Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Composers, Once On This Island: 35 Years and Counting
By: Ellis Nassour
Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), one half of the Tony-winning Broadway composing team with Stephen Flaherty (music), who are celebrating their 35th year of collaboration, delights in reminiscing about the origin of their 1990 musical Once On This Island, now back on Broadway at Circle in the Square in a jawdroppingly sumptuous staging that pumps new life – and magic – into an already exhilarating work.
“It was May 1988 and Stephen and I had just completed the run of our first Off Broadway show at Playwrights Horizon, Lucky Stiff. It was an incredible experience, and we wanted to start another project right away. I went hunting for ideas in a Barnes & Noble. Back then, they had a used section.
“My hand and eyes went right to a shelf with a thin volume with a colorful beach scene cover,” she continues. “It was titled My Love, My Love or the Peasant Girl [a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid] by Trinidadian ‘writer of young adult fiction Rosa Guy [pronounced “gee”]. I opened the book and started reading. It began ‘There is an island where rivers run deep, with the sea sparkling in the sun.’ I thought, ‘This sounds so musical.’”
She bought the book for $1.50, went home, and read it “in one big gulp.” I quickly fell in love not only with the story, but also the novel’s language in the novel. It was so evocative and beautiful.” She hailed a cab to Flaherty’s apartment. When he opened the door, Ahrens said, “I’ve found our next musical.”
“The music scene was jumping and there was a lot of music experimenting going on,” notes Flaherty. “I was inspired by Brazilian music, Paul Simon’s Graceland with its motifs of South African music, Caribbean beats. All sorts of music ran through my head. Our process was quite different from Lucky Stiff. It became a musical adventure. By using an array of world music elements, I embarked on creating a theater score unlike any I’d heard.”
Once On This Island premiered in May 1990 at Playwrights and in October transferred to the intimate Booth on Broadway, one of the earliest shows to be performed without an intermission. It ran 13 months and just shy of 470 performances, starring LaChanze [in her third show and first lead role] and garnering her a Tony nod. Next, she had the lead in Ahrens and Flaherty’s Dessa Rose, co-starred with Once On This Island revival co-star Kenita R. Miller, at LCT’s Mitzi Newhouse.
When there was interest in reviving Once On This Island by lead producers Ken Davenport and Hunter Arnold, Ahrens and Flaherty met with director Michael Arden (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening). His idea was to do the show in the round.
“We thought, with storytelling often happening around a camp fire or with people gathered in rapt attention, that was an exciting idea,” explains Ahrens. “The show’s concept is telling stories to a little girl of how she came to be and how she evolves into a goddess.”
Flaherty was poised to start all over with new orchestrations. AnnMarie Milazzo (Spring Awakening, Finding Neverland, If/Then) collaborated with original orchestrator, two-time Tony winner, Michael Starobin (If/Then, Next to Normal, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, My Favorite Year, Falsettos), age 90.
In the original, Flaherty used “a lot of highly polished and glossy keyboards and synth. We wanted a grittier sound in line with Michael’s vision.” Milazzo and Starobin came up with the idea that much of the keyboard music could be done by the human voice. “That really upped the ante in terms of the actors’participation.”
“Being in the round adds a fresh dimension,” explains Ahrens, “as audiences are drawn into the poignant story of first love and heartbreak and the importance of family amid voodoo, class bigotry, and the trees and wind creating the music of the competing powerful entities: Goddess of Love, Mother of the Earth, God of Water, and Demon of Death.”
“Michael (Starobin),” recalls Flaherty, “had an offbeat idea. Much of the castoff debris could be made into musical instruments. There was something quite profound about creating something of beauty from trash (such as percussion instruments, a wind machine crafted from a trashed bicycle, a xylophone made from shards of glass, and an ocarina made from a bottle).” Music supervisor Chris Fenwich made good use of everything. In addition, he gets an amazingly full sound from his five-member band.
The composers haven’t tampered with the musical’s themes, but that Ahrens tweaked her script. “In the original,” Flaherty notes, “the setting wasn’t a particular place, just a fictitious magical place. Michael wanted to bring in the roots of Haiti, especially in light of recent, destructive events.”
The composers consider Arden’s concept, the design by Dane Laffrey (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening; MTC’s Fool for Love revival; Drama Desk winner, Lighting Design, 2010 Off Broadway revival, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band), and the lighting by multiple Tony winners Julies Fisher [whose wife Graciela Daniele choreographed/directed the original Once On This Island] and Peggy Eisenhauer brilliant. The lighting becomes an effective co-star, creating different environments in nanoseconds – most stunningly, with the fade from the island’s sandy devastation to a stunning lit-by-candles palace ball with the island’s “grand homes” [aristocrats and landowners.]
The Circle is a challenging venue to light. Standard grids would blind audiences on the four sides. Fisher and Eisenhauer installed overhead lighting, which solves that problem, and some non-intrusive side lighting.
The cast have bonded. Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell, and Tony and Olivier winner Lea Salonga are multi-talented performers declares Ahresn. “From our young Hailey Kilgore (Ti Moune, or little orphan) down to the swings, everyone’s wonderful and have some of the most amazing voices we’ve heard. The chemistry between Philip Boykin (Tony nominee, Porgy and Bess), who plays Tonton Julian, and Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie) is amazing.”
“Lynn’s mad about Philip,” kids Flaherty. However, it turns out to be true. Ahrens pushes back, “He’s magic, sunshine, hilarious, and so sweet and giving. And that voice! I’m in love with him. Don’t tell my husband, but if Philip wasn’t married, I’d get a divorce and marry him!”
Flaherty says that finding Kilgore, all of 18 and a native of Happy Valley, Oregon, was a miracle. “Michael and Telsey + Company literally scoured the nation looking for our Ti Moune, who segues from a mere human and orphan to a goddess and gets involves in a bittersweet love triangle. Hundreds around the country audition, and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.”
“Hailey was recommended by a call from her music teacher,” states Ahrens. “She’s a beautiful, raw talent with a terrific learning curve. You’d think she’s been around for years, instead of just walking onto the theater scene.”
“She’s an absolute natural,” Flaherty assures. “She was coming to go to school here. Telsey + Company reminded Michael if he wanted her, he had to let her know as she was about to the deposit down on her dorm.”
“We wanted her!” the duo exclaim. “It was a wise decision,” stresses Flaherty. “She’s a trouper. She rehearsed like she was prepping for the Olympics. It’s quite an experience to see a young amateur balloon into a star right before your eyes.”
During previews and going forward, Ahrens and Flaherty have seen something they’ve never seen before – “At least at any of our shows,” says Flaherty. “Audiences standing up after numbers in the middle of the show.”
Flaherty finds exciting “having the audience in the round to interface with the performers. The staging is immersive. It’s different every performance. It keeps the cast on their toes. There’re no wings. Once you’re out there, you’re out there.”
As the audience enters, they see water lapping onto a Caribbean island village shattered by the type of tempest wreaked by recent Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Peasants “with their brown skins,” amid displaced chickens and a goat, wade through sand and debris gathering what they can. Cast members do clean-up tasks and interact with audience members.
Ahrens: “That makes them part of the story. It’s important for them to get an understanding of who these characters are and what their arc is going to be.” Flaherty: “Michael didn’t want audiences to think they were entering a theatre. He wanted to feel they were entering the story, the island, its world
Camille A. Brown, making her Broadway debut, has created energetic choreographic movement throughout [often to the point of audiences being unaware] and African dance traditions that are true to time and place.
In these frigid temps, the one tropical place to be is at Once On This Island. The only persons not thrilled with the show are those on the clean-up crew. There’s a ton of sand from the Jersey Shore, hauled in daily, with cast members traipsing through it and water, it creates muck that is spread everywhere. Then, audience members track it on the stairs.
Was the original production ahead of its time? Is the message of race and tackling bigotry stronger now? “There’s never a bad time for good messages,” states Flaherty. “With what we’re experiencing today, it would seem to be a perfect time for Once On This Island to return.”
“The message,” adds Ahrens, “is one of the reasons Michael [Arden] got interested. “America is divided right down the middle in terms of politics, beliefs, and what we hope for. Fortunately, for Stephen and I, Ken [Davenport] wanted to do another show with him. They’re a close-knit producer/director team.”
Kismet brought Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty together in 1982.
He arrived from the Midwest and was accepted into BMI’s prestigious Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. She was an ad agency copywriter, jingle writer/singer and wrote for Disney’s TV series Schoolhouse Rock! She’s been nominated for four Emmys – winning the Outstanding Children’s Informational/Instructional Programming Award for H.E.L.P – Dr. Henry’s Emergency Lessons for People (1979). Soon, she thought of writing for theater and was accepted into the BMI workshop.
“My first session 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.”
Flaherty admired how quickly she got into the game. “Lynn was a very clever wordsmith,” he recalls. “It really was like some enchanted evening. We became friends, seeing each other again and again and working together.”
Soon they were writing a musical. “One,” says Flaherty, “we thought had infinite possibilities,” adapted from the Peter Cook, Dudley Moore film Bedazzled (1967) [about a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for seven wishes, but still has trouble winning the girl of his dreams], However, notes Ahrens, “There were rights issues. We learned a good lesson.”
The score hasn’t been lost. In several club engagements, they’ve done tunes from the musical; and from their 2014 Kennedy Center production of Little Dancer, set against the harsh backstage world of the Paris Opera Ballet, where the ballerina posing for Edgar Degas’s sculpture suddenly becomes the world’s most famous dancer.
Though Ahrens is happily married and Flaherty happily partnered, both agree that their long collaboration relationship has been nothing short of a mutual love affair.
Collaborating for 35 years leads to more than just a working friendship. “We’re like brother and sister,” states Ahrens. “And we’ve been known to fight like brothers and sisters! There’ve been times we wanted to throw objects at each other! Actually, we’re more than that, we love each other. We have separate lives, but we socialize, have taken trips together, and included each other in family events.”
He recounts Ahrens’ best and worst traits: “She’s tireless, always focused, always honing, polishing to make things better. She’s like a dog with a bone. Betty Comden said, ‘She takes her work seriously, but she doesn’t take herself as seriously.’ Lynn will be the first to have a good laugh. Her worst quality? Let me think on that. Maybe it’s when we hit a snag on a lyric and she won’t budge. Finally, I’ll say,. ‘We need to let go of that and move on.’”
Ahrens hesitates to mention Flaherty’s best and worst traits. “He’s a wonderful person. As a composer, he has great flexibility of style and sensitivity to lyrics.” Then, she ribs him. “If there is a worst trait it’s how he falls madly in love with everything he writes, whether it works or not. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t.” He attempts a weak smile.
First and foremost, Ahrens says they always begin by talking. “We talk and talk – about what the characters are feeling, what the drama is, what the emotions are. Stephen’ll play a few notes. I’ll scribble something. Before you know it, something starts to gel. He’ll send a melody or I’ll send a lyric. I love it when he sends the music, because that’s where the emotion dwells and I can hear the characters singing.”
They’ve won eight Tony nominations and an Olivier for Best Musical for the original Once On This Island; Tony and Drama Desk Awards and received two Grammy nominations for Ragtime; Drama Desk and Grammy nominations for Seussical; and five Drama Desk nominations, including Best Musical, for LCT Off Broadway production of The Glorious Ones. They also received two Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and Gold Record status for their songs and score of the animated feature Anastasia, now expanded and a Broadway hit. And a not- so-good-time: the sadly short-lived musical adaptation of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, which has a book by the late Tony-winning Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Annie) [which was challengingly translated into German for its premiere].
The duo’s Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, A Man of No Importance; Dessa Rose (Drama Desk nomination); My Favorite Year; and Lucky Stiff (Washington area’s Helen Hayes Award, Best Musical).
The composers are 2015 inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame. They’ve also co-chaired the Dramatists Guild Fellows program for emerging writers.
Individually, Ahrens’ credits include co-book writer and lyrics for A Christmas Carol (10 years at Theater at Madison Square Garden) and the NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame TV adaptation. Flaherty has composed for symphonies and wrote the score for Loving Repeating: A Musical Of Gertrude Stein (Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical.)
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are still at it, with a long list of dream projects, “But,” says Flaherty, “Everything takes time, and there’s never enough of it.”