Kindness inside the corrosion: Unpacking Heathers with Hart House Theatre’s Emma Sangalli and Paige Foskett

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.

Paige Foskett (Heather Duke), Mary Bowden (Heather Chandler), Becka Jay (Heather McNamara), Emma Sangalli (Veronica); photo: Scott Gorman

Heathers seems an implausible choice for a musical. The 1988 teen cult film is actually two movies in one. The first two-thirds is a hilarious, corrosive and nihilistic satire of life at Westerburg High School where the 3 titular Heathers rule the stratified social roost until they are challenged by anarchic forces in the form of mysterious and lethal JD. Then unexpectedly, the movie’s final third turns into an earnest action movie, where that corrosive satire is battled and ultimately blown up. Anchored by iconic performances by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, and dialogue that has transcended into pop culture lexicon, the movie became a cult classic. How does Hart House Theatre’s new production of the musical reconcile these divergent tones – and how do the actors step into such shoes?  We asked two. Emma Sangalli stars as Veronica Sawyer, the misfit who is admitted to the Heathers’ inner circle, then comes to regret the price of remaining there. Paige Foskett  plays Heather Duke  (“Heather #2”), the show’s “true antagonist” because she supplies the “toxic energy that amplifies the need for Veronica to keep fighting for what she believes in.”  

Emma Sangalli (photo courtesy of Hart House Theatre)

In the original film, Veronica is a malcontent who steps belatedly into the role of action hero (think Riverdale’s sardonic Veronica Lodge turning into Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.)  Ms Sangalli views her Veronica more unambiguously, as “a smart, somewhat beyond-her-time teenage girl with a big heart and and sharp wit. She has a fierce moral compass and a steady belief that there is good in everyone, both of which get put to the ultimate test through some pretty extreme situations in the show.” An admirer of the original movie, Ms Sangalli grants that Laurence O’Keefe and  Kevin Murphy, the musical’s writers have “amped up some of the more hopeful, kind-hearted, fight-for-what’s-right colours of the character, while still keeping her iconic, of course.” The biggest resulting difference is that “you do see and hear about [Veronica’s]  earnest fight and action against cruelty right from the very beginning, rather than just in the last few minutes.”

This more even-keeled Veronica is matched by Ms Foskett’s steady-state, relentlessly negative Heather Duke. “Every other character has redeemable qualities that make them really relatable for people. Duke is different”, she notes drily. The smoothing of character edges for the tighter confines of musical theatre extends outward to the overall tenor of the production. Ms Foskett offers praise for “our fearless director Jenni” (Jennifer Walls), who has done “a great job at toning down the comedy in this show . . . it’s still very funny, but rather than playing up the caricatures and jokes, they play out simply. ” At the same time, Ms Foskett appreciates the “nice juxtaposition between the darkness of the themes and the satire. It is a very good balance that I think the audience will be able to appreciate.”

Paige Foskett (photo courtesy of Hart House Theatre)

This tone change is accompanied by an up-shift in energy. This is one dynamic, fast-moving show, and Ms Sangalli (who even looks like a young Winona Ryder) shows incredible stamina in a role that sees her on stage for almost the entire run time, singing her way through an emotional roller coaster: “She’s been the most thrilling role I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking on, as she really does experience every range of emotion in the show, and gets herself deep into some pretty crazy situations; love, murder, fighting for justice, this show holds nothing back!” Noting with a broad smile that Heather Duke “is nothing like me”, Ms Foskett took a different, more relational path to her role. Heather Duke is almost an absence of light, a Westerburg High black hole defined by everyone whom she denigrates. So it is logical that “the best way that I’ve been able to find the heart of Heather Duke has actually just been watching my amazing cast mates find their characters. It all feels so real each and every time we do it that it just gets easier and easier.”

As the plot of the musical moves inexorably towards its explosive conclusion, fans of the film should not expect so seismic a shift in tone or focus. And because the satire is not quite so corrosive, the story’s ultimately redemptive message shines brighter (and perhaps rings more true):  “Maybe ‘kindness’ is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Heathers,” Ms Sangalli deadpans, “but really I think that the whole point of this dark, twisted story is to bring to light the issues we all face, recognize them and call them out for what they are, and then most importantly, bring to light the solutions and the hope that we can all call upon to fight these issues, and make a change.”

Justan Myers as Jason “J.D.” Dean, Emma Sangalli as Veronica Sawyer; photo: Scott Gorman

The audience literally looks through 4 off-kilter frames that surround the bright, angular set. They are emblematic of the filters and bias through which we look at high school experiences, yet inside those frames, Ms Foskett asserts, lies universal truth: “At the heart of Heathers is a story about humans who feel the same pain and loneliness that lives and breathes through different vessels within each character. You have different caricatures that exist to paint a widely understood picture for the story to live and breathe through (mean girls, jocks, nerd, outcasts, etc.) that everyone will understand. This is a story about community, finding your voice, breaking the stigma around mental health (especially in youth), and the ways in which society oppresses and commodifies those things.” And this thematic depth explains why her “favourite aspect of the show is JD” (Justan Myers), Veronica’s mysterious, alternately hilarious and homicidal love interest: “I just think he is such an honest yet heightened portrayal of a person who is so lonely. He is the demonic voice, the monster, the antagonist… Except he’s not; he is all of us.”

If this all sounds rather heavy, well, Ms Sangalli doesn’t want you to worry: “Among all this of course is a kick ass rock and roll soundtrack” – which includes an implausible toe-tapper built around one of the most hilarious yet offensive lines uttered by Ram’s dad (Hunter Agnew) – plus “some wicked funny humour, and a dark, beautiful, important story to tell. My favourite part? Telling it!” The actors’ answers throughout our conversation have been just like this one: lucid, sharp and energetic – like their performances. It is abundantly clear that both heroine and antagonist relish their roles, and are deeply appreciative of this experience. “This cast is so special,” effuses Ms Foskett. “Everyone brings so much intent, humanity and heart into the characters they’re playing.”  Ms Sangalli concurs: “It’s truly been a remarkably special experience, a special cast, crew and creative team, and I couldn’t be more honoured to be a part of it.” She just can’t help herself, adding with a wink, “It’s truly been SO very.”

Audiences seem to agree. Sold-out houses and enthusiastic cheers have greeted the early part of the run. Heathers may be an implausible choice for a musical, but Ms Sangalli, Ms Foskett and the cast and crew of Hart House Theatre have turned this “dark, twisted story” into a coherent, provocative and impressively popular production.

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Paige Foskett as Heather Duke, Mary Bowden as Heather Chandler, Becka Jay as Heather McNamara; photo: Scott Gorman

WhatHeathers: The Musical; Book, Music and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe; Based on the film written by Daniel Waters; Directed by Jennifer Walls; Music Direction by Giustin MacLean
Featuring: Emma Sangalli (Veronica Sawyer), Justan Myers (Jason “J.D.” Dean), Mary Bowden (Heather Chandler), Paige Foskett (Heather Duke), Becka Jay (Heather McNamara), Moulan Bourke (Martha Dunnstock), Wade Minacs (Ram Sweeney), Aaron Cadesky (Kurt Kelly), Mark J. Umphrey (Big Bud Dean/Kurt’s Dad/Principal Gowan), Hunter Agnew (Veronica’s Dad/Ram’s Dad), Rose-Ingrid Benjamin (Ms. Fleming/Veronica’s Mom), Taha Arshad (ensemble), Justin DeSouza (ensemble), Connor Ferris (ensemble), Maggie Gallagher (ensemble), Fay Gamliel (ensemble), Jacob Moro (ensemble, J.D. Understudy), Bohdan Onushko (ensemble), Madison Sekulin (ensemble), Allison Leia Wall (ensemble, Dance Captain)

Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older; Advisory: coarse language, mature themes, sexual and graphic violence

When: On stage until October 6; running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including one intermission)

Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Cir, Toronto, ON M5S 3H3

Info and Tickets: Harthouse.ca

© 2018 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine

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