Composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty Celebrate 30-Year Collaboration at 54 Below September 26-28
By: Ellis Nassour
For six performances, September 26-28, at 54 Below the Tony Award-winning songwriting team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty of Ragtime, Once on This Island, and the upcoming and eagerly-anticipated Rocky (as well as My Favorite Year, Seussical, and Lucky Stiff) will celebrate the breadth of their collaboration with Nice Fighting You: A 30th Anniversary Celebration.
Ahrens and Flaherty will host and perform their best known songs, rare gems, songs that were cut or from shows that never made it, and material from two forthcoming musicals, Rocky and Little Dancer, with a rotating cast of Broadway guest stars. He says, "With over 40 songs over the six shows, this is a very ambitious project. We’re happy to be working with so many people we love, some of whom who have originated our work."
The guest line-up will include Tony and Drama Desk nominee Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots), Tony and Drama Desk nominee Stephanie J. Block (…Edwin Drood), Tony and Drama Desk nominee Liz Callaway (Miss Saigon, Baby), Tony Award winner LaChanze (The Color Purple, Ragtime, Once on This Island),Tony winner Andrea Martin (Pippin), Marin Mazzie (Ragtime, Passion), Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Women on the Verge…, Ragtime), Tony and Drama Desk nominee Bobby Steggert (Big Fish, Ragtime), and Drama Desk honoree Mary Testa (Lucky Stiff).
People are still contacting the composers to participate, which, says Flaherty, "is very satisfying. For instance, our good buddy Kevin Chamberlain was so anxious to join us that he’s flying in from the Coast for the two Saturday shows."
Music directing is Ted Sperling, who has music directed three A/Fshows, including the premiere of Ragtime. Flaherty will play some of the new material, but there’ll be five musicians, including keyboards, bass, drums, violins, and guitars. "Orchestrating," notes Flaherty, "and doing an incredible job is a budding new talent, Neil Reilly, who reminds me of myself at that age. We’ve been overjoyed with his contribution."
Flaherty arrived from the Midwest in 1982 and was accepted into BMI’s prestigious Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Ahrens had several careers before deciding to write for theater. "I was a copywriter, jingle writer/singer and wrote for TV." She won an Emmy for H.E.L.P., a children’s show [H.E.L.P.], and wrote extensively for Schoolhouse Rock.
"When I joined the 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."
"Lynn was a very clever wordsmith," recalls Flaherty. "It really was some enchanted evening and we became friends, seeing each other again and again."
Soon they were writing a musical, one they 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. Finally, after all these years, audiences at 54 Below will hear a couple of tunes from that musical."
There will also be tunes from Little Dancer, A/F’s 2014 musical, choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman, which is set against the world of the Paris Opera ballet and the Degas sculpture.
The title of their concert is more than misleading. Though Ahrens is happily married and Flaherty happily partnered and considering marriage, both agree that their collaboration relationship has been nothing short of a mutual love affair. And good times were ahead.
They 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; 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. Where they find the time, no one knows, but they co-chair the Dramatists Guild Fellows program for emerging writers.
"Everything takes time," Flaherty explains, "and there’s never enough of it. We began working on Rocky quite a few years ago. There were rights issue. We were fortunate that Stage Entertainment [founder is Joop van den Ende, who’s produced on Broadway] wanted to get it onstage. They had no idea we were out there. But we had presented some songs for Sylvester Stallone [who wrote the film] and he gave us his blessing. He was instrumental in making it happen." The musical has a book by Tony winner Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Annie), whom Stallone brought to the project early on and who persuaded him to take a look at the Ahrens and Flaherty’s work.
It’s the team’s first premiere in a foreign language. Flaherty points out that Once on This Island has been done everywhere, including Japan, "so there’ve been numerous translations." Ragtime? "No. It’s so much harder to cast because of the characters and subject matter."
Collaborating for 30 years leads to more than just a working friendship. "We’re like brother and sister," says Ahrens. Do you fight like brothers and sisters? "Yes. There’ve been a couple of times when we wanted to throw objects at each other! Actually, I like to say we’re good friends. We love each other. We have separate lives but we socialize, have taken trips together, and included each other in family events."
Obviously, they know each other pretty well.
What are Ahrens’ best and worst traits? "She’s tireless, always focused," points out Flaherty. "She 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. I’ll have to give some thought to her worst quality. Maybe it’s when we hit a snag on a lyric. Finally, I’ll say, ‘We need to let go of that and move on.’"
Flaherty’s best and worst traits? "I’m reluctant to answer that," laughs Ahrens. "He’s a wonderful person. As a composer, he has great flexibility of style and sensitivity to lyrics. If there was a worst trait? Stephen falls madly in love with everything he writes, whether it works or not. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work"
Most of the time, they work together. "Sometimes Stephen’ll will send a melody," she says, "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."
However, 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."
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 [Wolfgang Adenburg] who’d done the job on a production of Lucky Stiff, so that made it easier, along with a huge assist from one of our producers, Michael Hillenbrand. I like to call a translation an adaption of what I wrote. You try to get as close to the meaning and feelings.
"In German," she continues, "there’re more syllables per square inch for every word than in English. For instance, when it came to the lyrics, ‘My nose ain’t broken,’ there were problems. There isn’t German slang for that. With our translator, we came up with, ‘My nose is still standing,’ and worked on that. I’m so happy to have my words back!"
The duo’s other 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).
Individually, Ahrens’ credits include co-book writer and lyrics for A Christmas Carol (ten years 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 in Nice Fighting You: A 30th Anniversary Celebration a $40-$65 cover and $25-$30 food/ beverage minimum. Performances are September 26 @ 7 and 9:30 P.M.; September 27 @ 8 and 11; and September 28 @ 8 and 11. Tickets and complete roster of guests are available at www.54Below.com. Day of performance tickets, if available, can be purchased after 4 P.M. by calling (646) 476-3551.