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Movie Mom

Interview: Amy Powers on the “Heathers” Musical

posted by Nell Minow

Can it be possible that “Heathers,” the highly quotable ultimate mean girl story, was made 25 years ago? As Entertainment Weekly dishes with the actors and filmmakers to mark its anniversary and The Atlantic’s Alan Zilberman considers its impact, a musical based on the movie has just opened off Broadway. I spoke to producer Amy Powers, a Harvard Law grad turned writer, lyricist, and theatrical producer, about the show, how she left law for show business, and how being a lawyer helps her do her job.

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Who came up with the idea of “Heathers” as a musical?

That would be our visionary co-producer, Andy Cohen, President of the management and production company Grade A Entertainment. My husband (J. Todd Harris) and I met Andy through a philanthropic networking group for Jewish Los Angeles entertainment professionals,created by my great Harvard Law School friend Steve Price. We loved Andy’s idea… and Todd brought in Andy Fickman, our wonderful director. Andy took it to his Reefer Madness! Lyricist/bookwriter, Emmy winning showrunner Kevin Murphy… and we all courted Lawrence O’Keefe (Tony nominated for Legally Blonde, The Musical).

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Is it still set in the 1980’s or is it updated to the era of texting and Snapchat?

It’s proudly faithful to its original 80’s setting. (Technologically, this is the equivalent of “once upon a time”… the better to underscore the universality of bullying, peer pressure and self doubt). So yes – there’s a VCR. A teacher passes out mimeographs of Heather Chandler’s suicide note. We even have corded telephones (remember those?).

Why does the extreme situation of “Heathers” feel so true to the experience of high school?

Because it pretty much is, emotionally. The social politics of high school often feel like life and death. Insecurity is the norm, boundary testing reflexive. Allegiances can feel like they are built on quicksand. People wish other people would just, well, die. As my husband says, very essence of successful drama takes a magnifying glass to reality, and that’s what HEATHERS does.

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Who becomes a mean girl and what happens to them?

My personal opinion is that mean girls are born, not made. You’re either a Queen Bee or you’re not. To quote that veritable source, Wikipedia, “When a young virgin queen emerges… she will generally seek out rivals and attempt to kill them.” As a parent, I saw that happening in nursery school! Most mean girls are feared, worshipped, hated, …. and eventually left behind, as people grow up and there is life outside the hive. Nice girls win. Mean girls put away their stingers or become bitter, lonely old ladies.

What made you decide to leave law?

The Universe. First It smacked me upside the head (I got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome literally a month after joining the Real Estate Finance Department at White & Case). Then It kissed me on the lips (while recovering, I wrote my first song — about a paralegal, no less — and the rush was addictive). There’s a big difference between doing something because you can, and doing something because you must. It didn’t feel like a decision — it felt like a mandate.

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How does your background as a lawyer help you as a producer? As a writer?

Well, it certainly is a boon in understanding and navigating the nuts and bolts of the rights situation, and all of the agreements (investor, theater, creative). And, as every single issue in producing theater is a negotiation, I still utilize the skills learned during my HLS class with Roger Fisher (Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In).

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As far as songwriting goes, my legal background was actually a challenge. I actually spent my first 5 years “unlearning” how to “think like a lawyer”… to let go of logic and simply become a creative channel.

Which classic high school movie comes closest to your own teenage years?

It hasn’t been written yet. I actually had a great time in high school (I know, I’m the only one). The worst thing that happened to me – moving and starting a new school in 10th grade – was actually the best, too, because I got to write my story over from scratch. When someone shoots the suburban ‘new kid’ story about the happy, sappy heroine who hangs with jocks and nerds alike, stars in the school show, writes her college application essays in limericl, and whose biggest claim to fame is as President of the Friday Afternoon Pseudo-Intellectual Elitist Wine Group (which serves Almaden), I’ll gladly watch.

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What surprised you most about being a producer?

It’s only glamorous on Opening Night. Otherwise, it’s basically a daily deluge of decisions. Luckily, we’ve been working with a fantastic team of co-producers, including Scott Prisand (Rock Of Ages), Jamie Bendell (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder), Big Block Theatrical, and Stage Ventures (Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Quartet and more).

What was the best advice you got?

When a New York theater opens up, jump at it… even if you have no cast, no funds raised, and only four months to make everything happen!

What are you hoping the audience will see in this show?

Themselves… and everyone they knew.

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