IN August 2021, Leeds Grand Theatre became the first theatre in the world to host a touring production of Heathers The Musical.
Next week, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s American high-school black comedy reports back for a new term in Yorkshire, this time at the Grand Opera House, York.
Welcome to Westerberg High, school year 1989, where Veronica Sawyer is just another nobody dreaming of a better day. When she joins the beautiful, mallet-wielding, impossibly cruel Heathers, her dreams of popularity may finally come true.
Enter mysterious teen rebel Jason ‘JD’ Dean to teach her that it might kill to be a nobody, but it is murder being a somebody.
Playing JD, the Christian Slater role in Michael Lehmann’s savagely satirical cult teen movie, will be Jacob Fowler, whose path to stardom brings girl group Little Mix into his story.
“I’d gone to Trinity Laban Conservatoire to study musical theatre for three years, but I ended up putting my studies on hold, just before Covid, to do the Little Mix The Search talent show – and I actually won the competition!” he says.
More precisely, singer and pianist Jacob was part of the group Since September, put together to compete in the contest.
“The prize was to support Little Mix on their Confetti Tour of UK arenas. I’ve never known an experience like it when you just don’t get to do that as an average person growing up in Nottingham!
“Then in between doing the TV show and the Little Mix tour, I got my contract as first cover JD in the ensemble for Heathers.”
Jacob had first seen Heathers in his drama student days on a gala night at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and did so again in his home city in September 2021. Two months later, he was in the cast. “After only five shows, the actor playing JD had to go off and ended up being off for two weeks. He came back for a few days but then left the show,” Jacob recalls.
“I did 125 shows in that first contract, 26 as The Geek, and 99 as JD, which meant the first night of the new tour at Windsor Theatre Royal was my 100th show as JD…on Valentine’s Day! The 200th show will be while we’re in York.”
Produced by impresario Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills and directed by Andy Fickman, the tour carries the warning: “This production contains mature themes including: references to suicide and eating disorders; moments of violence; murder; sexual violence; gunshots and flashing lights.”
“It’s that age-old thing of now being more relevant than it’s ever been, dealing with homophobia and fat phobia too. Apart from racism, it touches on all these horrible things we have in society.
“You hope that with homophobia, for example, maybe some progress has been made but it’s still not enough.”
Jacob considers high-school outsider JD, symbolically always dressed in black, to have the best story arc in Heathers. “As a storyline, as a character, he has this depth, starting as a cheeky chappie, not falling for the idiots,” he says. “But then he falls in love and becomes manipulative, though he always thinks he’s doing the right thing.
“Even at the end, he’s saying ‘let’s build a better world’ with Veronica. When he sings, ‘I’m damaged, badly damaged, once I disappear, clean up the mess down here’, I take it that this is his slight redemption. It’s more of a plea, saying, he knows what he’s done, but please change.”
Jacob talks of himself as being part of “this little group of JDs, because only 15 people have played him or understudied the role”. “From the outset, I take a lot from Jamie Muscato, who I saw on that gala night performance. He was the original JD in London, and there’s that thing that you can’t beat the first person you saw in a role,” he says.
“In fact, I’ve now met or messaged pretty much everyone who’s played JD. I’ve even messaged the original Broadway JD, Ryan McCartan, and his understudy, Dan Domenech.
“I loved the way Jamie played and sang it in London; That was my grounding, my blueprint, but of course there’s a part of any actor that can’t help but put themselves in any performance. For mine, I like to go down the line of the more psychotic JD, rather than a naturalistic one.
“Where others play him as always behaving like he’s 17, I play him with jolts and head ticks to make him look psychotic. I just started doing that, and now people come up after a show and say, ‘go on, do your head tick’!”
Jacob will be on tour in Heathers until the last week of October. “I often say to people, and it’s a sombre thing to say, but I don’t think there’ll ever be a role like this for me again – and I’m saying that when I’m only 23,” he says.
“It just happens to be that my dream role is someone so young, someone who gave me my break in musical theatre and is such an incredible role to play. Though hopefully I’ll have the chance to play the Phantom [in The Phantom Of The Opera] one day.”
Where was Jacob when he was 17? “I was at Trinity Catholic Scool in Nottingham, studying Music, Technolgy and Drama A-levels – all very ‘musical’ things!” he says.
On the Heathers scale, was he a “nobody” or a “somebody”? “I was headboy! The first head boy the school had ever had. We got a new head teacherwho brought in having a head boy or head girl for the first time,” says Jacob.
“Names were put forward and then the final three had an interview. I remember him ringing me up to tell me when I was in the bath! I think there’s a plaque at the school saying, ‘Jacob Fowler, Head Boy 2017-2018’.
“The year before, when there was no official title, the equivalent role went to Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the international cellist, and I thought it was very, very cool to follow him!”
Unlike JD, Jacob was never a rebel. “I very much stuck to the rules, though I would never bow down. I wouldn’t take anything from anyone,” he says. “I’ve never liked authority, which sounds like I’m stubborn and might not fit in with being head boy – but if someone can’t justify something, then I’d challenge it, but I’d always play by the school rules at 16-17.
“It was at such a good school, a normal state school, with such a good music department, and I was lucky to go there. I’m a real advocate for music and theatre in schools. They’re so important.”
Heathers The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, May 9 to 13, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york
Copyright of The Press, York
Did you know?
MAY Tether, the York Stage favourite of Goole roots, has performed opposite Jacob Fowler in Heathers The Musical in London.
“May was at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in the year above me, so I knew her already,” says Jacob. “She moved up from ‘cover Veronica’ on the first tour to playing Veronica at The Other Palace with me as JD.”