Matinee Memories: Celebrating Thirty Years of Theatrical Collaboration.
This past weekend, at the the Broadway night spot 54 Below, the composing team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty celebrated 30 years of collaboration as a songwriting team. A plethora of Broadway stars, including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Rebecca Luker, and a host of others, came out to celebrate the duo and perform songs from the Ahrens & Flaherty canon.
The two met in 1982 at a workshop for budding muiscal theater writers, wrote their first song the following year, and have been a team ever since. They may not be as well known as Rodgers & Hammerstein or Kander and Ebb, but they should be. They are my favorite musical writers of all time. Disclaimer:: I am lucky enough to know them, and I also run their Facebook page ( just for fun, not for money). But, I fell in love with their work long before I ever knew them as people.
I first encountered them, I thought , when I saw the touring production of their first Broadway show, "Once On This Island" while working as a volunteer at The Kennedy Center in 1992. I had never heard of the show, but free tickets were offered, and I was not one to refuse. When I took my seat in the theater, I was unprepared for the seismic shift that would occur in both my brain and my soul that afternoon. The show is based on the novel My Love, My Love, buy Rosa Guy, and is essentially a Caribbean re-telling of "The Little Mermaid". The sets and costumes were spare and simple; there were no famous actors in the cast. So , what struck me most about the show that day was the absolute perfect marriage of words and music. The show ran only 90 minutes, and not a single word or note seemed extraneous or unnatural for the characters singing them The show was at times funny, at times heartbreaking, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was the first time I realized that good theater, at its essence, must start with good writing. My theatrical "a-ha" moment, as Oprah might say. I knew that day that these people, whoever they were, had a talent and an uncanny ability to connect to the human spirit. I had to know more. When I opened my Playbill to see who had written the show, I was amazed to Iearn that Lynn has been responsible for many of the "Schoolhouse Rock" educational cartoons that had been a huge part of my childhood. As I often explain to people now, she was a hero of mine before I ever knew her name.
After the revelation of "Once On this Island", I decided to unearth everything I could about Ahrens & Flaherty. I discovered their first off-Broadway show, "Lucky Stiff " on CD. It's a farce with a complicated storyline, but the lyrics are so descriptive and specific that you can easily discern the plot by listening, even if you have never seen the show. Songs like "Nice " and Times Like This" are great examples of how an Ahrens and Flaherty song can crack you up and break your heart at the same time. And, though the show was first produced in 1988,a " Lucky Stiff movie is" forthcoming, starring Tony winners Nikki M. James, and Jason Alexander, of Seinfeld fame. Next up was "My Favorite Year", based on the Peter O'Toole movie of the same name, and the first of four collaborations with Lincoln Center Theater. Sadly, this show didn't last very long on Broadway, but I find the score charming, and tuneful, espescially compared to most of what passes for "Broadway" these days. This is also the show for which Andrea Martin, a recent Tony Winner for "Pippin", won her first Tony. Give the CD, particularly the song "Professional Show Business Comedy", a listen and you'll know why.
In 1998, Ahrens and Flaherty had their own favorite year, winning a Tony for their score for "Ragtime", based on the classic novel by E.L. Doctorow, undoubtedly their best known work to date. Reviewing the show for The New Yorker, critic John Lahr said:
"Tying it all musically together is the towering quasi-operatic score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Theirs is a monumental achievement that captures the flamboyance and romantic bravura of the ragtime era. But beyond the obligatory homage to Scott Joplin, the music also vibrates with its own metaphors to express the rage of economic hardship, the reforms of political unrest, as well as the soaring declarations of love and hope that also mark this rapidly changing time. It isn't such a bad thing that the broad sweep of Flaherty's music and the depth of Ahrens lyrics evokes a feeling of Americana that we haven't heard since Gershwin's Porgy and Bess."
If you haven't heard the score for "Ragtime", trust me, you are in for a musical feast. To my mind, there is not a weak song in the score. The opening number consistently gets ranked among the best in Broadway history, and the glorious, soaring melodies of "Back to Before" , "Wheels of A Dream", and"Make Them Hear You", will astound you
While they were composing the "Ragtime" score, Ahrens & Flaherty were simultaneously making their first foray into animated movies, providing the songs for the 20th Century fox film, "Anastasia". They went on to earn two Academy Award and two Golden Globe nominations for their work on the film. A stage version of "Anastasia" is currently in development.
After the thrilling success of "Ragtime" came the unexpectedly difficult journey of "Seussical", a show that was one of the first to get skewered over the internet. It lasted a scant seven months on Broadway, but the post-Broadway success of the show is a phenomenal story of theatrical redemption. In the first year that the amateur rights for "Seussical" were released, there were over 600 productions across the United States, and to this day, it remains one of the most performed musicals in the country. There was also a successful off-Broadway production produced by Theaterworks, USA that is still touring. Most recently, there was a production at Newtown high school, featuring over 80 children affected by the disaster at Sandy Hook Elementary. The show was a resounding success and a true testament to the healing power of theater.
I have really only scratched the surface of the Ahrens & Flaherty canon here. Other shows include, "A Man of No Importance"," Dessa Rose", and" The Glorious Ones", all produced by Lincoln Center Theater. What I appreciate most about all their scores is that no show sounds like any other. Every show is musically faithful to the place and time in which it's set. The songs are written for specific characters in specific circumstances. As Brian Stokes Mitchell said in a recent interview:
"What I love about them," he says, "is not only are they some of the nicest people you'll ever meet, but they really know how to craft a song, and do it artfully and with humor and with wit…" From the stage on Thursday night, he put it more succintly, "They put the 'art' in 'heart'".
Luckily, even after 30 years together, Ahrens and Flaherty have no intention of slowing down. Indeed, 2014 may be their biggest year ever. The musical adaptation of "Rocky" opens in February at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater. Yes, "Rocky". I went to Germany last year to see the world premiere in Hamburg, and it was incredible. The score is tuneful and moving, and the climactic fight scene is probably the most exciting fifteen minutes I have ever spent in a theater. I truly believe that audiences are going to fall in love with the show and the characters all over again.
And, following close behind "Rocky" will be an "Little Dancer". an original musical inspired by the famous Degas sculpture. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, that show is scheduled to premiere at the Kennedy Center next October.
I hope, if you are not familiar with Ahrens & Flaherty, I have whet your appetite. If you are familiar with only the more well-known shows, listen to one of the smaller ones (Dessa Rose is a personal favorite) . They are all wondrously crafted. I find something new every time I listen to any of their CDs (which is often!)- an internal rhyme I had not noticed before, or musical motifs hidden in unexpected places.
Clearly, I am slightly biased. I am one of the lucky few whose heroes have become friends. The story of how that came to pass could fill at least another five blog entries. But, I would not call them either if their work had not affected me so profoundly from the day I first stumbled on it and nearly every day since then.