Features

“Lucky Stiff”

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s First Collaboration, Lucky Stiff,
Comes to the Screen

        By Ellis Nassour

Long before the acclaim and Tony and Drama Desk Awards Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty received for Ragtime, their Tony nominations for Once on This Island, followed by and then My Favorite Year, Seussical, and The Glorious Ones, there was their first musical, Lucky Stiff, their 1988 show which played at Playwrights Horizons and went on to become a cult classic – almost in the league of Rocky Horror Show – and produced everywhere.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s First Collaboration, Lucky Stiff,
Comes to the Screen

        By Ellis Nassour

Long before the acclaim and Tony and Drama Desk Awards Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty received for Ragtime, their Tony nominations for Once on This Island, followed by and then My Favorite Year, Seussical, and The Glorious Ones, there was their first musical, Lucky Stiff, their 1988 show which played at Playwrights Horizons and went on to become a cult classic – almost in the league of Rocky Horror Show – and produced everywhere.

Now, finally, it comes to the screen [Branded Film, New Oz Productions], directed by two-time Tony and six time DD nominee Christopher Ashley (Memphis, Xandau, All Shook Up, Rocky Horror Show revival, Jeffrey). [Ashley is also artistic director of the LaJolla Playhouse.] It opens here Friday and is also available On Demand.

Lucky Stiff is based on the 1983 English novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo by Michael Butterworth. Ahrens, book browsing, found a copy and became enamored of the long out of print book. In its Playwrights inception, it won the duo the Richard Rodgers Award. In 1997, following a regional U.K. premiere, it played the West End.

The film’s a quite glitzy trifle [only 79 minutes] – a bold in-your-face old-fashioned musical farce with plot twists galore. Inevitably, it’s often compared to the comedy Weekend at Bernie’s.

Ahrens and Flaherty are just now seeing the final print. "We were in Germany working on Rocky when we saw a rough cut," she recalls. "We were laughing hysterically. It was quite a moment of us, so surprising to suddenly see something we’d only seen onstage. We were quite impressed with Christopher’s visual take."

There are a couple of big additions to the film, "When we did the production at Playwrights," recalls Flaherty, "we had four musicians. The film orchestra was made up of 35! And we wrote a title song, which you hear as part of the finale."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After playing the Montreal World Film Festival last year, Lucky Stiff hit the festival circuit. The duo are executive producers and were involved in all aspects of the film from casting to recording sessions. "If it was done by a big studio," Ahrens admits, "I doubt if we’d been executive producers. We didn’t care about the money, we just wanted to make a film that closely followed our musical."

"Wait!" laughs Flaherty. "Did I hear you correctly? We didn’t care about the money?"

"I didn’t really say that, did I," replies Ahrens. "But, really, it was all about people believing in us and our show. It was a wonderful opportunity. The result is so satisfying."

The novel is set in a much earlier period. "Christopher and I discussed moving the time period to the late 60s and early70s," says Ahrens.

"However, Christopher and Lynn used a lot of throwbacks to those 30s scatterbrain film comedies," Flaherty points out. "Stephen Sondheim came to one of our earliest presentations. Afterwards, he said, ‘I can see an Ealing comedy here.’ The film brings back a lot of the manic comedy of that era in British movies."

Ealing, Britain’s oldest continuously working studio, dates to 1931. It was best known for such classic post-WWII madcap comic gems as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955).

"Lucky Stiff is an independent film," says Ahrens, "but you’d never believe it when you see what Christopher has managed to do, and on a minimal budget. I never thought it possible to make such a gorgeous film with so little money. From the standpoint of costumes alone, I don’t know how he did it."

The duo met Ashley when he directed the first national tour of their Seussical. "It was such a pleasure working with him," Flaherty says. "Christopher knows how to tread tricky territory. He knows that some things that work in theater don’t work in film. He’s a wonderful comedy director, but he also understands people. So, he’s great with actors."

"Christopher and I really opened the film up," says Ahrens. "He did such a really fun take on the script. He even added some animation elements. There was lots of collaboration. I admired how good he was with the visual references. He’s such a craftsman in all areas."

Video Trailer "Lucky Stiff"

The composers note that longtime casting director Tara Jane Rubin was a huge asset in perfectly selecting the right actor for the right role.

The cast boasts an incredible star roster: Tony and DD winner and Seinfeld alumnus Jason Alexander, Tony winner Nikki M. James (Book of Mormon),U.K. stage classical actor [Royal Shakespeare Company] and TV star Dominic Marsh [in his film debut], two-time Tony and a DD nominee Jayne Houdyshell [recipient of a 2013 Special DD Award], Pamela Shaw, Denis Farina {his last role], Don Amendolia, and former Miss America Kate Shindle (Legally Blonde, Wonderland; a producer on A Christmas Story).

There are cameo appearances by Cheyenne Jackson as a thin-mustachioed Monte Carlo emcee; and the always memorable Mary Jo Catlett (Ernestina, original Hello, Dolly). There’s even a bit in the film by Eric Idle.
Greg Gardiner is choreographer, assisted by Joey Pizzi, who worked with the composers and Ashley on the Seussical tour.

In a nutshell, Lucky Stiff is about a luckless bachelor, Harry (Marsh), stuck in a dead end job as a shoe salesman who’s suddenly heir to six million dollars from a late uncle he never knew. But there’s a catch: He must travel to Monte Carlo to claim his fortune – and not alone. A wheel-chair bound unlucky stiff is his travel companion. A motley, manic group of characters descend on him [think the Marx Brothers at their Zaniest]. Then, there’s not-so-manic but determined Annabel (James), from Brooklyn’s Universal Dog Home, who’s determined to get her hands on the money. Between farce and a couple of power ballads, love blossoms.

When it came to casting Annabel, the composers state that there was no thought of color-blind casting. "We went with the best person," says Ahrens. "We looked at all sorts of actresses who could sing. What impressed us about Nikki was how grounded in reality she was. It didn’t hurt that she has this incredibly sweet voice and a great screen presence."

Jason Alexander had heard of the musical, but never saw it. He says he was drawn to doing the movie "because A) I love musicals, B) I love movie musicals, and C) I love movie musicals that come from the theater."

Veteran stage, film, and concert star Pamela Shaw, who plays wild ‘n crazy ‘n’ sexy Rita La Porta, the nearsighted Atlantic City showgirl, was no stranger to the role. In her native Australia, she’d performed it three times.

Ahrens discovered the novel totally by accident. "I was at the public library and there was a bin of books for sale. The title sort of grabbed me. I picked it up. I was laughing reading the first paragraph. I paid a dollar. It had long been out of print, but we tracked down Mr. Butterworth. Fortunately, for us, the rights were available."

There’s some news of Ahrens and Flaherty’s other musical project, Rocky. "It’s undergone some revisions and we’ll be opening it again in Germany soon. There’s All sorts of talks about touring here, but at this stage it’s just that, talk."

Ahrens and Flaherty met in a 1982 BMI musical theater workshop. "It was like the song from South Pacific," she laughs. "‘You may see a stranger, across a crowded room and somehow you know.’ I liked what Stephen was presenting."

"We were starting out on a journey," states Flaherty. "Our styles were wildly different. I meticulously scored everything out. Lynn improvised. She was and is a very clever wordsmith. Our first time working together was some enchanted evening. We became friends, seeing each other again and again."

Ahrens is happily married and Flaherty happily partnered for 25 years and considering marriage. "You’re actually already married," kids Ahrens. "Common law married. Isn’t it considered ‘marriage’ after seven years?"

Both agree their collaboration relationship has been nothing short of a mutual love affair. That’s not to say things were always idyllic.

"Far from it!" she says. "For three decades, there’s always been a battle royal over words and music. The never ending challenge of writing for the theater is what keeps our collaboration thriving. It helps that we like each other."

They agree that collaborating for over 30 years leads to more than just a working friendship. "We’re like brother and sister," Ahrens says. Counters Flaherty, "And fight like brothers and sisters! There’ve been a couple of times when we wanted to throw objects at each other."

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