By: Alix Cohen
January 20, 2024: The Alumni Tribute and Benefit for University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, was one of the best musical theater presentations I’ve seen this year. A sparkling cornucopia of predominantly CCM alumnus – now musical theater professionals – performed material from a wide roster of shows by Stephen Flaherty and his long time collaborator, lyricist Lynn Ahrens. Intermittent video excerpts of the composer, deftly written/curated by CCM alumnus David Goldsmith, cast light on the honoree and his work.
Often compared to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ahrens and Flaherty are two of our best and most prolific writers of musical theater. The sheer range of artistic challenges they masterfully take on/personify is extraordinary.
Talented students from CCM’s Musical Theatre, Dance, and Orchestral programs (tonight under duly cheered conductor Jeff Saver) were bused in for the occasion. You’d have never known they’re still at school. On stage, actor/choruses directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrim Dodge added imaginative and attractive support both visually and vocally. Additional students from Stage Management and Arts Administration also traveled to New York to work behind-the-scenes on the production.
Jason Graae, Ashley Brown, Alton Fitzgerald White, Christy Altomare, Aaron Lazar, Stephanie Jae-Park, Bryonha Marie, Liz Callaway, Geoff Packard. All CCM Alumnus except Marie, who “married into it.”
Pittsburgh born Stephen Flaherty started studying piano at seven. Able to perform anything by ear, he recalls playing a selection from Hair at ten. By twelve, he decided on his future and two years later wrote a first musical. In 1969, CCM was the first school in the country to offer an accredited Musical Theater program. Stephen received a scholarship. Without, as yet, a specified area of study for composition, he created his own. When director/composer Lehman Engle passed through town, he heard some of the young man’s work and promptly advised him to quit school. Stephen demurred.
Graduating in 1982, the composer came to New York, and was admitted to the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a training ground for future composers and lyricists then helmed by Skip Kennon. This is where we met. I was a lyricist. Encouraged to write with a number of people, we experimented with collaborators. In no short time, it was clear to me that not only did Stephen’s talent rise above the fray, but he was the warm, generous man you see today, i.e. a good person with whom to work. By then, however, he’d found Lynn who was impossible not to admire and like. I tried. It was Kismet. The two have collaborated ever since.
A short video clip of Stephen and Lynn have barely welcomed us when Jason Graae commandeers the stage in full actor/clown guise as the host he thinks the event warrants. “Could I at least do my Houdini number? I was the original Houdini in Ragtime!” He’s sent packing by a disembodied voice. Graae appears throughout the production as characters of every stripe, contributing humor, pathos and virtuosity.
Stephen Flaherty on screen; Jason Graae on stage
To the tune of “20 Million People” from My Favorite Year, David Goldsmith’s clever parody “Thirty Years of Stephen” opens the festivities with Christy Altomare, Ashley Brown, Jason Graae, Bryonha Marie, Geoff Packard, Stephanie Jae-Park, and Alton Fitzgerald White lined up across the stage in celebratory finery.
Aaron Lazar lends his warm vocal and acting resonance to “How Can You Leave the Theatre?” the only material this evening with both music and lyrics by Stephen – written when he was sixteen. Preternaturally mature, this the song’s first outing in 48 years. Alton Fitzgerald White and the CCM chorus then treat us to “Outside Your Window,” a preview of the next Ahrens and Flaherty show, Knoxville, based on James Agee’s A Death in the Family. It’s traveling music inside someone’s mind. “A man torn between the dark and home,” Stephen notes on screen.
White, whom the honoree calls “one of the great singing actors,” appears in several other roles including Coal House Walker in Ragtime’s “Wheels of a Dream” and as artist Edgar Degas singing about his muse in “Marie” from Little Dancer. Student ballerina Regina Murphy plays the young woman. She’s enchanting. Vocal is ardent; music embodies the resignation of recalled youth.
Regina Murphy and Alton Fitzgerald White
Christy Altomare is a perfect Broadway ingénue. She has a lovely voice,appealing presence and engenders empathy. “Times Like This” from Lucky Stiff is rife with strings as the singer wryly resigns herself to the company of a dog rather than a man. Stephen has written musical italics. Special guest Liz Callaway, the voice of Disney’s Anastasia, joins Altomare, Broadway’s original Anastasia, in a duet of “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past.” The ladies’ deeply emotional voices create additional richness to arrangements as they sweep headlong through the hall. Callaway then indelibly performs “Something Beautiful.” Though “a song about a tree,” we hear Stephen’s own voice in his music and Lynn’s lyrics “…for I was put here to make something beautiful before I go.”
Once On This Island
“I was listening to a lot of world music. When Lynn found a novella set on an island, I thought it would be a good way to use the music without specific carpet-bagging…” Stephen says. Bryonha Marie, Ranease Brown, and the CCM Musical Theatre Ensemble give us “Mama Will Provide” from Once On This Island. Marie’s vocal is earthy; music infectiously dancy. Puppet props by alumnus Jamie Bressler are a delight. Stephanie Jae Park follows with “The Human Heart.” “It was the middle of the AIDS crisis. I was a caregiver. That musical saved me. It was about people trying to keep those they love alive,” the composer notes. With chorus at both sides of the stage, Park’s soprano carries every bit of his yearning.
Next, cut from Seussical in Boston, is a full production number of ‘The Lorax” with CCM actors and chorus, Lucy Acuna, Geoff Packard, and Jason Graae as the Lorax/The Onceler. The musical’s out of town tryout was so beset, three major creatives left. “We expected Kander and Ebb to be brought in,” Stephen ruefully tells us. The segment is wonderful. A so-called failure on Broadway, Seuissical spawned two U.S. national tours, a West End production, and remains a frequent show for schools and regional theaters. “Always Put on a Good Show,” with Jason Graae as Alan Swann and August Bagg as Benjie, was written for an upcoming revival of My Favorite Year. A charmingly directed scene is almost vaudevillian, something at which Graae excels.
“There was a writers’ audition for Ragtime. We were given a 65 page treatment and eleven days to write four songs. I found out later, Lynn turned it down. I wanted it so much she was afraid I would be hurt. That’s when I realized it had nothing to do with what other people think,” Stephen recalls. (Towards the end of the allotted time, she acknowledged the quality of their work.) A week after submission, the call came. Ragtime was nominated for 13 Tony Awards. It won four. The musical remains evocative and timeless. Its haunting ragtime piano theme conjures. From Ragtime:
Broadway’s original Mary Poppins, Ashley Brown, has a luxurious musical-theater-meets-opera voice. She performs a heartbreaking “Goodbye, My Love,” then, with Aaron Lazar and Jason Graae, a rendition of “Journey On,” that swells with anticipation. We often feel the temperature before lyrics emerge in a Flaherty song. Brown’s “Back to Before,” showcasing powerfully controlled vibrato, is set to music whose pining similarly comes to fore in Anastasia. Memory erupts.
Center: Jason Graae and Stephen Flaherty
As Sarah, Bryonha Marie, from the revival of Ragtime, offers an agonized “Your Daddy’s Son” sung abandoning her baby. Lynn felt the need of a scene partner for the song, then realized it was the baby. “The thing we don’t expect is that at the end she asks the child for forgiveness,” Stephen comments with admiration. “It had to be a lullaby.” The performer falls to her knees. Dramatic music seems to tear the lyric from her. It was author E.L. Doctorow’s favorite song.
The entire company participates in an unabridged Prologue of Ragtime.We experience an era passing before our eyes, not just a story. Vocals and orchestration are exciting, redolent. Conveyed with dignity, and honesty, this is our history. Characters come and go. The cast flows around them inexorably like a river, like time.
Stephen and Bearcat at the after party (Photo by Chris Helmers)
Stephen Flaherty’s thank-yous are as gracious and eloquent as his music. The artist is grateful for CCM’s community which pervades Carnegie Hall tonight, and for the scholarship he received.
This show was first presented in Cincinnati September, 2022. Performances celebrate the school’s Broadway impact raising money for scholarships and educational initiatives.
During a splendid after-party (sponsored by UC’s College of Cooperative Education and Professional Studies), Interim Dean Jonathan Kregor announced the establishment of the Stephen Flaherty Scholarship for Musical Theatre. Honoree and recipients can all be proud.
Opening Drawing by Squiggs
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Photo courtesy of the collaborators) May Ahrens and Flaherty continue to touch, illuminate, inspire and entertain for many years to come.
Stephen Flaherty – A Special Alumni Tribute and Benefit for CCM
Conceived by CCM alumnus Jim Semmelman
Music Supervision, Direction, Arrangements, and Orchestrations by alumnus Jeffrey Saver
Written, Curated, Interviews Conducted and Parody Lyrics by alumnus David Goldsmith
Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Pristine Sound Design by Dan Gerhard
Excellent Video Design by Tyler Milliron
Performances by CCM Musical Theatre, CCM Dance, CCM Orchestral Students