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Playing Heathers The Musical – Guitar

Production poster for Heathers at Bellevue College, 2018

Book, Music & Lyrics: Laurence O’Keefe & Kevin Murphy
Year: 2014 (first Off-Broadway run)

I played Heathers in May 2018 for Bellevue College’s Theatre Arts Program, and I’m very grateful to their Music Director, Aimee Hong, for giving me the chance to play this most challenging of scores.  We had an outstanding cast and crew, and the band quickly became a tight, punchy unit which I immensely enjoyed being a part of, throughout a sold out run.

In this article, I offer my impressions of the show and guitar book, describe the equipment I used, and my general approach to preparing for and playing the show.  I provide a detailed song-by-song commentary here, which includes details of the sounds I used, notes on playing technique, adjustments I made to the score and any errors I found in the score.

Heathers The Musical is a rock show produced Off-Broadway in 2014, based on Daniel Waters’ cult 1988 dark comedy film, “Heathers”.  It failed to generate enough buzz to make a Broadway transfer, but has quickly become a massive favorite with younger musical theatre fans, especially teens, who identify strongly with the themes of bullying and social exclusion at high school.  The focus on teen issues and humor may be why older audiences didn’t fall for the show, and since they are the ones who can afford to buy Broadway tickets…  As I write this article, Heathers has just opened in London’s West End for a sold-out 2-month run, amid a frenzy of excitement from hardcore fans in the UK.

Cast and crew of Heathers the Musical, Bellevue College 2018

Cast and crew of Heathers, Bellevue College 2018
(© 2018 Michael Brunk

In the musical, writers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy have amped-up the gleefully dark humor, and added a sophisticated score drawing heavily on 1980s pop/rock styles and sounds.  The show barrels along – the plot unfolds rapidly and tempos are fast.  Moments of stillness and reflection are few, but stand out among all the action and mayhem, and are all the more moving for that.

I have observed a tendency over time for commentators to try and attach increasing depth to the messages of the show, perhaps more than it deserves when you reflect back on the original movie.  Should Heathers be a message-laden reflection on teen issues, or just an anarchic, dark satirical comedy?  Apparently the authors are tending slightly towards the former.  The most overtly comical number in the show, “Blue”, has recently been retired over concerns that it trivializes sexual assault.  Irrespective of the debate over this issue (in May 2018 an online petition to restore “Blue” was started at, I think that if you’re going to update a show you should improve it.  “Blue”, a popular and well-written song, has been replaced with “You’re Welcome”, a dreary, disposable rap-lite number which fails to land, at least in its current iteration, and is glaringly at odds with the musical styles of the rest of the show.  I was pleased to have the chance to play “Blue” before it was retired.

You have to hope that “You’re Welcome” will be improved over time, as the writers are still updating the show.  The London run is the first to feature a new song for Heather Duke, called “Never Shut Up Again”.

Heathers is scored for a small ensemble (keyboard, guitar, bass, drums, reeds, trumpet, violin) which really has its work cut out.  In particular, the band stands or falls on the performance of the rhythm section (guitar, bass, drums) which has to be tight, precise and well-rehearsed.  The detailed orchestration is unforgiving of sloppiness, which is quickly exposed.  While it’s not quite a “sung through” musical, there is barely a minute without music in the show, so the pit ensemble is always busy and has to maintain focus.  There are many, many dialog and action cues.

This is without doubt the most challenging score I have ever played (yes, even harder than “The Last 5 Years”!).  I spent more than two months preparing for the show: learning and practicing the parts, and building the effects patches.  Ultimately, the effort was worthwhile.  Although challenging, these are fun, interesting parts and I found playing them to be very rewarding.

There are some shows you can happily jam your way through, laying your own style and sounds over charts consisting of mostly slash rhythm notation and chord symbols (Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are obvious examples).  Heathers is not one of those shows.  The guitar book is astonishingly precise: almost every note, rhythm and voicing that you hear on the cast recording is fully and accurately transcribed.  The parts are locked tightly together in the orchestration to produce a clever, punchy end result.  You can’t expect to strum your way through this show and sound convincing.  You have to “play the ink”, and that requires significant effort and some chops.  My impression is that the original guitarist (the excellent Austin Moorhead) was closely involved in preparing these parts.  Tempos are mostly fast, and there’s a lot of “fretboard gymnastics” and spread chords.  It’s important to be familiar with the material and have it “in your fingers” – this is not a book you can just read down.

One area of the book which could be improved is pagination.  There are too many page turns at difficult or impossible points, especially given the busy parts and fast tempos.  I chopped the score around a bit to remove all of these, although I was still left with a couple of pretty fast page turns in “Yo Girl / Meant To Be”.  The typeface is on the small side and page margins are big – you can increase the size of the music by about 7% to make better use of the available space and still have reasonable margins.  I would also suggest to the orchestrators that they add a few more dialogue cues to the book, because there are so many.


Heathers guitar rig, 2018

My rig for Heathers the Musical, 2018

The score calls for electric, acoustic and nylon-string guitars.

Electric: ideally a Strat-style guitar, with single-coil pickups.  Humbuckers would be too dark for most of the material.  I used a Tom Anderson Drop-Top Classic, set to Position 4 (middle and bridge pickups) throughout.  I experimented with several pickup configurations and concluded that Position 4 worked well for just about everything.

Acoustic: the acoustic guitar should have a cutaway body, to provide easy access to the 12th to 17th frets needed for #4 – Freeze Your Brain and particularly #14 – Lifeboat.  Without the cutaway, Lifeboat is very difficult to play.  I used a Taylor 214ce-QM DLX, with EQ to make it sound fairly bright.

Nylon: no special characteristics.  I used a Takamine P3FCN, which has a cutaway body.

Before I started work on Heathers, a music director friend advised me that the guitar “is a very specific voice” in the score.  He was referring in part to the precision and detail in the arrangements, but also I think to the wide variety of 1980s-flavored tones and effects used for the electric guitar parts, which make up the bulk of the book.  It’s worth setting the tones up correctly because, combined with the equally varied keyboard sounds, they give the ensemble a distinctive sound.

The book calls for several changes in sound in most songs.  Listening to the cast recording reveals several additional effects and variations on distortion and overdrive tones.  I decided to attempt to replicate the sounds on the cast album as closely as possible and used a Line 6 Helix to do so, despite my general preference for stomp boxes over digital processors. Use of stomp boxes would require either a switching system, some pretty fancy footwork, or simplification of the range of sounds.

I designed one patch for each song in the show, creating several “snapshots” within each patch.  Each snapshot defined one particular tone required for that song, and was assigned to a footswitch.  This meant I could access every tone within each song at the push of a single footswitch, then just move to the next patch for the following song.  I tweaked the patches during the rehearsal process to get them just right, and set relative volumes by putting a “Gain” block at the end of each patch which was easy to adjust on the fly during rehearsals.  It is possible to get away with doing less on effects, but it doesn’t serve the material as well.  I managed to get reasonably close to most of the sounds I wanted, but if I play the show again, I do plan to revisit some of the patches and make improvements.


Helix Layout: Bottom Row – Patch Selection, Top Row – Snapshot Selection

Another advantage of using the Helix effects processor was the flexibility it gave me for amplification.  At the time I started work on the show, the sound design wasn’t finalized, so it wasn’t clear whether I would be using an amplifier or going direct to the house for sound.  I used the Helix’s built in amplifier models to get the basic tones I wanted, and ran it into the power stage (Effects Return) of a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III for rehearsals.  I had the option to continue doing that for performances, or to go straight to the house if needed, or both.  Ultimately, we carried the rehearsal setup into performance, because this production took place in a small black box theatre, and we had already achieved a good sound balance.

I ran both acoustic and nylon-string guitars through an AER Compact 60 acoustic amplifier, with a separate EQ for each for fine adjustment of tone, and a volume pedal.  Signal chains were as follows:

Heathers The Musical jumps straight to the top of my list of “most challenging guitar books”.  It’s great music, fun, exciting and physically demanding to play.  Any pit guitarist should jump at the chance to play it, but it’s definitely a book for the more experienced player.  No matter how experienced you are, I recommend allowing plenty of time to practice the material and build the huge array of sounds required for the show.  It’s worth the effort.

Playbill interview with writers of Heathers, including track-by-track commentary
Heathers The Musical – Wikipedia page
Heathers movie Wikipedia page
Heathers The Musical Facebook page

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