"I guess [you've] been around a long time when they start modeling television characters after you," says lyricist Lynn Ahrens with a grin and a nod to her collaborator, Stephen Flaherty. The Tony Award-winning authors of musicals including Ragtime and Once on This Island are, of course, referring to the songwriting pair played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle on the theater-themed NBC drama series Smash.
"We have no idea what went on in the Smash writers room," Ahrens says, "and no one from the show ever verified that we were the inspiration for those characters. That being said, The New York Post did write an article that said we were the inspiration. And I like to think they cast Debra Messing because she looks just like me, right down to the long red hair." "One of our Dramatists Guild fellows also said that Debra's character 'layers' her wardrobe, as does Lynn. So," Flaherty wonders, his tongue planted firmly in cheek, "do we need any more proof?"
Thirty years after they began writing together, Ahrens and Flaherty will celebrate their partnership with six concerts at Broadway nightclub 54 Below. Titled Nice Fighting You, the career-spanning shows will take place September 26-28.
As described by Ahrens, the concerts will be "a jigsaw puzzle of wonderful, wonderful people and material that we love. We're going to be doing some of our favorite songs, some songs from the very beginning that nobody has ever heard, cut songs, and a couple of sneak peeks at our upcoming shows." They might even sing. But just a little. "We hope [that] will not prevent people from buying tickets," Ahrens adds with a Cheshire Cat grin.
The rotating list of performers is a who's-who of Ahrens and Flaherty veterans, led by original Ragtime leads Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie; Once on This Island and Dessa Rose stars LaChanze and Kecia Lewis; Seussical cast member Kevin Chamberlain; and Liz Callaway, who provided one of the singing voices in the animated film Anastasia, which netted the songwriting pair an Academy Award nomination.
For Mitchell, it's the opportunity to pay tribute to a pair of theater's "chameleons." "What I love about them," he says, "is not only are they some of the nicest people you'll ever meet, but they really know how to craft a song, and do it artfully and with humor and with wit…[and] a huge amount of heart [is] in the music and the lyrics that they write."
Lewis echoes that sentiment. "They seem to me, as an actor, to have a way of getting inside the character's soul and writing music and lyrics that represent those characters, versus commenting on those characters…Everybody can find a character that they identify with, and once you do, I think you're hearing something from your own soul being sung."
Terrence McNally, who wrote the books for Ahrens and Flaherty musicals Ragtime and A Man of No Importance (and is working on another with them, heretofore unannounced), believes that their work is so lasting because "It's just so damn good. Lynn writes such intelligent, moving, and really wonderful lyrics. And Stephen is the most spontaneously gifted melodist. He writes music that is from the heart…it just lands."
Love at First Sight
Ahrens and Flaherty met in 1983 at the famous BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. "It's sort of a lonely-hearts club," she says. "Speed dating for musical-theater writers," he interjects. "We saw each other across a crowded room," Ahrens continues. "We'd known each other's work for a long time, but we weren't working together. At the end of that year, Stephen approached me and asked if I wanted to write a song. We haven't stopped."
It was a match, one can say, made in musical-theater heaven. "You always hope for the best and hope you get lucky," Flaherty says. "I met Lynn within a month of having gotten off the bus from the Midwest, literally, and in six months we began writing together."
The first show they wrote as the newly minted team "Ahrens and Flaherty" was a musical adaptation of the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore comedy Bedazzled, Stanley Donen's swinging '60s retelling of Faust. "We wrote it for a long time and could never get the rights to it," Ahrens said. "But it was really wonderful; it brought us to the attention of some mentors who took us under their wing and taught us a lot. It was very worthwhile to do at that time."
In 1988, they made their off-Broadway debut at Playwrights Horizons with the musical farce Lucky Stiff. Once on this Island, a Caribbean retelling of The Little Mermaid based on Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love, was next, debuting in 1991 at Playwrights and subsequently moving to Broadway. It earned them their first Tony Award nomination for best original score.
A decade later, they won the honors for Ragtime. "There are too many specific memories to relate," Ahrens asserts of Tony night 1998. "Suffice to say, it was a gorgeous blur of emotions, as well as this powerful feeling of being embraced by the theatrical community as one of their own."
Like every writer, the team has their share of downs. Seussical, inspired by the characters of Dr. Seuss, closed on Broadway after 198 performances but has since found a prosperous life in schools and community theaters. "We've never slowed down," Ahrens says, "but I did take an emotional break from writing, one long summer after one of our shows got slaughtered. I wasn't sure I wanted to write musicals anymore, and I told Stephen he might want to find another collaborator. Clearly, I changed my mind."
A Diamond Anniversary
After 30 years, the partnership of Ahrens and Flaherty has managed to outlast Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, and even Rodgers and Hammerstein. As their third decade of writing together begins, they show no signs of slowing down. They're hard at work at two shows, including the October 2014 Kennedy Center premiere of their new musical Little Dancer, about the artistic collaboration of sculptor Edgar Degas and young ballerina Marie van Goethem, directed by Susan Stroman and starring Broadway veterans Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker, and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck.
But first, they're prepping for the Broadway premiere of Rocky, a musical adaptation of the legendary Sylvester Stallone film. Beginning previews at the Winter Garden Theatre on February 11, the production had a now-storied out-of-town tryout last fall in Hamburg, Germany.
"It certainly was a wonderful place to start," Ahrens says of Hamburg. "It would have been hard to start here…It was good to be tucked away in a foreign country, [though] we had all of Germany breathing down our neck. For me, it was a little tough because I was doing it in a language I don't speak. [But] it was, on some levels, a relief to not have [the] kind of scrutiny that you would have here [in New York] on such a big project."
"It was one of the most playful times we've ever had in the theater," Flaherty concludes. "It was just a pure joy and really unexpected. The producers were incredibly supportive and we had a wonderful time."
The Work is Never Done
Even after their shows open, Ahrens and Flaherty are willing to go back and take another look at the material. "We keep rewriting our shows," Ahrens says. "We go back to them when there are new productions and we tweak a little." This most famously occurred with Seussical, which, after it closed on Broadway, was revised for a national tour. The tuner currently exists in three separate versions and is one of the top-three most-licensed properties in Music Theatre International's licensing catalog.
This is a common occurrence. "We rewrote ‘He Wanted to Say' from Ragtime about a hundred times because I was never happy with that song," Ahrens says. Flaherty adds, "And oddly enough, that is the favorite song of [Ragtime novelist] E.L. Doctorow." Ahrens smiles. "Now, it's good. Now it's really good."
When the writing process is finally over (that is, when the show is frozen), he gifts her with a notebook full of that show's cut songs, a token to memorialize the ones that got away. "It's fascinating to see the evolution of a show," Flaherty says. "And to see even though this song isn't in the show, it led to the current moment and current song. I think [cut songs] need a resting place, so they live in these books."
They contain, as Ahrens specifies, "all of the attempts that we made, all of the rough drafts that didn't make it out of your living room or past the first reading…I'm still waiting on my one from Rocky."