Composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty Celebration of 30 Years
Collaborating Is Captured for CD — with a Little Help from Friends
By: Ellis Nassour
The September celebration at 54 Below of 30 years of fruitful collaboration between Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty has been released in a two-disc CD album, Ahrens & Flaherty: Nice Fighting You – A 30th Anniversary Celebration [Live at 54 Below/Broadway Records; SRP $30]. They’re written My Favorite Year, Ragtime, Once on This Island, Lucky Stiff, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, The Glorious Ones, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life and this season’s Tony and Drama Desk nominated musical Rocky.
The six performances featured a rotating line up of friends, including Annaleigh Ashford, Stephanie J. Block, Liz Callaway, Kevin Chamberlin, La Chanze, Quentin Earl Darrington, Lewis Grosso, Julie Halston, Jeremy Jordan, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Rebecca Luker, Sean McCourt, Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jessica Molaskey,Bobby Steggert, and Mary Testa.
The CD, produced by Michael Moritz, features 48 tracks of intro chit chat and 36 tunes, an instrumental by Flaherty , and a illustrated booklet. There are songs from the above, the team’s first collaboration, material that was cut from shows, and a tune from Little Dancer, premiering next year to be choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman, which is set against the world of the Paris Opera ballet and the Degas sculpture.
Flaherty and Ahrens met in a 1982 musical theater workshop. "It was like the song from South Pacific," laughs Ahrens, "‘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," points out Flaherty. "Our styles were wildly different. I meticulously scored everything out. Lynn improvised. She was a very clever wordsmith. But our first time working together really was some enchanted evening and we became friends, seeing each other again and again."
Ahrens is happily married and Flaherty happily partnered and considering marriage. 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!" points out Ahrens. "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."
Collaborating for 30 years leads to more than just a working friendship. "We’re like brother and sister," she says. "And fight like brothers and sisters. There’ve been a couple of times when we wanted to throw objects at each other!"
What are Ahrens’ best and worst traits? "She’s tireless, always focused," he says. "She’s always honing, polishing. She’s like a dog with a bone." Her worst trait? "It’s when we hit a snag on a lyric. She won’t let go. Finally, I’ll say, ‘We need to let go of that and move on.’"
Flaherty’s best and worst traits? "He’s a wonderful person, and has great flexibility of style and sensitivity to lyrics." His worst trait? "Stephen falls madly in love with everything he writes, whether it works or not. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work."
They always begin by talking. "We talk and talk," says Ahrens, "but it’s important 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."
Things gelled pretty quickly after meeting. Before they knew it, they were writing a musical — one they thought had infinite possibilities, based on the film Bedazzled. However, notes Ahrens, "There were rights issues. We learned a good lesson." [Finally, after all these years, you’ll hear tunes from it.]
There were rights issues with Rocky, as well. "We began working on it a few years ago. We were fortunate that a producer wanted to get it onstage. We’d presented some songs for Sylvester Stallone and, thankfully, he championed us." Stallone brought award-winning book writer Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Annie) to the project early on.
Translating Rocky into German was difficult. "Translating songs isn’t just a direct translation. You have to maintain the rhythm and rhyme. We worked with a translator who’d done the job on a production of our show Lucky Stiff, so that made it easier. I call a translation an adaption of what I wrote. You try to get as close to the meaning and feelings."
The duo won eight Tony nominations and an Olivier for Best Musical for Once on This Island; Tony and Drama Desk Awards and received two Grammy nominations for Ragtime; DD and Grammy nominations for Seussical; a DD nomination for Dessa Rose, and five DD nominations, including Best Musical, for LCT’s 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. Where they find the time, no one knows, but they co-chair the Dramatists Guild Fellows program for emerging writers.