky past, and becomes his girlfriend. He has strange ideas about how to deal with the clique, and Veronica gets dragged into behavior that’s not really her.
“It’s not a typical high school experience,” Wolf admitted. “It’s very dark, though Veronica does have sarcastic humor.”
Wolf said she finds the role particularly gratifying because Veronica has “complicated facets” she doesn’t always get to play. Wolf’s last role was Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” at Damascus Theatre.
“It’s a challenge to be completely vulnerable before the rest of the cast and an audience, strip myself raw and undergo scenes of emotion when everyone is making fun of my character, sexual harassment and interacting with people who are dead,” Wolf said “It’s emotionally draining but rewarding; 100 percent the most-difficult part I’ve been in.”
Veronica also is on stage nearly all the time. Wolf said she’s wanted to beg Richardson for “blackouts,” so she could run offstage to get a little bit of water.
Aside from the themes of cliques, bullying and school violence, another thing that will resonate with young audiences is doing things one knows not to do because of peer pressure, Rosenthal pointed out.
“It’s definitely a play for young people 15 and over,” she said.
In fact, although many teenagers auditioned for the show, Rosenthal said she felt it was “too emotionally demanding for them,” and not appropriate for high-school actors.
Rosenthal made a few changes to the original musical – including adding a mixed ensemble that does include a few teens.
Michael McCarthy plays JD. Rachel Naugle, Katie Kellenberger and Marcie Schwartz are the “hot” but mean three Heathers.
Presented in partnership with Arts on the Green, “Heathers: The Musical” will be performed March 8-24 at Arts Barn. www.r-m-t.org.