Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? On Riverdale, the answer can be and is as simple as: Yes.
Look no further than Riverdale High School’s drama club for proof. In season 2’s gruesome one-night-only production of Carrie: the Musical, poor Midge Klump (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Emilija Baranac) was murdered by a sinister serial killer right before going on stage. How do you follow a plot twist like that? Well, hopefully by not killing anyone else off of the hit CW show—though given the fact that the drama department is tackling Heathers: The Musical this year, a death or two would only be fitting.
To transport the iconic characters of Riverdale into Westerburg High, the show’s writers and directors pulled from both the 1989 movie starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, and the 2010 musical the dark cult classic inspired. And while Riverdale has already put in work to address some of the core issues at the heart of Heathers—homophobia, mean girls, and high-school bullying among them—there’s still more that goes into a musical episode than meets the eye.
So when W traveled to the real-life set of Riverdale on the last day of filming this year’s musical, the cast gathered to reflect on what they’ve learned. For some, Carrie was a dress rehearsal; for others, the rigors of singing, acting, and dancing all at once was totally new. But they all relied on each other to pull through, and to create a world within a world for fans to enjoy. As Heather herself would say, “How very.”
Here, the Riverdale cast explains what went into the making of Heathers: The Musical.
Do you remember your reaction when they announced that the episode was taking on Heathers: The Musical?
Madelaine Petsch (Cheryl Blossom): I found out because Cheryl says in the previous episode, “I’m playing Heather Chandler and this year’s musical is going to be Heathers.” So I was like, Fuck yeah, this is so cool. I was not familiar with Heathers being a musical at all, but I had more time to figure out what was going on because I had that little bit of dialogue.
Charles Melton (Reggie Mantle): I wasn’t in the musical episode last year. So when I found out that I was going to be in it this year, there’s a lot of anxiety. I was like, Oh shit. I’m going to sing, and I’m going to dance. I made it clear to Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale‘s creator] that I can’t sing but he was like, “No you can sing, it’s gonna be great.”
Ashleigh Murray (Josie McCoy): My first thought was of the Broadway production, actually; a college friend of mine helped with the casting of that. But it’s exciting. You kind of just take what comes with Roberto. He’s always gonna think of something that at first seems outlandish but ends up being so perfect.
Casey Cott (Kevin Keller): I know some of the people that did the most recent production of the musical, too. I knew some of the music was girls belting, but I didn’t know much about what I would be doing.
Vanessa Morgan (Toni Topaz): I’ve seen a little bit of the movie but I never knew there was a musical. I’ve heard of Heathers before. I auditioned for that Heathers TV show, so that’s how I knew about it.
Maggie Kiley (director): I was secretly hoping I would get to direct this episode, but then I got it and immediately regretted my wish. But it’s a great challenge and I love the script. I rewatched West Side Story and pulled tons and tons of images and had touchstones to go to throughout.
Drew Ray Tanner (Fangs Fogerty): I went to a high school where my theater director didn’t do any musical theater. He was more interested in serious theater and drama. Yeah. But deep down I always wanted to do a musical and I never got an opportunity. So this is like, I get to live vicariously through this experience and do something I never got to do as a kid.
Ashleigh Murray: Josie plays Veronica, so it was weird trying to do the table read and remember to read lines that is also the name of somebody else. We don’t really play the character in the musical in the episode so I don’t really have a connection to Veronica, though.
Camila Mendes (Veronica Lodge): We do play with the fact that my name’s Veronica even though I’m not playing Veronica Sawyer. I think it’s Reggie who’s like, “Veronica, you’re looking hot tonight,” and he’s talking to me instead of Veronica Sawyer.
Jordan Connor (Sweetpea): J.D. and Sweetpea have a lot of things in common, they both are just against society as it is. Sweetpea doesn’t really seem the type to sing and dance, so we’ve been playing on the idea that he’s there for Josie.
Were you familiar with Heathers prior to making this episode?
Charles Melton: Johnny Depp was in Heathers. That’s all I know…. Was he not?
Johnny Depp was in Crybaby.
Charles Melton: Crybaby. That’s what I was thinking. Crybaby: The Musical—maybe next year.
Maggie Kiley: I totally knew the movie, but it was fun to go back and watch it. There’s a really specific way they shot that film, so really created an elevated lighting style so you could feel those moments when you’re almost transported out of the high school into the world of the song.
KJ Apa (Archie Andrews): I never really got into musicals. There was never really a moment.
Jordan Connor: I had seen the movie a long long time ago because my parents are big fans of it. But I hadn’t seen it for a long time and then I rewatched it and I just loved it, from the beginning with Winona Ryder’s heading in the grass to the very end.
Ashleigh Murray: It’s just nice watching Winona as really young and quiet and pensive and offbeat, but also really cute and curious. She was really multidimensional for such a young actress. And that’s the only thing that I want to take from that movie because it’s kind of sick.
Lili Reinhart (Betty Cooper): I actually had never seen the movie so I just watched it a few weeks ago for the first time. I didn’t know anything about the musical itself so that’s always fun to discover it all at once rather than having any preconceived ideas about it, kind of like a blank slate.
Drew Ray Tanner: This was my first time, too, so when the script came over I instantly downloaded the movie on iTunes. It’s very abstract, and took me about a few minutes to get into the actual tone of the movie. And once I sort of understood where they were going I fell in love with Winona and I fell in love with Christian Slater; I fell in love with the story.
Ashleigh Murray: Anything with Christian Slater, I always knew I was probably going to be a little scared.
Heathers is a cult-classic. Why do you think it has been so enduring?
Camila Mendes: It’s sharp and really witty, and it’s one of those stories that everyone can relate in the sense of the experience of high school and how much of a hellhole it can be.
Maggie Kiley: It’s the same thing with Riverdale, where it’s like the underbelly of this time that you imagine as being idyllic and perfect, but it’s actually not. It was a refreshing film where you saw this really nasty, edgy, brutal environment and poked fun at it and tried to pull out the beauty of the experience even though it was so hard.
Jordan Connor: They play against all those teen movies of the ’80s. JD starts off with this counterculture idea of like, “Let’s just get rid of the jocks and the popular girls,” and then he turns into a psychopath.
Madelaine Petsch: It was very dark for its time, but also it was fun and dark which doesn’t happen very often. Everybody wants the heroes to kill the villains, and in high school movies that never happens. Yet somehow Heathers still feels like a high school movie and not a thriller or a thrasher.
How does it feel to use the songs as plot points to drive the story forward?
Heather Gray (choreographer): All of these characters have gone through so much so much. It’s just so fitting. Heathers: The Musical is about losing your innocence and trying to get back to just being a normal high school person.
Bernadette Beck (Peaches N’ Cream): It almost hurts my brain, I don’t know how they plan that. It’s so cool how they actually were able to do that and make it work.
Casey Cott: We’re also dealing with a lot of the nostalgia of last year’s episode and the guilt of what happened there, along with the joy and the reasoning for wanting to do this particular musical, so it creates a really fun kind of dramatic playground.
Jordan Connor: The writers gave Sweetpea lines that spoke to his character, and then some other things that are a little twisted and alternate reality, so some things happen out of left field, too.
Lili Reinhart: The songs for this musical were actually really sweet. I really enjoyed the song that that I sing with Cole [Sprouse] in the episode called “Seventeen,” it’s one of my favorite songs. I almost cried because I wasn’t expecting that from him. I knew he had a nice voice, but it was really a wonderful surprise.
Drew Ray Tanner: The music’s wonderful. I really like a lot of the songs, and then just diving into singing them has been challenging. Musical theater singing is a different than just singing in the shower, so I was able to face new things when we were recording it all.
Vanessa Morgan: I sing “Dead Girl Walking” when Cheryl is banning me from the school. She doesn’t want to speak to me anymore and I feel awful, so the songs are so accurate. “Seventeen” is so beautiful, and we’re all 17-year-old high school students, going through some similar stuff that’s in the movie Heathers so I feel like it’s just blended very well.
Camila Mendes: Riverdale does such a good job of choosing which musical we’re gonna do because the musical has to merge with the episode in a way that feels natural to all the characters, not just in the musical but in the episode itself, so I think Heathers is a perfect choice for our show.
Charles Melton: It’s been very interesting, with how the writers found a way to bridge what’s going on with the musical along with our story. The musical plays into everything that’s going on with being a teenager and dealing with teen angst and relationships and different things that are going on.
Lili Reinhart: At the end of the musical, it’s all the kids singing about how they wish they could have normal lives and just be teenagers. And that is so fitting, because I think when you watch the show, the characters don’t have a normal life. They’re dealing with death and horrible parents and solving mysteries and death of classmates.
Drew Ray Tanner: The song that Casey and I get to sing is “Our Love is God.” In the movie, JD says to Veronica, “Our love is God,” and the musical turned that into a song surrounding the two jock characters. But in our show it’s set to the backdrop of a cult indoctrination and it’s very creepy and eerie.
Bernadette Beck: A lot of the songs are emotionally driven and it speaks to that high school angst. Figuring out who you are or dealing with your first heartbreak. I think it allows the viewers to relate and understand, like, Oh, I’m not actually the only person that’s going through this. And to also hear it in song form, I think, is really beautiful.
The choreography in this episode isn’t your standard scene-blocking. What is rehearsal like?
Charles Melton: I don’t dance or sing. It’s been a first-time experience for me. We’re working with Heather, our choreographer, constantly in between takes, in between sets.
Bernadette Beck: Oh my god, I’m not a dancer by nature. I have some sort of rhythm but in terms of choreography and learning steps, that was really overwhelming. I was doing it in my living room with my TV as my reflection.
Casey Cott: The girls are amazing dancers. They’ll be like, “I don’t dance,” but they’re actually incredible. I don’t know what they’ve done, but they’re amazing.
Vanessa Morgan: I’m not used to people just dancing around me, so and I’d lose my step, but I’m getting better. I want to pick up a dance class now just so that when stuff is sprung on us—which happens in Riverdale—I pick up the dance moves.
Lili Reinhart: It was fun to do “Candy Store” with Madelaine and Cami even though they’re both legit dancers and I felt like I was the weakest link. I almost cried in the first rehearsal; I was overwhelmed. But everything fell into place and I actually learned the dance pretty easily. It sank in after a few days.
Madelaine Petsch: I have a dance background, and it’s kind of bringing out my teaching side. I like helping people, and dancing can really help with confidence in your body and confidence in yourself. Vanessa has said before that she can’t dance, but she has danced multiple times on the show phenomenally.
Maggie Kiley: It’s been amazing to watch the guys and the girls who maybe aren’t confident dancers live in it in a real way. But they’re all blowing our minds on a daily basis. I always approach the actors as like, “I’m 100 percent on your team and let’s figure out the best way for you to feel the most comfortable.” We just protected for that.
KJ Apa: I don’t find it that difficult with the dancing and stuff. I feel like rhythmically it’s easy for everyone get down. And Heather [Gray] has been teaching us before work and after work, whenever we have time.
Jordan Connor: I come from a sports background so I was surprised how easily I picked the choreography up, but it’s been really fun.
Heather Gray: Jordan really brought it. He was on all of his choreography. Charles was pretty surprising, he absorbed it pretty quickly. But all of them are definitely doing their best to get it as quickly as possible.
And as for the singing?
Bernadette Beck: I’m not so much a singer but they work with you, they’re super patient and respectful. So whether or not you’re comfortable singing, or you feel like you got a tone, they work with you and they’re able to actually finally get what they need.
Casey Cott: When I got the script I was super excited to see that I got to sing quite a bit. I love singing and I haven’t really gotten to do that on the show yet.
Charles Melton: It’s hard to break the fact that I’m tone-deaf. It’s about finding the confidence to be like, you know what? I’m tone-deaf. I want to embrace and give it my best.
KJ Apa: I mean it’s a lot different for me, and I did not see this coming when I first signed up to the show. But it’s great. It’s a new experience that kind of forces you out of your comfort zone and I’m always down for that.
Maggie Kiley: When I first got the recordings of the songs I was just blown away by their vocals. Lili and Cami and Madelaine… all of them are incredible singers.
Jordan Connor: We recorded stuff for the for the soundtrack and Leonard, the musical director, was like, “Go for it and sing your heart out. We’ll work on it if it doesn’t sound good. We’ll work on the tone and the notes and then get it right, but just have fun.”
Ashleigh Murray: A lot of this stuff that I end up doing for the show is always so different. None of the songs are the same, and I’m always put in a position where I’m not sure if I can sing this song. I feel like the registers just get higher and higher, but it’s exciting.
Lili Reinhart: I’m never gonna pursue a career in singing but I enjoy it, so this is a nice perk. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do it in my acting job without having to pursue an actual music career.
Was there anything you learned in filming the Carrie: The Musical that you used in making this year’s musical episode?
Camila Mendes: Shooting a musical episode is no joke. It’s really hard. And we’re shooting it in the same amount of time that we shoot a normal episode, and trying to work with people who don’t necessarily dance. For a lot of people, it’s new or not a skill that they’re used to using. But the crew foresaw those things, and it has felt smoother this time around.
Casey Cott: It’s kind of like the musicals that are shot for TV: how big do you go? Because if you go too big it looks fake, but if you go too small looks weird. So it’s just finding that happy medium.
Ashleigh Murray: We really have it in us to get stuff done. We were so rushed last year and I think we learned a lot of lessons on how to make us all not go crazy but still pull off something really amazing. This year it doesn’t feel as big of a job, so to speak.
Vanessa Morgan: It’s a lot more chill than last season, just because it’s second time around. So we’re in the swing of things and there’s not as much practice days, which sometimes is a plus and a negative sometimes.
Drew Ray Tanner: I feel like I had a very privileged experience to not have to do any of the work last year. I got to see everybody work hard and do all the dances, and I was like, If I ever do that, I know what it takes and I’ll be a little more prepared.
Madelaine Petsch: None of us knew we were getting into when Roberto said we were doing a musical last year. And now having done that, we know the amount of work that each song takes, and how many rehearsals we need and all that kind of stuff,so we have been able to tailor the experience to what we actually need.
Charles Melton: I didn’t really get any advice other than it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Drew Ray Tanner: I think the biggest thing that everyone told me was that it’s gonna be okay. Don’t stress about it too much. There are so many people there to help you, so lean on them heavily.
Charles Melton: We lift each other’s morale and we’re laughing and joking around in between takes. We’ll play different games like what are the odds, and would you rather, in between sets and actually during scenes, trying to make each other laugh and we see different sides of each other, and seeing who could sing the loudest.
Lili Reinhart: I just was looking forward to it because I knew that I’d be able to work with everyone as a big group. A lot of times we don’t get to do that just because our plotlines are going in different directions.
Madelaine Petsch: We all really made the effort to have one day together and rehearse everything. There’s one dance that was so sharp, I was like, Holy shit, we really did it. I can’t say that for many of the dances from last year; I’m pretty sure I fell off a chair four to five times.
What are you most excited for people to see when the episode airs?
Maggie Kiley: Just the nods to Heathers, however overt or subtle they are. There definitely are some easter eggs planted. We’ve been having fun with that.
Charles Melton: I think the dance numbers. Is that what you call them? The dance numbers. Just looking at the playbacks it’s been like, Wow, this looks really cool. A lot better than what I imagined.
Madelaine Petsch: The croquet mallets are really fun. We had a really fun dance with them as a prop that was there. But we couldn’t do the shoulder pads, because they got in the way. It’s like, Do you want to have shoulders up to your ears when you’re dancing or do you want to have a blazer that fits?
Heather Gray: There’s a duet that happens between KJ and Ashleigh. Maggie wanted to go there and do some lifts, so it’s pretty epic to see KJ do some lifting.
Bernadette Beck: The whole entire musical episode is complete magic, and viewers can potentially sing along to some of the songs, which have amazing lyrics. There’s also just so much drama involved; it’s just so many mountains and hills and valleys.
Ashleigh Murray: It’s going to be as dynamic and entertaining if not more so than the musical episode that we had last year. We have really great dance numbers again, and awesome costumes. It’s almost like a story within a story within a story, that kind of thing.
Casey Cott: There’s this great shot of us on stage together, and it’s rare that we’re all together in a big group. I think that’s really moving.
Vanessa Morgan: Everything just looks bomb. Casey’s hair is all cool and curly-looking like that ’80s style and the girl’s hair look bomb. The outfits are all ’80s. I wish we could dress like that all the time.
Camila Mendes: Our outfits are very Riverdale a la Heathers so they have this interesting way of blending the world and bending the rules a little bit. We’ve got Betty in green and Cheryl in red, so it’s like, this is where Veronica meets Heather.
Jordan Connor: This episode is an opportunity to see that everyone’s going through the same thing despite their differences. There’s also a scene with me and Toni that I can’t wait for people to see. People are going to be shocked.
Lili Reinhart: And the end of the episode is quite chilling—maybe not as extreme as last season with Midge dying but it is extremely, like… goosebumps.
Would you do another musical?
Maggie Kiley: Let’s see how I feel. This is day nine, so. I mean, it’s fun. We’ll see.
Ashleigh Murray: Absolutely. I started out in theater. I have musicals on my iPod. I cry all the time to them. I love musicals. I would absolutely do a full-blown musical. They’re all fun and quirky and I just love the environment of being in a theater.
Camila Mendes: I love a good musical episode. I feel like I’m working every muscle, which is fine. It keeps me busy, keeps me entertained. I haven’t done a musical since high school because in college I pretty much stuck to straight plays so it does feel fun to get back in touch with that side of myself.
Jordan Connor: I did musical theater in high school. My first musical was Guys and Dolls, and then I did Little Shop of Horrors. I hadn’t done I hadn’t done musical theater since then. I was really excited to get back into it.
Casey Cott: I vote to do a classic, like a Gershwin or like a Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Les Mis.
Charles Melton: I mean, never say never but if it’s a part of Riverdale, that’s the only time I’m ever gonna do it.
These interviews have been edited and condensed, with reporting by Ella Ceron.