Flaherty & Ahrens: The Smarts of Making Art
Raven Snook talks with the composer-lyricist team about their careers in general and Seussical in particular.
It wasn't until I was in my late teens, interning and writing for The Village Voice, that I finally got together with Lynn. She called me at the office one day and said, "You know, Raven, you and I are in the same business. We should really meet face to face one of these days!" She invited me to the Once On This Island cast party, where I met up-and-coming divas Lilias White and La Chanze. But the highlight of the evening was finally laying eyes on my cousin: Broadway lyricist Lynn Ahrens.
Here we are, years later, with many and varied experiences under our belts. Lynn and her collaborator, composer Stephen Flaherty, are as busy as ever preparing for the delayed Broadway opening of their show Seussical and for a reading of a new work at Lincoln Center this winter. Somehow, both found the time to talk to me (separately) about their new projects and their collaboration in general as they worked feverishly on changes to Seussical during its Boston tryout.
Lynn Ahrens started to realize that she had talent as a lyricist at a very young age. "When I was four years old, I made up new lyrics to 'Frosty the Snowman' and sang it at the dinner table," she recalls. "My mom actually got it on tape. It was the first time that I set my lyrics to someone else's tune. I guess the songwriting gene kicked in early! I had forgotten all about it until my mom gave me a copy of the tape as a gift a couple of years ago."
As she got older, Lynn continued writing lyrics, eventually putting her own music to them as well: "In high school, I wrote lyrics for shows. I vaguely remember some, but they are all very dirty. My best friend Pam and I used to drive around and make up parody lyrics to show tunes that we knew. When I got to college, I started to play guitar, and that's when I started to write both the words and music for songs. Then, after college I became a copywriter at an advertising agency. I worked with music companies and singers, and wrote lyrics to jingles. I guess I never had a conscious idea that I would be a lyricist; my career just sort of evolved.
"I had been at the advertising agency McCaffrey and McCall for seven years when I decided I wanted to go freelance. That agency was where I got my professional start. At first, I was just the 'singing secretary'; I would come to work with my guitar every day and play and sing during my lunch breaks. Then the agency produced a little musical educational program called Schoolhouse Rock. They sold the idea to ABC, and the agency asked me if I could try writing a song. I went home and wrote 'The Great American Melting Pot.' I ended up writing and singing many more songs for that program, including 'Noun,' 'Interplanet Janet,' 'Preamble,' and 'Interjections.' But when I left the agency to do freelance work, I wasn't thinking of becoming a Broadway lyricist. Between Schoolhouse Rock and some songs I had done for Captain Kangaroo, I had a foot in the door in the TV industry. I met someone who was starting a jingle company and I ended up writing a lot of commercials. Two of them are still in use: 'What would you do for a Klondike Bar?' and 'Bounty, the quicker picker upper.' That's me singing them, too!"
Ironically, since Ahrens had long ago left behind her "singing secretary" label, it was another secretary who gave her a tip that led to great things. "There was a receptionist at the jingle company who had just taken a songwriting workshop at BMI, and she suggested that I look into it," Ahrens relates. "But I was too busy at the time. I was producing TV, little educational drop-in shows for ABC that were three to five minutes long. One of them won an Emmy Award: HELP: Dr Henry's Emergency Lessons for People. All of the shows had songs in them, and I wrote all the music and lyrics, as well as the text. I even sang on some. Then, one day, I interviewed a young writer named Howard Ashman whom I wanted to write some of the scripts. I asked what else he was working on. He said, 'Oh, I'm doing this songwriting workshop at BMI and I'm working on this little musical based on a film called Little Shop of Horrors.' So I finally decided to take the class. That's where I met Stephen [Flaherty]."
But the pair didn't collaborate right away. According to Ahrens, "Stephen and I wrote both lyrics and music. But, at the end of the first year of the workshop, we were told to find a partner. Stephen approached me and wanted to try collaborating; he liked the songs I had presented in class and thought we would work well together."
Ahrens knew immediately that they had a future together as a team: "I had just written a lyric, I gave it to Stephen, and he put his hands on the keys and started playing. I thought, 'Well, this is it!' After that, we did a number of projects together at the BMI workshop. First, we did a musicalization of the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore film Bedazzled, but we couldn't get the rights. Then we worked on a show about an old man in North Dakota who was giving away free land to anyone who would move to his town to keep the community alive. We worked on that for a year with George C. Wolfe [now artistic director of the Public Theater], but we never finished it and it wasn't very good. Then we came across a book called Lucky Stiff and we thought, 'This looks pretty wacky.' So we adapted it as a musical and, ultimately, it was produced by Playwrights Horizons."
As it turned out, Lucky Stiff wasn't the team's career-making show, but it was a good start. "The reviews were only lukewarm," Ahrens notes, "but Frank Rich, who was then the lead theater reviewer for The New York Times, wrote a very encouraging statement: 'Keep an eye on [Flaherty & Ahrens], they might write the next Bells are Ringing.' Rich raved about our next show, Once On This Island. That was also produced at Playwrights Horizons and, eventually, it received a commercial Broadway transfer.
"After that came My Favorite Year, Lincoln Center's first original American musical. It bombed. The show had problems; it should never have been produced by a not-for-profit company. People wondered, 'Why is Lincoln Center doing this kind of show?' It did ultimately get better and better, and had some great audience reaction. But when you preview in New York City for such a long time and the buzz is so bad, it's hard to undo the damage. I'm glad I had an unsuccessful show, because now I know I can survive."
And then came Ragtime. "Stephen and I were one of 8 or 9 teams that submitted audition material to the producer, Garth Drabinsky, and his company, Livent," Ahrens recalls. "Many of the songs we wrote for that demo ended up in the show: the opening number, 'Till We Reach That Day,' and the end of Act I, for example. The material clicked for us very early on."
It was Drabinsky who acquired the rights to the Dr. Seuss books. According to Ahrens, "Seussical was originally Garth's idea, but he was ousted from Livent and the company went bankrupt very shortly after we started working on the project. I felt bad. I liked Garth a lot. I still do. I think he is an amazing, unique person. Seussical ended up getting caught up in the Livent bankruptcy proceedings and, at first, Stephen and I didn't know what to do. Then we decided we were just going to go ahead and write the show. We were sure something good would happen. When the dust cleared, SFX ended up producing it."
The day after I spoke with Cousin Lynn, Stephen Flaherty called me from Boston and complained, "I am in computer hell!" I wondered aloud why a brilliant Broadway composer would be fiddling with technology. "It's a brave new world, and it all just blew up," he sighed. "We're teching Seussical up here in Boston and I have been making changes to the score on my computer. Then it died. Right now, I'm waiting for a new one." Odd to think that even composing is now subject to the whims of technology, but the breakdown did give Flaherty a chance to chat leisurely with me about his take on Seussical and his collaboration with Ahrens.
"Seussical is not a long show, but there are so many cues!" he says. "I thought, somehow, that this show would be simple. But there are tons of songs--almost 30. Seuss had incredible rhythm and, of course, the Seuss world rhymes. I am in awe of the kinetic quality of those books; that's what we have tried to capture. It's funny, Lynn didn't even want to do the show at first! I had to convince her. We had just spent four years working on Ragtime, and there was something in me that really needed to do a comedy. Seussical was a perfect opportunity, but Lynn was reluctant; since she started out with Schoolhouse Rock, she didn't want to be seen as writing a kiddie show. Then we started to read the Seuss books and we found that they mirrored our own lives. They are all about the same subjects: What makes a home? What defines a family, a community? These themes are very interesting and important to us, and we felt we could explore them in a mature way.
"Perhaps the hardest part about creating Seussical," Flaherty says, "was that we could use all the stories except for The Cat in the Hat." But isn't that character an integral part of Seussical? "He is," the composer clarifies, "but there were legal limitations. The rights to The Cat in the Hat had already been sold to Hollywood. So we could use the character itself, but we couldn't use any of the plots of his books. And the character 'couldn't impact on the destiny of the other characters.' How's that for legal speak!" Why not cut out the Cat altogether? "We had to use him," Flaherty responds, "because, in many ways, he embodies the spirit of Seuss. He represents anarchy. Ultimately, he became our narrator."
Interestingly, Flaherty likens working on Seussical to working on Ragtime, noting that "They are both great works of American literature. You don't want to mess them up. We wanted to pay tribute to them; but, as creative artists we wanted to make them our own as well. This show is a product of our collaboration; that's one of the reasons we have been so protective of it. In fact, there is an allegory in the plot of Seussical: Horton the Elephant, our hero, finds an abandoned egg. He discovers latent maternal instincts, so he sits on the egg and keeps it warm until it hatches. Well, Seussical has been our egg. We've been protecting it from all the mishagas; that's Yiddish for 'craziness.' I'm not Jewish, but from all my years in show business, I am considered an honorary Jew."
Flaherty had always longed to be 'in the business.' "It sounds so clichéd, but I have always wanted to write music for Broadway," he reveals. "I started playing music by ear at age seven. I musical-directed my first show, My Fair Lady, at age 12. I wrote my first original show at 14; it was a comedy about Siamese twins and faith healing, and it was a tribute to my hometown of Pittsburgh. I attempted a lot in that musical! In many ways, it was like Seussical, where every song has a different feel to it.
"When I met Lynn at the BMI workshop, I knew we would complement each other. We both wrote music and lyrics and, because we have experience in both areas, we are perfect editors for one another. We are intuitive. Sometimes, we forget that we are two different people. It's just like any relationship, romantic or otherwise; it's challenging to be part of a team, to know that you're committed, that you have to communicate and grow together. In my adolescence, I used to think the creative process was about being solitary and brooding and wearing a lot of black. With Lynn, I realized that collaboration and sharing is extremely fulfilling. Lynn was more influenced by the pop world, and that perfectly complemented my more traditional Broadway sound. Lynn helped bring back my sense of play.