BACK STAGE WEST
November 20, 1997
Dynamic Duo: Flaherty and Ahrens
When you've just written the score for one of the great all-time American musicals, what do you do next? "It's a hard act to follow, this big sweeping thing that allows you to explore every facet of yourself," admitted lyricist Lynn Ahrens in an interview this past summer, not long after after Ragtime had its triumphant Los Angeles opening. She and composer Stephen Flaherty had recently come to the end of a five-month rewriting process that went on while the show was up in Toronto, which in turn followed the musical's two-year gestation with the Toronto-based Livent, Inc. They had also recently completed work on Fox's new animated film Anastasia, to be released this weekend.
"I think in a certain way it would be a mistake to try and do another Ragtime right after it," said Flaherty in a concurrent interview. "I told Lynn the most revolutionary thing to do would be a one-person musical with a piano. I think what we would like to do next is something really different that no one would suspect. We are talking about a lot of things."
For her part, Ahrens said, "Let's put it this way: I'm not waiting for someone to parachute in with the next idea. I was at the bookstore yesterday. I love self-generated projects."
Indeed, two of their previous successes as a team were adapted from little-known properties--Once on This Island from Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love and Lucky Stiff from a comic mystery by Michael Butterworth. They were working on another self-generated project when the chance to audition for the Ragtime assignment came along in the fall of 1994, and they rearranged their schedule to be one of 10 composer/lyricist teams considered by Livent for the job. In a now-legendary story, they did a four-song demo based on Terrence McNally's 60-page treatment of E.L. Doctorow's novel, to which Livent had acquired the rights-and all but one of those original songs, including the show's sweeping opening number, remains in the show today.
The process of writing Ragtime--both before and after its Toronto opening last December--was an intensive collaboration about which Ahrens and Flaherty continue to glow.
"Having the opportunity to do this show was an absolute gift," gushed Flaherty, who had been searching for the right vehicle to explore "the roots of American music." Given the chance, he recalled, "I never worked with more passion or guts in my life. I felt like I was preparing for the Olympics: Every morning I'd get up and put the coffee on and play ragtime at the piano for two and a half hours, going through the entire canon--Joplin, Lamb--really submerging myself in that world. It was a personal challenge, but it was also incredibly joyful and easy to write, in a way."
For Ahrens, the collaboration was only as good as her collaborators, with whom most of the show was written sitting in a room together.
"As a lyricist, I've found my function is to be the liaison between the book and the music--to negotiate the rivers of collaboration," Ahrens said of the process. "Stephen and I weave the music in and out, and the book writer has to be open. Terrence was so gracious with allowing his words to be turned into songs, and Stephen has a great sensitivity to language and lyrics."
The two met in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in New York in 1983 and immediately struck up a rapport. To their budding partnership, the shy, diminutive Flaherty brought a passionate, earnest dramatic sensibility, and Ahrens a witty, seasoned songwriting craft (she'd written and sung for, among other things, the beloved Schoolhouse Rock spots). And much of the dramatic power and nuanced dynamics of their scores, especially Ragtime, comes from an inspired blend of their unique temperament and skills--Flaherty with a musical impulse that serves the scene, and Ahrens with a dramatic or lyrical impulse that gooses the music. That's how, for instance, Ragtime's enchanting lullaby, "Your Daddy's Son," becomes the wrenching cri de couer of a mother who had tried to kill her child, or why "Till We Reach That Day" emerges as a gospel anthem that's both angry and hopeful.
"Our writing together is more than about words and music," said Flaherty. "It's really about the dramatic idea of the storytelling, the techniques to tell the story. I think Lynn once said that together we make one good brain."
They shouldn't sell themselves short. For this remarkably talented and hard-working duo, Ragtime is only the music of something beginning.