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Interview: Ahrens and Flaherty

 ONE OF THE GREATEST musical theatre teams fo the modern theatre, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, have amassed a hug canon of songs and shows knownt he world over.  They drop by to talk to us about their new show, The Glorious Ones, now playing at Lincoln Center at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.   The team informs us of where they get their ideas, how they write, and the hardest hitting question: who comes first... Ahrens or Flaherty?

ONE OF THE GREATEST musical theatre teams fo the modern theatre, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, have amassed a hug canon of songs and shows knownt he world over.  They drop by to talk to us about their new show, The Glorious Ones, now playing at Lincoln Center at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.  We hear selections form their past musicals, My Favorite Year, A Man of No Importance, as well as a performance by Marin Mazie of a song form their new show, The Glorious Ones.  The team informs us of where they get their ideas, how they write, and the hardest hitting question: who comes first… Ahrens or Flaherty?

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Broadway Bullet Interview: Ahrens and Flaherty

Broadway Bullet:  Ahrens and Flaherty are possibly the last — hopefully not the last, but at the moment — the last of the great duos that are working on Broadway, consistently.  And they’ve got a new show at Lincoln Center called The Glorious Ones, which is actually their fourth Lincoln Center show, and their sixth with —

Lynn Ahrens:  Andre Bishop.

BB:  Andre Bishop.  And they are in the studio today to chat about their new show and their career and a lot of stuff going on, and Lynn Flaherty, Stephen — Lynn Ahrens (laughter) and Stephen Flaherty.

Stephen Flaherty:  That’s correct. (laughter) Thanks, thanks for having us Michael.

LA:  Thank you.  Everybody gets us confused.

SF:  That’s right.  We’re interchangable.

BB:  No, you are not. (laughter)

SF:  You’d be surprised.  There are certain days when I’m thinking, What should I wear today, and I’ll just happen to put on a blue shirt.  And then we’ll go to an interview, or a session, or whatever, and Lynn will be wearing the identical color of blue, so it’s a little creepy.

LA:  It happens very often. (laughter) It’s making us nervous.

SF:  I know.

BB:  I hope the mess-up doesn’t continue.  I’m trying not to be starstruck here.  You definitely are one of my favorite composition teams; I’ve enjoyed your music for a very long time.

LA:  Thank you.

BB:  I got a chance to do Once on This Island, obviously it was a White cast. (laughter)

LA:  That’s all right.

BB:  And we had a country piano player, who couldn’t quite do the island rhythms, but it was a lot of fun. (laughter)

 LA:  It’s a new interpretation.

SF:  So, I guess the Antilles [the island that is the setting of Once On This Island] via Nashville is what it must have been. (laughter)

BB:  So, before we get into your career, maybe we’ll start off — before people forget — and tell us a little bit about your new musical, The Glorious Ones, which is currently in previews, and opening shortly at Lincoln Center.

LA:  Yes, we just started previews last Thursday, and we open on November 5th.  It’s a crazy show.  It’s very hard to describe.  It’s set in the world of Commedia dell’arte.  And the minute you say that, everybody goes, “Oh, I don’t know what that is,” or, “I don’t care about that world,” but it’s actually a show of comedy, some of it very physical and vulgar.  And it’s also a show of these high emotions, that become universal by the end of the show.  It’s a really, really interesting, and kind of wonderful show.  We’re having a great time.  We have the cast from heaven.  They are phenomenal.

SF:  Yeah.  Actually, we’re very fortunate that a lot of our cast has actually been living and breathing the show for about a year now, because we had our first New York workshop, which was a three-week workshop, last November.  And then, we had a Pittsburgh tryout — my hometown of Pittsburgh — at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, which was a stand-alone engagement this past April and May.  And, so, a lot of these actors have been really living and breathing the characters.  And not only have they informed the writing, but these are very strong personalities — these actors — so a lot of the writing has been tailored towards their special talents.

LA:  To their specialties.  And each one is just amazing.  Every night — I’ve never laughed so much on any show that we’ve ever done.  I’ve been hysterical for about eight months now. (laughter) Just laughing constantly, it’s great.

SF:  The funny thing is, with every production, there’s usually one cut-up in the cast.  You know, one jokester, and on The Glorious Ones, every one of the seven actors happens to be a jokester.  So it’s been very lively during rehearsals, I have to say. (laughter)

BB:  So, definitely having a lot of fun with that?

LA:  Oh, yeah.

BB:  Who came up with the concept for this show?  Did they approach you?  Did you find it yourselves?

LA:  We found it ourselves.  It’s based on a novel by a terrific novelist, named Francine Prose.  And a friend of mine introduced me to the novel a number of years ago, and I always thought it would make a terrific musical.  And I brought it to Stephen, and we’ve been working on it together for a while.  It’s finally coming to fruition.  It’s a wonderful novel, but very difficult to figure out how to do it, so it took us a while, but I think we’ve finally done it to our own satisfaction, anyway.  And that’s how it gestated.  And Lincoln Center has been involved in its development for over several years.  They did a workshop for us, originally, and now they are producing it.  So, we’re thrilled to be there.

BB:  Well, now, I understand there isn’t a cast recording yet, of course, but one of the songs was recorded by Marin Mazzie —

LA:  Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, yeah.  They did the beautiful love duet.  And there are a couple other songs being done by singers, already.  There are some songs in the score that are very stand-alone and quite wonderful, if I do say so myself. (laughter) They’ve been performed and covered and stuff like that.  So, we’re happy about that.

 SF:  And a lot of the songs are actually about the creation of art, sort of what we all do, so obviously actors are really drawn to these songs.  I think a lot of it is the subject matter, too.  So, we’ve been lucky — Marin and Jason have been singing, “Opposite You,” and they’ve recorded it, and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Patti LuPone have both been singing a song called “I Was Here” around town, which is very thrilling.

LA:  Yeah, Stokes just did it at Carnegie Hall, the other night.

SF:  Actually, he didn’t.

LA:  Oh, wait I’m so confused.  He didn’t do it?  He was supposed to do it.

SF:  It was supposed to be his first encore, and apparently, he talked a lot, and so they pulled the plug.

LA:  It happens.

SF:  It almost made it. (laughter)

LA:  Well he planned to, because I rewrote the lyrics for him.

BB:  All right, well, let’s take a moment. and listen to the song here.  We actually grabbed a copy.  So, this is Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley and “Opposite You”.

Listen to “OPPOSITE YOU” on Broadway Bullet Vol. 133

BB:  There always used to be the duos:  Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart —

SF:  Kander & Ebb.

BB: — Kander & Ebb.  The list goes on, and it seems to have kind of stopped with you two.  You guys have written — this is what nine, ten —

SF:  Oh, gosh more.

LA:  I don’t even know.  Ten or eleven or something.

SF:  A lot. A lot of shows.

LA:  Some produced, some unproduced.  We’ve done some film and some television.  All kinds of stuff.

SF:  It’s been great.  We’ve been writing together, gee, almost twenty-five years.

LA:  Almost twenty-five years.

SF:  Twenty-four years, I believe.

LA:  But, in answer to your question, I don’t know the answer to that question.  I mean, I do know that there are some — well obviously, there are some wonderful teams around and working.

BB:  Well, what I’m wondering is: is the corporate pressure there to just kind of audition individuals for newer people, and you were kind of already in the door and established, working together?  I really don’t see — I mean, I see people, of course, who work together —

LA:  There are a lot of young teams, that I’m aware of, who are just trying to get their foot in the door, at this point.  And I think it’s probably — it’s just a function of having the luck to meet someone who you can have a long-term relationship with, as a writing team.  I think that’s really hard.  And I think we were lucky to meet, and lucky that we enjoy working with one another, and it seems to have stuck.  But, I think it’s a really, really hard thing.  And I don’t think it’s the end of collaborations such as ours, but I just think that they don’t happen that often.  And I don’t know why that is, if that has anything to do with the times.  As I said, I do know that there are a lot of young teams coming up who I could name, and they’re very talented.  But I also think that there’s another sensibility creeping into theatre, which is the sort of self-contained composer/lyricist, or, sometimes, the self-contained composer/lyricist/bookwriter.  And you see more of that now — Bill Finn and people like that, who sort of just do their own thing.

SF:  I think one of the challenges of being a writing team, though, is like any good marriage: you realize that you develop as individuals, and at the same time, you are also developing as a team.  So, obviously, your interests and tastes change and morph along the way, and it’s finding that interesting interaction with where you are now that interfaces with your writing partner.  And I think that really leads to exciting work, because I think I wouldn’t have written the same shows, possibly, without Lynn being a part of that.  And certainly, if I had written them either on my own, or with someone else, they would be totally different in sensibility, too.  So I think that’s one of the things that’s great about a writing team, is that it’s not just about my individual contribution, or Lynn’s, or any collaborator’s individual contribution; it’s really about, sort of, the kinetic thing that happens whenever you get creative people in a room together, making something together.

LA:  Yeah, that other eye, that other ear.  That person to slap you around and say, “That’s terrible.” (laughs)

SF:  The interesting thing is, when I met Lynn — Lynn has written music, as well as lyrics, and I’ve written lyrics, as well as music — and when we met, I was actually writing my own lyrics at the time, sort of by default.  And I thought, Gee, I really need to shake this up a bit.  I was much more from the classical world, and Lynn was from the improv world, and it was great to see how those two ways —

LA:  Not improv as in “improv.” I was a —

SF:  She wasn’t stand-up (laughter), but the idea of taking a loose idea and throwing it into the room, and saying, “Hey, let’s play with this.”  I never, until that point, had written with somebody else in the room, at the same time.  A lot of people find that interesting.  Like, how can you write on the spot, and it’s basically, we’re in the dark, trying to find our way to a musical moment, or to an emotional moment together, and it’s the old thing: is it the words first, or the music?  And it’s both, and sometimes, it’s both at the same time, which is really great when that happens. That’s always exciting.

LA:    I came from the world of jingles, and I did a little show called, “Schoolhouse Rock,” and I did a lot of televison work, and that’s a world where just you go into a room, you sit at a piano, you bang on the keys, and say, “What do you think of this?  Bang, bang, bang!  What do think of that?”  And you sort of make it up on the spot, and Stephen is from a very different discipline.

SF:  I used to wear black, and I had a beard.  I would lock myself in a little teeny hovel, and stay in there until profound — or not so profound — thoughts would hit me.  And then I’d emerge from there with something written down.

LA:  And look at him now.

SF:  Look at me now.

LA:  All thanks to me (laughs)

SF:  It really shook things up in a good way.

BB:  Now, how do you pick your projects?  I know you’ve done different things.  Sometimes, you’ve shepherded the whole way from the beginning.  And sometimes — I don’t know if it’s by audition process, but you’ve taken on, for instance, Ragtime —

LA:  Yes, that was, but most of the time, we find our own projects, and we start them.  We come up with an idea that we’re very interested in, and we talk about it, and we either pursue it, or we don’t.  But we option our own properties, and we decide what we want to work on, and we begin to write it, and, eventually, we find a producer for it, if we’re lucky, which we have been.  But in some cases, a producer will bring an idea to us, and ask us if we want to do it, and we say, “yay,” or “nay.”  Ragtime was one of those.  Seussical was one of those.  Those were brought to us.  The rest is — the rest. (laughter)

 SF:  Oddly enough, Ragtime and Seussical are the only two projects we’ve done that started in the commercial arena.  Everything else we’ve done has started in the not-for-profit; some have transferred to Broadway, that sort of thing.  But a show like Ragtime is a show that needs to be produced big.  It’s not something that two writers would take on and say, “Okay, now we’re going to do this cast of fifty-two.”  Which is how many we had on Broadway.  (laughter) “This cast of fifty-two, this orchestra of twenty-eight, show.”  There is no way you can tell that story in a chamber way.  But, oddly enough, Dessa Rose — which is another show we did at Lincoln Center, which is, certainly for my money, a companion piece to Ragtime, in that it’s about an earlier part of American history, and sort of, musically, there are actually some links there — that was a show that, even though it was a very expansive idea, we knew early on that we wanted to tell most of the story in close-up.  If it were a film, there’d be a lot of close-ups.  So that, even though it was an expansive idea, that wanted to be told as a chamber musical.  So it was totally different, and that was something we generated ourselves, and brought to Lincoln Center.

BB:  Kind of speaking of that, one thing I’ve always found impressive with you is that you have managed to somehow find a way to really get into the musical idioms of the story that you’re telling.  You know, the Carribbean flavor of Once on this Island, the ragtime flavors, obviously of Ragtime, and the Irish feel of A Man of No Importance.  Somehow, through all of this style-changing, though, I think you have managed to keep a core that is identifiably, you guys.

LA:  That’s nice to hear.  I like that.

SF:  I think there’s a sensibility there.  It’s an interesting thing — I guess it’s like — any good chef who tries to use these ingredients, and hopefully, even though I would be using these musical ingredients, there would be something of the sensibility of the chef, or the composer, that would come through.  And you’d say, “Oh, that’s something that this person would have created.”  If another writer would have taken the same material, and done it well, I think the show would be very much like them, even though it’s set in the same musical place.

LA:  One of the things we try to do is never repeat ourselves.  I don’t know if anybody’s ever noticed that, but our shows are really dispirate and different in size and worlds that we are interested in.  And it’s because we’re interested in a lot of different idioms: musical idioms and cultural worlds and so on.  I think we’ve had a lot of pleasure in trying to channel those worlds, both lyrically and musically.  And I think that we delve into the heart, for me, of a Black slave or an African American ragtime player or an Irish bus conductor or, in the case of the show we’re doing now, insane Italian comedians.  I love doing that.  I love to try and write the way they speak.  Stephen’s very adept at finding the musical world.  He can create that world, and still make it Stephen Flaherty.  So it’s kind of great.  I love doing that.

BB:  Well, while we’re on that topic of doing different things, why don’t we take a listen from the soundtrack — I always say soundtrack — cast album of A Man of No Importance.  My interns hate me for calling them soundtracks.

LA:  Hey, that’s what it says in the record store.  They’re under soundtracks. (laughter)

BB:  We’re going to listen to “The Streets of Dublin” from A Man of No Importance. Is there any little set-up that should be done with this song?

LA:  Oh, I’ll give you a little set-up.  It’s sung by a young man who is about to take an older man out on the town for the night, and show him the street poetry of Dublin.  And one of the interesting things about this song is that everyone who’s listed in it, mentioned in it, all the names, and the things that they do, were real in Dublin in the sixties.  I did a little research, and I found all these interesting Dublin characters, and I wove them into the song.  So these people, once upon a time, lived.

BB:  All right, let’s take a listen.

Listen to “STREETS OF DUBLIN” in Broadway Bullet Vol. 133

BB:  As a team, you don’t seem to be utterly concerned and worried how commercial a project is going to be.  Is that a conscious decision, or do you just write?

LA:  We consciously decide not to do it. (laughter)

SF:  Yes, exactly.  I think, speaking for myself, I think that, if I can use Joseph Campbell’s phrase, “Follow your bliss.”  That is musically what I try to do.  I try to run towards things that I’m excited about, musically.  And I would like to think that if I’m excited about that musically, there will be some audience out there that will be equally excited about that.  And I just run with a lot of passion towards it.

LA:  We get approached with a lot of projects, and they’re really commercial-sounding.  But for the most part we just — they seem like anybody could do them, so why do them?  They don’t sound unique enough and special enough, and it takes a really interesting, unique, kind of challenging project to get us interested.  And for the most part, those are the things we’ve worked on, and we love them all.  We’ve had a wonderful time on them all, even the hardest of them, and the most painful of them.  We get our satisfaction out of writing what we love, and if they do well, and go to Broadway, or don’t go to Broadway, it almost doesn’t matter.  Because we get so much pleasure out of the writing.

BB:  Were you surprised by the lack of possitive reception in New York to Seussical, when it came out?

SF and LA:  Hhhhhmmmmm…


LA:  A collective hum.

SF:  It wasn’t just New York, per se.  We had a killer out-of-town tryout; I use the word “killer” specifically in Boston.  It was sort of, like, the nightmare tryout.  And I was turning forty at the time, too, so happy birthday Stephen.

LA:  Let’s put it this way: we were hysterical together in a lot of bars in Boston, late at night.  But, I don’t think we were completely surprised that there was a lack of critical reception; what I’m surprised by, in a certain way, oddly enough, is the show has gone on, and it went on to be this huge —

BB:  That’s what I was going to say, do you feel vindicated by the fact that it’s the most licensed show of the past year?

LA:  It’s great!  One of the most licensed.  It’s either the most, or one of the most, but it’s up there.  And it’s terrific vindication, but also, we did go back to work on it.  We felt that, in addition to all the problems that we had with the production, and all the physical issues and producorial issues and all the issues that flew around, we didn’t do — quite finish our work before it came to Broadway, with all the things going on.  So after the show closed, we went back and took another look, a number of looks, and really revised it, and made it what it is now.  Which, I think is pretty great, and so what can you say?  Everybody has these experiences, and here we are, drinking coffee, and on the air, or on the website, or wherever.

SF:  On the pod.

LA:  On the pod.


BB:  Have you ever seen any of the smaller community productions of Seussical?

SF:  Oh, yeah, it’s wonderful, and we were lucky that there was this lovely, lovely production at the Lucille Lortel this summer, done by Theatreworks USA, and directed by Marsha Milgrom Dodge, which was, I thought, one of the most enchanting, simple, fun-filled productions of Seussical I had ever seen.  And it felt very much in the spirit of the original workshop that we did all these many years ago in Toronto, and had a real sense of play to it.  And seeing the audiences react to it, and hearing the songs sung beautifully and simply, and with a lot of heart, it was a joy.

 LA: They were using oven mitts and turkey basters and caulonders and rubber inner tubes and, you know, just completely wacky props.  And the inner tube became the birds’ nest, and all that kind of stuff, it was wonderful.  I saw, actually, another really great little production done at NYU, done by NYU students, and you drew on the floor with chalk, and you got to blow up balloons, and you got to pop them, and there were rubber bands that you stretched.  It was just this interactive, silly show.  It was perfect.  So, it can be done anywhere now, and is done almost everywhere, and we’re very happy about it.  It was the child that didn’t do well in high school, but grew up to have a good career, anyway.

BB:  As I mentioned, our production was a little bit odd, but I was wondering if you’ve heard of any particularly odd, strange, maybe, eyebrow-raising productions of Once on this Island?  Which I have to say is absolutely one of my top five favorite musicals, period.  It’s just beautiful.

SF:  Thank you.

BB:  I listen so much to the London Cast Recording.

SF:  That is a good recording.

LA:  Yeah.

SF:  We did it in Abbey Road Studio B, where “Hey Jude” was recorded.  So, just for me, just to even be doing anything of mine in that studio kind of made the whole experience for me.

LA:  Yeah, that’s John Yap, we’ve done lots of records with him, he’s a terrific producer.  But, yeah, Once on this Island, it gets done with a cast of eighty-six children, I’ve seen do the show.  One teacher made all of their costumes, it was unbelievable.  And they just had a big benefit down in New Orleans for the children of Katrina, and they did Once on this Island down there with all these kids who had been through the storm, and had lost their homes, or had problems with Hurricane Katrina.  And then they brought them to New York for one performance, so that was fabulous.  There are so many incarnations: Catholic girls’ schools, all-girl casts. (laughter)

SF:  My Aunt Shirley, in St. Louis, Missouri, saw an all-female, White production of Once on this Island, and I said, “that’s —

BB:  That one ups us. (laughter)

SF:  I said, “Are you sure?”  I tried to figure out how they did the love story with just girls, and she said, “Oh, there was one boy they imported.”  But there are many, many different ways to see it.  But the Katrina project is really exciting.  It’s called After the Storm, and there’s also a documentary being made about the experience of these kids coming together, and putting on the show.  And it really gave new life to the St. Mark’s Arts Center down there, and it really opened the doors again.

LA:  We should say, if anyone wants to contribute to this not-for-profit organization. called After the Storm, you can find it online, and contribute money to help rejuvenate the area.  It’s a good cause.  And that production was directed by Gerry McIntyre, who was in our original Broadway company of Once on this Island.  So, it’s this extended family that keeps on growing with every show.  It’s interesting.

SF:  There’s something about that show that — it really is magical.  It’s infused with something, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but everybody who comes in contact with the show, as either a performer, or as a listener, I would like to think of it as one of those rare examples of theatre changing people’s lives for the better.  Certainly with After the Storm, it really did.

LA:  In a concrete way, which was nice.

SF:  Yeah.

BB:  Now, how surprised were you when Once on this Island did go to Broadway?  Because back in the early nineties, there weren’t that many smaller shows that moved to Broadway.

LA:  No.  And if it was being done now, I don’t think that it would, necessarily.  I think it was of its time in that regard, and that it would be very hard to move it to Broadway now, because look what’s on Broadway right now.  It’s a different kind of show.  But, at that time, I don’t think we were that surprised.  It got a rave in the Times.

SF:  Oh, I was surprised.

LA:  You were? I wasn’t.

SF:  I was always hoping, but I was thrilled when I got that news.

LA:  We have a great photograph of us.  We are standing under the marquee, and we’re pointing up at it, as they are changing the sign to be Once on this Island on the marquee for our first ever Broadway show on Broadway, and there are quotes that say, “magnificent” and “splendid”.  But they’re the quotes from the show before.

SF:  (laughter) Yeah, they’re from the Truman Capote show, Tru.  So, Once on this Island, and then on the side, it says, “Robert Morris is spectacular!”  I’m trying to imagine Robert Morris in Once on this Island.  I don’t know if I can.

BB:  Then one of your bigger productions — it definitely was a big production, it didn’t go as well as commercially planned, again I think there’s a lot of great music involved in it — is another Lincoln Center collaboration with My Favorite Year.

LA:  Yeah.  Yes.  Absolutely.

SF:  In the Vivian Beaumont.

BB:  Was that your first Lincoln Center one then?

LA:  That was our first Lincoln Center one, but that was our second show, or our third show with Andre Bishop and Ira Weitzman, who had both been at Lincoln Center — oh, excuse me, Playwrights Horizons, and then moved over to Lincoln Center.  So, we kind of followed them with that third show, and it didn’t do as well as we hoped, that’s for sure.  And we’re now interestingly in the process of rewriting it.  And we think we’ve done that very well, and in the hindsight of wisdom — we were young



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