Pump Up the Volume: can Christian Slater’s teen movie become a musical hit like Heathers?

The 1990 film about high-school rebellion, featuring a jaded late-night DJ, could find a fresh theatre audience in this new age of disillusionment

Watching the macabre 1989 high school movie Heathers, you may not have thought it needed show tunes. But after an off-Broadway run, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s brutally funny, candy-coloured musical became a sensation in the West End. It starts a tour of the UK and Ireland this month while continuing a residency at the Other Palace in London, where they host singalong performances, serve “freeze your brain” cocktails and fans wear official Heathers lipgloss and colour-coded scrunchies.

Is this the future for Christian Slater’s subsequent teen movie, Pump Up the Volume? The film, a portrait of alienation and rebellion which stars Slater as shy student Mark who is a pirate radio DJ by night, was adapted as a rock musical in the US just before Covid. It has now reached London as part of MTFestUK, which showcases a slate of new musicals including versions of the TV show Come Dine With Me and Gogol’s The Government Inspector.

On Monday, a condensed version of Pump Up the Volume was presented in workshop form for a small audience at the Turbine theatre and I’m delighted to report (relieved even, since my childhood bedroom was covered with pictures and slogans from the film) that it channels the same unruly spirit. Jeremy Desmon’s book and lyrics preserve the blend of rancour and ribaldry that distinguished director Allan Moyle’s screenplay. But it keeps the compassion, too, of a film that didn’t satirise the students but seemed to really care for them. (Moyle’s original story was inspired by the suicide of a friend.)

Carrie Hope Fletcher, Sophie Isaacs, Jodie Steele and T’Shan Williams in Heathers: The Musical at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in 2018.
Carrie Hope Fletcher, Sophie Isaacs, Jodie Steele and T’Shan Williams in Heathers: The Musical at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Pump Up the Volume’s soundtrack introduced me to bands including Pixies, Cowboy Junkies, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains and Soundgarden. Richard Hell’s yelping, helter-skelter Love Comes in Spurts is a favourite of Slater’s enigmatic DJ, Happy Harry Hard-On, renowned for his on-air masturbatory stamina. But his listeners particularly revere his brand of jaundiced truth-telling in a world where, to quote his signature track (Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows), the good guys lost and the fight was fixed.

While something of the film’s scuzzy quality has been ironed out, the musical’s rousing, often anthemic rock score by Jeff Thomson is established with the opening number, Speak to Me, which shows how the students of a small-town school in Arizona become Harry’s disciples, religiously tuning in to hear him at 10pm.

Directed by Dave Solomon, the workshop performances – which run until Wednesday – are backed by a small band under the musical direction of Debbi Clarke, with props limited to a boombox, a mixtape and the red stationery used by Harry’s fan, Nora. Winningly played in the film by Samantha Mathis, Nora is given greater agency in the musical and becomes a crusading journalist for the school newspaper, her activist streak directly inspiring Mark.

In the musical, Mark’s dad is a tough police lieutenant (rather than a school commissioner) who is raising his son alone. He is shown to be frequently absent – and not the greatest detective if he doesn’t know what Mark’s up to in the basement – while the film showed Mark’s parents as present, well-intentioned liberals who recognise his isolation but seem resigned to not reaching him.

The ruthless and corrupt headteacher, Principal Cresswood (demonically played on screen by the great jazz singer Annie Ross), is here somehow both more monstrous – sacking the drama teacher for staging Fahrenheit 451 – and more humanised. She gets a solo built around the line “I’m the signal, he’s the noise” in which she rails against the “incessant chatter” of teenage life and seeks to find a way to cut through and establish her authority. Cresswood still represents a sense of national rot as the US enters the 90s and the musical adds a perhaps inevitable jibe at Donald Trump, said to be plummeting into bankruptcy at the time so “we’ll never have to hear from that asshole again”.

Today, of course, Harry would just have a podcast like everyone else. The musical has to work hard to establish the renegade spirit of pirate radio, rather as the movie Moxie did for riot grrrl zines. Like Heathers: The Musical, it also uses humour in returning us to a less interconnected world with rudimentary technology. (At the Other Palace, where Heathers has a huge fanbase of digital natives, the audience is instructed to turn off their smartphones because it’s the 80s and “they haven’t been invented yet”.)

But there are parallels, too, with more modern teen musicals, in particular Dear Evan Hansen in the way Mark uneasily adjusts to his role as an inspirational figure and the exploration of adolescent mental health. One song assesses the expectations and pressures placed on children who are told to “take one for the team, take two for the pain”.

“All the great themes have been used up – turned into theme parks,” sighs Harry in one of his diatribes. A cynic might say all the great movies are just turned into musicals. But this hourlong, no-frills, script-in-hand evening – with Noah Harrison and Jaina Brock-Patel both strong in the lead roles – suggests Pump Up the Volume could become a musical attuned to a post-pandemic teenage mental health crisis and a new age of disillusionment. The merchandise stall could sell Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi and Black Jack gum. Like Harry says: so be it.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Heathers the Musical review – teenagers safely on the rampage
Defanged for darker times, the cult 80s high-school revenge saga homes in on the universal agonies of growing up and outsmarting bullies

Hadley Freeman

13, Sep, 2018 @11:01 PM

Article image
Heathers review – cult 80s film becomes a candy-coloured musical
The off-Broadway adaptation of the 1988 Winona Ryder/Christian Slater teen movie sorely needs the darkness and social critique of the original

Alexis Soloski

01, Apr, 2014 @11:00 AM

Article image
Teen drag queen musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie to become movie
British stage success’s big screen transfer to be made by Warp Films and overseen by stage director Jonathan Butterell

Catherine Shoard

29, May, 2018 @11:07 AM

Article image
Heathers review – cool kids cult hit even more surreal 30 years on
Winona Ryder and Christian Slater return in this rerelease of a strange and shocking tale of high-school cruelty and bloodshed

Peter Bradshaw

09, Aug, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Michael Lehmann on the legacy of his cult teen film Heathers
While some of the taboo-busting elements of the Winona Ryder-starring film have not aged well, much of its toxicity still resonates

Steve Rose

04, Aug, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Hamilton and Heathers celebrate big wins at WhatsOnStage awards
The winning musicals earn their lead actors prizes, with Company and The Inheritance also among winners

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

03, Mar, 2019 @9:30 PM

Article image
Carrie Dunn on the musical adaptation of cult movie Heathers

Carrie Dunn: The dark comedy, starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, is heading for the stage. Plus, is Andrew Lloyd Webber desperately seeking Dorothy for The Wizard of Oz?

Carrie Dunn

19, Mar, 2009 @12:10 PM

Article image
Tom Hooper to milk Cats musical for movie version
Director of The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl and Les Misérables reportedly keen to cast Suki Waterhouse in big-budget adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage hit

Ben Child

06, May, 2016 @10:26 AM

Article image
Local Hero review – oil-movie gem strikes a salty musical note
Bill Forsyth’s bittersweet comic drama about a Scottish village’s fight with an oil firm sheds its whimsy in this tougher version, scored by Mark Knopfler

Peter Ross

24, Mar, 2019 @11:22 AM

Article image
Groundhog Day: how does Minchin's musical match up to the movie?
Bill Murray’s deadpan misanthrope is now a jock belting out showstoppers. So does this stage replay bring new shine to the quirky love story – or kill a classic?

Ryan Gilbey

18, Aug, 2016 @7:00 AM