Why Heathers director Andy is a ‘proud father’ to a cast of thousands
Jewish Telegraph, September 2023
AS any obsessive Heathers The Musical fan will know, the opening line of the hit show is “September 1st, 1989, Dear Diary”, so what better time for Mike Cohen — who has seen it performed more than 10 times at London’s The Other Palace and on tour — to speak to its director Andy Fickman about his life and career
ANDY Fickman is a proud father not just to his two children — 26-year-old Austin and Georgie, four — but to the countless actors with whom he has worked on his myriad of projects.
Andy has directed many films and TV shows, featuring the likes of Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, The Rock, John Cena, Kevin James and Kristen Bell, yet for a whole generation, he is one of the men behind cult classic Heathers The Musical.
On Sunday, the show will have its last two performances at The Other Palace in London, although the tour, featuring a separate cast, will continue until November.
Proud Texan Andy describes all the casts as one big family. He told me: “I do feel like a proud father for all of them. So many people have made their professional debuts on Heathers.
“Hannah Lowther (who became a TikTok sensation while working at Tesco and then became the first person to play all three Heathers), I knew her material, I watched her videos when she was doing them during the pandemic. So when it came time to cast, we were like, ‘Let’s check her out because she’s incredibly talented’.
“Becca Wickes, who was our first Veronica on our first tour during the pandemic, had posted herself singing on YouTube. And one of her close friends, Chris Parkinson, who’s our assistant choreographer now and has played almost every role in Heathers over the years, was tagged.
“And Sophie Isaacs, who was our original Heather McNamara, I got tagged in this YouTube video of this random girl. And she’s great.
“I sent it to writers Kevin Murphy and Larry O’Keefe and producer Paul Taylor-Mills, and we were like let’s find her.
“And the fact that she went from being seen on a YouTube video to starring in Heathers, you can’t help but feel proud for your ‘kids’.
“Hannah is on the SpongeBob tour now, and I get very excited and proud of all the past cast members — Jamie Muscato doing Moulin Rouge, Carrie Hope Fletcher starring in everything . . . I just am happy and proud. And we always see Heathers as a family and I truly believe that.”
Andy’s ‘extended family’ also includes Hollywood stars The Rock, Kristen Bell and Dove Cameron.
The 59-year-old recalled an amusing incident with film star The Rock — real name Dwayne Johnson — and his mother Ruthie.
“Dwayne is one of the nicest human beings on the planet,” Andy said. “He sent a video to my mom wishing her a happy 90th birthday. My mom considered Dwayne her son. He’s always been so kind.
“We were playing the video for her on the computer and my wife (Kristen Guru), is videotaping my mom watching Dwayne singing Happy Birthday and he calls my mom Mama Ruthie.
“And my mom thinks it’s a FaceTime. So she’s talking to Dwayne not realising it’s on tape and we sent that video to him and Dwayne put it online, saying “Here’s my Mama Ruthie and that blew up and got a bajillion views and Entertainment Tonight and all these people came out to do stories on my mom.
“So I’ll look back with pride at all those actors who I think I can call on just as friends first and foremost. And then if I get a chance to work with them, it’s even better.”
Singer and actress Dove Cameron has also become extremely close to the Fickman family.
Andy, who founded Oops Doughnuts Productions, directed her in 80 episodes of the Disney Channel comedy Liv and Maddie, where she played both twins.
“Dove makes my heart swell,” he told me. “She texts my wife on a regular basis and our daughter thinks Dove is her sister.
“And any time my wife posts something with our daughter, Dove responds, ‘That’s my kid. That’s my little sister’.
“So any time you see an actor succeed at the next level, and you’ve been a part of their developmental process, you just take great pride.”
He added: “The success Kristen Bell has just makes me cry because I remember her being a student at NYU, when we cast her, and the fact that we might have played a little bit of part of her growth makes me happy because the world deserves to see so much talent.”
Andy was raised by Ruthie and Phil Fickman, in Midland, Texas.
“We were the Jews of West Texas,” he laughed. “In Midland, we were about 16 miles away from Odessa where there was a shul. For all of West Texas, there were a couple of hundred families who would come to that synagogue.
“We had a rotating rabbi who went to various synagogues around Texas. It was always very exciting when he came in. My dad was very active in that synagogue.
“There’s a beautiful book called Pioneer Jewish Texans. When the immigrants were coming over, the majority of the Jews went through Ellis Island, but there was a group of Jews who went to the port of Galveston in Texas.
“And they got off there and were in the shmatte business.
“And so there are a lot of transplanted Jews who have been there for 100 years or more that had just never gone the sort of normal route for many people of New York, or people who had come in to those ports and other ports on the west coast.
“My mother’s family had been on the west coast in Los Angeles for 100 years in the grocery store business whereas my dad’s family ended up in Pittsburgh.
“So being the Jews of Texas, we took a great deal of pride that we were a small but mighty community in West Texas.”
The family moved to Houston in 1974 where there was a large Jewish population.
“We were practising Conservative Jews within the movement,” he continued. “We had a youth group called United Synagogue Youth. And I stayed active in that all through school.
“When I got into college, I became a regional USY fieldworker for the southwest. And for many years I stayed active. I’m still involved from an alumni standpoint.
“It was a great experience, especially when I wasn’t surrounded by a community of Judaism. I met kids from all over the world and that was just fascinating.”
At Texas Tech University, where he graduated in film, Andy was student body vice-president and president of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
He said the leadership roles gave him confidence and helped his creativity.
“It was always like, how do we get someone to come on Saturday night to this havdalla service and then party, and they’ve got 1,000 options that they can do. So we got really creative and would turn havdalla services into concerts.
“I definitely think it prepared me for producing, directing and writing.”
One of Andy’s brothers went backpacking after he graduated from the University of Texas “and he wound up moving to Israel. He stayed in Israel for about 25 years, living in Nahariya”.
Andy’s mother worked as the American liaison in the south-west region to the Consulate General of Israel.
“She was kind of the American in the office covering everything from assistant work to PR to working with various governors,” he said.
Andy studied film at Texas Tech University — and the day after graduating, he headed to Los Angeles to pursue his dream with “five suitcases and $2 to my name”.
His father Phil, who died when Andy was 16 “was a big part of the Midland Community Theatre, so when I was a kid, I was always backstage there, and my dad loved film, television and theatre and really encouraged me in that.
“My whole time in Texas, I always imagined I would go to LA or New York.”
His first job in LA was as a tour guide at Universal Studios.
“I told everybody I was in public relations for Universal Studios,” he laughed. “I didn’t know anything about the business end of Hollywood, and started in the mailroom of Triad Artists Agency that subsequently is now the same agency that’s represented me for most of my career.
“So I went from passing mail out at that agency to being repped at that agency.”
Andy’s film resume includes Who’s Your Daddy?, She’s the Man, The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain, You Again, Parental Guidance, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Playing with Fire and this year’s One True Loves, which is available on Prime Video.
He has also worked extensively in film and TV with comedian Kevin James, who is godfather to Andy’s daughter Georgie.
But what was it like for Andy to find himself working with some of Hollywood’s finest?
“I’d pinch myself every single day,” he said. “We took my mom to her favourite deli in Houston called Kenny and Ziggy’s.
“They have a lot of show posters all over the wall. And I’m there with the majority of my family, and right above our heads is a poster of Billy Crystal from his Broadway show.
“I take a picture of it and I send it the Billy — ‘hey, I’m at your deli, your picture is above my head’ and he sends me back his food order because he likes that deli.
“That’s the moment you pinch yourself because first and foremost I’m a fan. And any actor I’ve worked with, I feel like it’s an honour, because the majority of them have been in front of me as an inspiration so then to be working with them, I thank my lucky stars every day.”
Returning to Heathers, Andy told me: “When you do a project, you always hope you’re just going to connect with your audience. And Heathers has been truly such a blessed event in our lives.
“Since we started we have connected with so many people and have so many repeat viewers. It affects people in different ways.
“So that’s the great joy of doing art in any capacity.”
The success of the show has led to many uber-fans attending in cosplay.
With the final London shows on Sunday, some people are even planning on dressing up as Andy.
“We became really friendly with so many of the people who come in costume because we’ve seen them over the years,” he said.
He told me of one superfan called Izzy who has a costume for every character.
“We give our wonderful costume designer David Shields a hard time because Izzy creates a costume almost identical to what we have on stage within days, sometimes hours.
“We always joke that should we ever have a busted costume, we are just going to call Izzy because she’ll probably have the solution to our problem.”
The idea for turning cult 1980s film Heathers into a musical began around 2005.
“I was editing She’s the Man, and two American producer friends, Andy Cohen and J Todd Harris, had discussed with Dan Waters, the writer of Heathers, and his team the idea of turning it into a musical,” Andy explained.
“I had done a movie turned into a musical based on the old 1930s propaganda film Reefer Madness. And one of my partners in that was Kevin Murphy, who agreed it could be a great musical.
“We had been friends with Larry O’Keefe for ever. And he was coming off the strength of Bat Boy and Legally Blonde. The three of us locked ourselves away to figure out how you turn it into a musical and began working with Dan.”
He added: “We were all big fans of the movie and we felt kind of beholden to make sure we didn’t screw it up.
“We were all massive Rocky Horror Picture Show fans and so the idea of something that people would come dressed up to and take it as their own was exciting.”
The trio workshopped in Los Angeles and New York before staging the show in both cities.
In 2017, they were contacted by Taylor-Mills who “wanted to talk about us doing a reading in London”.
Andy said: “We were looking at what our next route was. We still felt that there was work to be done on the show. And coming to London gave us an opportunity to keep working on it.”
The subject matter in Heathers is pretty dark, dealing with teenage suicides, homophobia, bulimia and bullying in school.
“It certainly was on our mind, especially in the States where school shootings are sadly a part of daily living,” he told me.
“There were certain people who felt like the show was too dark and you couldn’t go there. But we had the opposite response that the importance of the subject material warranted that you should go there.
“We also worked very hard to end the show with a great deal of hope.”
Every cast change has seen the new performer put their own spin on their characters.
Andy said he didn’t want the performers to just copy Winona Ryder or Christian Slater from the film, so he is happy with their interpretations “as long as it stays within the world we’re creating.”
He added that every new cast member gets the same speech from him that the ‘Corn nuts’ (Heathers fans) “know the show better than you do on day one. And when you get on that stage, if you make a mistake, they will know it.
“And so they are there, they’re cheering, they’re waiting for every moment, it’s very Rocky Horror Picture Show in that manner.”
Despite being thousands of miles away, Andy gets regular production reports and he travels to the UK to direct the production when new cast members join.
And with the London production closing and the tour nearing its end, what does the future hold for Heathers?
“I, as a director, and Kevin and Larry, we never quite know what’s the next part of the journey,” Andy said.
“Had you told us when we were closing in New York that we would be opening a second life in the UK going on five years now, we would not have believed you because it wasn’t in our way of thinking.
“We know that Heathers continues to find new audiences and, as a director, I know I’m not done with it and neither are Kevin and Larry.
“Where it will be or when it would be or how it would be and what year it would be, I have no idea.”
Not content with one hit show in London, Andy recently worked on the musical Halls at the Turbine Theatre.
The comedy follows the occupants of 15B at a university’s halls of residence in their first year.
Andy discovered the musical, written by Jennifer Harrison and George Stroud, during the Covid pandemic.
He saw a video online of the song 15B featuring Sophie Isaacs and Olivia Moore.
“Rich Morris, who was one of our music supervisors for Heathers, was involved. And I ended up having a meeting with George and Jen, and one of the producers.
Halls was workshopped before Taylor-Mills suggested staging a reading at the Turbine.
Earlier this year, it was staged as a work-in-progress at the Turbine, selling out every performance.
“The response was just overwhelming,” Andy said. “And we’re so proud of that cast. So proud of how it came together.
“George and Jen are just brilliant writers. And now, we’ll start conversations about what our next step is. But we feel that there’s a very big bright future ahead for us with Halls.
“I know that I want the next version to be a full production. And maybe we’ll do an out-of-town tryout as well.”
Andy said he found Halls relatable to his own experiences at university.
“Going away to uni is for anybody that first time you’re away from home,” he said. “For many people that first time you’re on your own; the first time you have roommates; and we said that it always comes down to ‘who drank my milk?’.”
Andy is a big fan of London’s theatre world.
He explained that in New York, the more money you spend on a production, the fewer risks you can take.
“What I adore about working in England is you have brilliant actors, and remarkable theatres and opportunities to put shows on that you just don’t get in other areas.
“The other big thing is theatres in New York are traditionally not driven by locals. It’s driven by tourists.
“So our biggest Broadway seasons tend to be summer and late autumn from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve.
“We don’t do panto in the United States. So if you’re in New York for two weeks, you’re seeing Frozen, Les Mis and Hamilton. To get an audience you’re having to compete against all those shows.
“What I love about England is people really love going to see theatre. And so it’s not driven so much by the tourist market.
“In the UK, real audience members are going to see a show. So I have forever fallen in love with the UK for theatre. I am forever telling every producer on other projects, I want to be there.”
Andy and screenwriter wife Kristen are currently taking part in Hollywood’s strike action.
“She’s a member of Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, I’m a member of Directors Guild of America,” he explained.
“Everything’s really on hold. The strike is important because of the framework of being able for everybody to eke out an existence.
“It’s easy to go, ‘well, all these top movie stars make all of this money’. That’s true. But the majority of writers, the majority of directors, the majority of actors are not in that category.
“And for a good majority of them, they’re holding down two or three jobs while they’re doing what they love. And the companies are making a bajillion dollars off that work.”
The Fickmans are currently based in Minnesota as they moved there to shoot a Netflix series just as Covid hit.
“Everything got shut down during the pandemic,” Andy said. “We thought it would be for a few weeks for this Covid thing to go away.
“My wife grew up in Minnesota and my mother-in-law was here. And we had our daughter, and my son was safe in LA. And we were like, well, let’s stay here. And we’ve just never left.”
Andy has three older brothers — Bruce, Alan and Rob.
“Bruce is a labour attorney,” Andy said. “He was one of the counsel for the Steel Workers Association. Alan is a great writer, but he’s also a big engineer in Pennsylvania and helps keep the lights on and hospitals going and Rob is a criminal defence attorney.
“So I have three brothers who help humanity and then me who is a clown and just entertains.”