‘It feels like there’s more purpose’: Emily Saletan reflects on playing the first gender-bent J.D. in ‘Heathers: The Musical’

June 2, 2021, 11:08 p.m.

When she selected characters on the audition form for Ram’s Head Theatrical Society’s “Heathers,” Emily Saletan ’24 said she checked off J.D. “not really expecting anything.” Now, she’s the first official female rendition of the role — Janie “J.D.” Dean — bringing an entirely new queer narrative and meaning to the musical. 

“It was a dream role of mine, but one that I didn’t think would ever actually get fulfilled,” Saletan said.

Throughout the audition process, she was sure the role would go to someone else.

“One of the reasons I was so sure that it wasn’t going to be me was because it was going to be such a hassle rearranging everything musically because I’m not a tenor, I’m a soprano,” Saletan said. “I walked away thinking it wasn’t going to happen so I was quite shocked when I got the email.”

Co-directors Diana Khong ’22 and Gwen Phagnasay Le ’22 asked Saletan if she was comfortable performing with he/him pronouns. Within the production’s rights agreement, they were not allowed to change the script, including pronouns.

“I [said] that’s fine, I’m presenting as my own gender identity, pronouns don’t equal gender,” Saletan recalled. 

However, Khong and Le reached out to the writers of “Heathers: The Musical,” Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. The writers scripted an official gender-bent version, also including small tweaks to the canonical version that will professionally debut in the West End this summer. 

Saletan recalled her excitement at receiving the rewritten script titled “Female J.D. Rewrite for Stanford.”

“I was like, that’s me! I sent a screenshot to all my friends,” she said. 

While it was a dream role for her, J.D. is not Saletan’s first time portraying a gender-bent character. She previously played Lysandra, a female version of Lysander, one of the four lovers in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“One thing that I really like about gender bending and the two experiences that I’ve had with it … is that a lot of the time I feel like queer characters are written for the purpose of being queer.” As a result, the personality of queer characters often revolves around their gender and sexuality rather than being “fully-fleshed out,” Saletan explained. 

In contrast, genderbending takes a fully-developed character and adds the nuance of a queer relationship. As Saletan explains, “it impacts the story, but it’s not the [sole] purpose of the story.”

Concurring with the directors and creative team, she said she was really excited to take the popular character J.D. and take on the challenge of portraying J.D. as a queer figure. Especially after all the work invested in re-imagining the relationship as between two women, there was pressure to execute the gender-bend in a convincing manner.

For Saletan, one of the greatest challenges was creating an authentic and nuanced representation of the relationship, since portraying “theatrical intimacy with your scene partner is so hard when you can’t even look them in the eye.”

However, the directors prioritized “giving us the time that we needed to face each other and feel it out,” Saletan said. Jang and she both took the portrayal of the relationship very seriously — “maybe a little too seriously,” Saletan said, “but I think we both cared a lot about it and that made us feel safe going all in.”

She also added that pre-recording the audio made singing J.D.’s part more feasible. 

“I don’t know if I could have sung it live every night,” Saletan said. “It’s complicated music, but it’s also really hard vocally, especially trying to sing down the octave,” she explained. 

And viewers certainly agreed that despite the inherent limitations of virtual theater, “Heathers” was an engaging and innovative experience. 

“‘Heathers’ presents a lot of the hypermasculine and hyperfeminine cliches of high school,” Saletan explained. Navigating the new implications of a female J.D. on the character’s relationships with other cast members brought new meaning to J.D. and the musical for the cast and viewers alike. 

For instance, with the toxic masculinity of football jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly (played by Cainan Cole ’20 M.S. ’21 and Dylan Moore ’24), “J.D. has to be masculine enough to pose a threat to them but she also retains enough of her femininity to kind of unseat the stereotypical” representation of power dynamics and perceptions of beauty in “Heathers,” Saletan said. 

She said it was “fun to look at something through a new lens” and discover some of the new meanings that emerge with the gender-bend, even unintentionally. 

J.D.’s relationship with her father also takes on a new meaning in this light, Saletan emphasized. 

“Even before [the rewrite], J.D.’s dad runs this hypermasculine, explosion business,” Saletan said. With the queer reimagining, they considered the new implications of the toxic masculinity of Bud Dean, J.D.’s father, and the absence of a maternal figure on J.D.’s actions and personality. The line from Bud Dean wishing for “a real boy” highlights the toxic dynamics J.D. was raised in, Saletan explains. 

“I think it added more nuance to the story,” she said. While J.D. and Veronica have always been outsiders, the added dimension of gender identity in the already hyper-sexualized landscape of “Heathers” made J.D.’s actions more understandable for Saletan.

“It’s more desperate. It feels more human, to me, it feels like there’s more purpose,” Saletan said. 

As an actor, she said playing J.D. was easier with the new gender and power dynamics on which to draw to understand the character’s motivations. 

While Saletan mused that it’s fun to play a villain, she also acknowledged the dangers of romanticizing J.D.’s relationship with Veronica (played by Junah Jang ’24). Looking back on the show, she said the directors wondered if they should have made J.D. more unlikable. 

“You can’t stray too far to either side. You have to believe that Veronica can fall in love and stick with this crazy person, but you can’t just be the charming good guy, there’s something really bad and flawed about how [J.D.] treats the people in their life,” Saletan said.

She also found it difficult to celebrate the reimagined queer representation in “Heathers” given the toxic nature of the relationship.

“There’s a media trope that the queer women always die, the queer women never get a happy ending, and … even though it wasn’t written that way, technically it’s true in our production, as well,” Saletan acknowledged. 

Nevertheless, queer dynamics like J.D and Veronica’s exist in real life. Queer members of the production related to the “whirlwind queer relationships,” Saletan said. 

Khong, Le and Kyla Figueroa ’24 expanded on the show’s portrayal of love and college culture, drawing parallels between toxic high school dynamics in “Heathers” and problems at Stanford. 

According to Saletan, while she recognized that adulthood doesn’t magically endow someone with the wisdom and competency to have all the solutions, there was a frustration in “Heathers” with the ability, or lack thereof, of administrators like the character Miss Fleming to handle students’ grief that is reflected in Stanford’s own campus culture. Echoing the perspective of the directors, she hoped “Heathers” would promote necessary conversations about isolation, identity and belonging at the University. 

Beyond Stanford, Saletan hoped “Heathers” would help facilitate discussion about sexual assault, gun safety and the experiences of gender-marginalized individuals, especially people of color. Khong and Le “didn’t want to do another all-white production of Heather’s, and I’m hoping that is a change that continues to circulate through Rams’ Head,” Saletan said.

Now, “there is an official rewritten script with the blessing of the composers,” Saletan said, and “if it’s been done before, there’s a higher chance of it happening again.”

Kaushikee Nayudu '24 is The Daily's Editor in Chief. Contact her at knayudu ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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