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Black comedy Heathers might not have been a box-office smash on its release in 1988, but Michael Lehmann’s movie has gone on to become a cult classic, with a clutch of memorable lines and a high-school story that connects with teenagers the world over. The musical version is doing much the same thing, but with a bit more hope, a little less hate, and even more fun - as its director, Andy Fickman, explains to What’s On...

Director Andy Fickman is out of breath. He’s broken off from running two sets of rehearsals for Heathers The Musical - one with the West End cast, one with the touring company - and is scampering around trying to get a phone signal, as well as a bit of quiet, to speak to me about taking the hugely successful show on the road. He says he’s happy to take a break, but it’s evident that he’s happiest when working.
Which is just as well, as he’s a man very much in demand. He helped devise and launch the musical in Los Angeles, then took it to New York, and has been at the helm ever since it transferred to London in 2018, where it proved an instant success and has been running on and off (Covid, you know…) ever since. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s continued to direct movies and TV shows - he’s worked with everyone from Billy Crystal and Bette Midler to Matthew Perry and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. He has one film due for release - One True Loves - and another in pre-production: Tension Ring. Oh, and there’s a brand-new stage musical (13 Going On 30) in the works too. 
“I’m someone who loves to keep working,” he understates cheerily, in an accent becoming more and more mid-Atlantic the longer he spends in the UK. If he had any cowboy drawl from growing up in Texas, then he’s definitely lost it, but the passion for TV and movies that developed during those childhood years has certainly never left him.
“I was a child of the ’80s and all the John Hughes movies were my favourites. I remember seeing Heathers at the movies and was just blown away by the darkness of the comedy and the message. 
“Cut to years later, and [writer] Kevin Murphy and I had just finished doing another cult musical called Reefer Madness and were looking to see what our next project would be. Two producers in Los Angeles called to ask what we thought about Heathers, and I just jumped.” 
The duo tracked down composer and lyricist Larry O’Keefe and got to work, but not before having lengthy discussions about how to tackle the source material and reposition the piece that spawned such quotable lines as ‘greetings and salutations’, ‘how very’, ‘I love my dead gay son’ and ‘Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast?’
“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we would pull off Heathers and what changes we would make. We got very lucky, in that the original movie’s creative team - Dan Waters, who wrote the script, Michael Lehmann, who directed, and Denise Di Novi, who produced it - became wonderful creative partners of ours. So we found a way to do the movie but not end it quite so nihilistically, as there’s not a great deal of hope at the end!
“So it was kind of a dream come true. And all these years later, it’s still a dream come true.”
All these years later is right. The original stage show opened in 2010, and the film came 20 years before that. The movie would largely have been forgotten by now if not for a core cult following that has grown exponentially over the years. 
“When the movie came out, it wasn’t a smash hit, but over the years, aside from launching great careers - Christian Slater, Winona Ryder, Shannen Doherty [all of whom have seen and lauded the stage version] - it has remained a cult film. When we launched the musical it was the same thing - it too started with a cult following, but by the time we shut down in New York, the amateur rights were going left and right.”
During Heathers’ New York run, the cast recorded an album of songs from the show which not only proved hugely popular in the US but across the Atlantic as well. A call from Paul Taylor Mills, from London’s Other Palace Theatre - at the time owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber - saw the show relocate to the UK, much to Andy’s bafflement.
“We were like, honestly? Will anybody in London know anything about this movie? And will they care about the late ’80s in Sherwood, Ohio, the waning years of the Reagan administration, the heart of MTV? Will they connect? 
“What we didn’t realise was that the album we’d done in New York did gangbuster business here as well, and a lot of actors were using songs from the show for auditions. So the audience in London knew the music before they knew the show.
“We started selling out immediately, and our fans, who we call the Corn Nuts, started dressing up in costumes. It took on a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe. That movie is my favourite of all time. Growing up, I went to see it every weekend in Texas, so I loved it. “The cult following started to grow and the UK quickly claimed the show as its own - ‘Heathers is ours’ - and we’re very happy with that.”
Beyond minor alterations to a couple of lines (references too obscure for UK audiences), the musical stayed the same after crossing the pond. The bigger differences are between the stage and movie versions, with the former adding an element of hope to the latter’s pitch-black plot. Andy and his team were determined not to water down the potential horrors of the student experience, even in the wake of high school violence witnessed in the years since the film was made.
“In the States we unfortunately live day to day with school violence, and we didn’t want to shy away from that. I always think one of art’s great opportunities is to put [that kind of thing] in front of people and not hide behind it.
“So we kept the bomb in the school, we kept the violence, but what we did differently - and which Kevin and Larry were really insistent upon - was make sure we ended with an element of hope. We’re not wishy-washy about it; the message isn’t ‘Hey everybody, good people will always win and bad people will be vanquished’. We point out that high school’s never gonna go away; there’s always gonna be challenges, there’s always gonna be assholes and horrible people - but if you’re a good person and you stand together, there’s a chance you can make it a little better.”
Andy is determined to make things better for the UK theatre scene too, with in-progress musical 13 Going On 30 set to launch here rather than in his homeland.
“What I love about the UK, having been here since 2017 on and off, is that there’s such a tremendous core of acting talent that every time I read a new script, I’m like ‘There’s 20 people I can think of for this right now.
“The reception to Heathers has been so lovely that I want to experience that again and again. As long as your country will have me, I will be happy to be here.”

by Steve Adams

Heathers The Musical shows at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tues 19 - Sat 23 September.