Growing up dancing, an integral part of my life was music. When I knew I needed to get emotion out or truly dig down deep and express myself, music was what let me find myself through dance. Stories got told and feelings were freed–joy, sorrow, what have you–through no better musical style than that of musical theatre. There are many great writer-composer duos, but there are truly none that have struck a chord in me such that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have over the years.
Ragtime has such a grip on my heart that I know it will never let me go, Anastasia fills me with such joy and wonder that I never want to leave that world, and Little Dancer, which was shown at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., is a show that truly needs to reach more audiences. It is the music of theirs I relate to most–once a dancer always a dancer.
Just before I worked up the nerve to ask for this interview, a dear friend of mine and I started texting the lyrics to School House Rock back and forth because Lynn Ahrens wrote them! That’s right, the same material I use to create therapy lessons for my students are the ones that help my friends and me remember facts we learned in school. This interaction is one I’ll not soon forget, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Stage SLP: What got you interested in theatre?
Lynn Ahrens: The first Broadway show I saw was Fiddler on the Roof, and it made me very interested in the art of telling stories in song. Years later I took a musical theater workshop, and the idea of actually writing for the theater took hold.
Stephen Flaherty: I’d been playing the piano since I was seven but what really got me interested in music for the theater was when I saw a touring production of the musical Godspell when I was twelve. I knew I had to be a part of that magic. That same year I wrote my first music for the theater: additional underscoring for my school’s production of Peter Pan.
S: For my students, editing can be really tough. So can finding the main idea or summarizing. Many of my students are working on these skills in speech and wanted to know how this translates into writing lyrics?
A: Lyric writing is all about editing, and each song needs to be concise. The classic song form is AABA—which means A) set up a premise or idea, A2) expand on that same idea, B) Develop the idea in a different direction and then A3) wrap up the idea. Not every song has this form, but it’s a good place to start, and a good way to think about organizing ideas. Maybe the simple AABA format will be of help to your students in organizing and building on their ideas. And of course, every word needs to count and be as clear and colorful as possible.
S: Do you have any advice for how to get beyond frustration when you’re brainstorming or get stuck?
A: Your mind is always busy solving problems. Sometimes you just need to take a break from what you’re trying to solve, and give your brain some breathing space to sort it out. Go to the library. Talk a walk. Take a nap. Let you mind wander. Do not go to your iPhone or Computer.
F: Yes. “Change the channel”: Take a walk (WITHOUT your cell phone), go to a park, go to a museum. Any of these may spark something or help you look at what you are working on with new eyes. And always carry what you need to capture your ideas when they do come, so you can quickly record it and remember that spark of inspiration.
S: You have written the lyrics to so many wonderful shows. Some of the most powerful lyrics I’ve ever heard, are those of yours in Ragtime. This is one of the shows I firmly believe had a hand in molding my upbringing. Can you talk about what that process and experience was like for you?
A: This would take a book to describe. Suffice to say, it was a wonderful collaborative experience, and once we sorted out how the many story strands could be organized, the writing came quickly. I think the first draft was done in about 6 months. The novel is written in a very declarative style, without a lot of dialogue, but I found the lyrics “in between the lines” –in other words, in what the characters didn’t say.
S: I have seen Anastasia twice now and another visit to the Broadhurst is certainly not out of the question. Why did you feel the need to come back to this particular work and add to it?
A: We always thought we could expand and deepen the story if we were given the chance, and when producers came to us to adapt the film for the stage we leaped at the chance. We’ve been able to make the story more adult, more complex, we’ve eliminated a couple of the most cartoony characters and have created a more realistic antagonist. The show is more historically accurate than the animated movie, too, and we got to write a slew of terrific new songs for characters who never really got to sing in the original.
F: There was a deeper story to tell. In an animated film you can only go so far and so deep. With film, you’re not the captain of the ship; the producer is. We knew there was more to discover about our characters and had a strong desire to bring the story back to its original historical roots. Luckily, the film company agreed, and we were able to go forward. It’s certainly been a journey!
S: I was extremely fortunate to get to see Little Dancer at The Kennedy Center. I found theatre through dance, and this show is my favorite of the nearly eighty I’ve seen so far. What drew you to this project?
A:I had always admired Degas’ Little Dancer sculpture, but for some reason I suddenly began to wonder about the girl who posed for it—who was she? What was her story? I did some research and found out the few known facts about her and her family, and then decided to weave those facts into a fiction, set in the colorful backstage world of the French ballet.
F: Thank you! As a composer I wanted to write more for the dance world, and we both wanted to work with Susan Stroman, who was central to the creation of this piece. Lynn came up with the central idea: The story of this young ballerina who would inspire a great work of art becoming, in many ways, the most famous dancer in the world. We are still working on the show, focusing the story and deepening the central relationship between Marie and Degas.
S: You also wrote the book for Little Dancer. For those who may not know, what is the difference between writing the book and the lyrics?
A: Lyrics are the words that are sung in a musical. Book is the scene by scene structure of the musical, and all the spoken words in those scenes.
S: Is there a future for Little Dancer so more people can be as amazed by it as I was and continue to be?
F: There is a future. We are in discussions currently about another regional production with its sights on Broadway. So…fingers crossed!
A: We hope it will come to Broadway at some point in the next year and a half.
S: What inspires you to write?
A: Life, literature, music…the world at large.
F: Many things inspire me to write. I tend to be curious by nature. I think you need that quality to be a writer or composer. Inspiration is everywhere, you just need to open your eyes, ears, and heart and dare to look.
S: We have a school-wide goal of collaboration, and you two are well known for your partnership together. What is it like working consistently with the same partner?
A: It takes patience, kindness, a sense of humor and a willingness to forgive. We are also very honest with one another.
F: Over time, you change as both individuals and writing partners. That’s one of the things that makes it all interesting. We both cultivate our own interests, and that allows us to bring new things to our collaborative process. You have to develop trust and know that you can pursue and try any idea without the fear of it not being “good enough,” without fear of failure. Once you have that freedom with a partner you are able to really fly.
S: Do you have any advice for my students on how to be a productive partner in collaborative work?
A: Keep an open mind, listen to their ideas, and rather than saying “I don’t like that idea, try saying: “Maybe not that, but that gives me another idea. How about this?” Try to build on each other’s ideas.
F: Yes. It’s all about trust, support, and honesty. And knowing that criticism, when it is good criticism, making your piece and yourself the best it—and you—can be. Honesty coupled with kindness is key.
S: You got to write for School House Rock, and I can tell you that I use your lyrics with my students in grammar lessons frequently. What is it like to have lyrics that have such a life of their own that adults who heard them as kids still quote your lyrics?
A: It’s very gratifying and also very weird.
S: Once On This Island is being revived this season! What is it like to see new casts bring new life to your work?
A: It’s very exciting to see your work sung by new actors, and interpreted differently by new directors. Theater is a live medium, so it’s never the same twice. That’s what keeps it interesting.
F: New casts bring new ideas and takes on characters. Everyone is different and unique. In this revival, we have adapted some of the material to fit these actors and their voices perfectly. We’re tailoring the music to fit them the way a tailor would fit someone with a new suit. It’s thrilling to see this production take on a whole new life, and I’m excited about bringing the show to a whole new generation of theatre-goers.
S: What is the difference between writing from the perspective of pure fiction, as is the case in Seussical, a period piece as in Ragtime, or a mixture of both like Anastasia? Does one genre come more easily to you than another?
A: I’m inspired by stories, worlds, and the characters who live in those worlds. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s fictional or not, as long as it feels like it wants to leap into song. That means that whatever the project, it needs to have built-in emotions and drama. I try never to repeat place or time in my shows.
F: No, although I had to do much more research both musically and historically for Anastasia and Ragtime. Seussical, for me, was about play and the love of language and sound. I got to become a kid again, which was great fun, especially since I was turning 40 at the time!
S: What should audiences know about the work that goes into writing the lyrics for a show that they may not realize?
A: Every song has about a million decisions per square inch. What is the rhyme scheme going to be? What is the idea? What does the character sound like—are they educated? Do they have an accent? Where are they from? What are the details of their life? Is the lyric going to be dense and heavily rhymed or simple and direct? That long note is going to require an open vowel sound. The actor is going to need to take a breath somewhere. I could go on and on. And if you think about all the details in one song, think about all the details in a whole show, from lights to costumes to sets to wigs to makeup to sound…. It’s mind boggling.
F: I consider myself a dramatist first and tell stories through music. Story, character, and inner emotional life of that character always dictates the music, its tone, rhythm, and tempo. Once I can fully visualize and understand the character in that moment I can begin to write music.
S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
F: Exactly that: Go to the place that excites you without necessarily knowing how you will pull it off. Being scared is not a negative and can lead you to wonderful things. Oh, the thinks you can think!
A: Get together, find a story—could be a fairytale, a personal story, someone’s favorite book, anything—and try writing a musical together.
“Oh the thinks you can think!” indeed! If you had asked me if I ever thought I’d get to learn about some of my favorite pieces of art from those who gave them life, I would have laughed. I grew up listening to, feeling, and poorly singing the work of this dynamic duo, and am happy to say that, though some things change with age, that’s not one of them! This interview is one of my most insightful to date. I love hearing the creative perspective that, all too often, goes untold. Through this process, I’ve been challenged to look at my own writing differently, as well as viewing my students’ perspectives through a different lens. I am very excited to see what my students and I will create from theses challenges and the wisdom Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty so generously shared, and look forward to hearing your takes on the challenges in comments.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP