6 Musical Writing Lessons Stephen Sondheim, Maury Yeston, and More Taught Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

Benefits and Galas   6 Musical Writing Lessons Stephen Sondheim, Maury Yeston, and More Taught Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
 
The 2019 Dramatists Guild Foundation gala honored the writing duo of 36 years and proved why DGF is vital to the American theatre.
Dramatists Guild Foundation Gala_2019_HR
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“Writers are everything,” Brian Stokes Mitchell told Playbill. “It begins with the writer, it ends with the writer.”

And so the crème de la crème of Broadway gathered November 4 to support them at the annual gala for the Dramatists Guild Foundation. As the DGF motto goes “Most people say it has to be seen to be believed, but at DGF we say it has to be believed to be seen.” DGF is the only organization that supports every theatre writer in America, believing in their stories and their visions and offering financial support, mentorship, and other resources to ensure their work is seen.

The 2019 gala honored Tony Award–winning writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty—who also founded the DGF Fellows program for up-and-coming writers—as well as TodayTix founders Brian Fenty and Merritt Baer and Concord Theatricals President Sean Patrick Flahaven.

The evening, hosted by Jason Alexander, celebrated the contributions of writers bolstered by DGF (including Ahrens and Flaherty) while raising money to support DGF programs. From financial aid via grants, the DGF Fellows (in which established writers mentor new voices), the free space of the Music Hall, the Roe Green Traveling Masters that brings writing greats to teach across the country, and the New Voices initiative to unite teaching artists and students, the non-profit, in the words of Flaherty, “is about honoring the past and giving back in the present and, in terms of talent and funding, it allows us to go forward.”

Which is why he and Ahrens, along with Janet Neipris, founded DGF Fellows in 2000. “Part of the reason was not just to teach writers how to write but it was to make clear to them that there was a community of writers who will support them and one another just the way we were supported when we were first starting out,” Ahrens said from the stage.

In fact, she shared a number of lessons passed to her from her mentors:

“Stephen Sondheim said, ‘If you’re writing a farce, even the ballads need to be funny.’ And it’s about tone. He [also] wrote notes of recommendation to people about us without every telling us he was doing it.”

“Peter Stone, who said if you write two jokes in a row and the first one gets the bigger laugh, you cut the second joke.”

“Maury Yeston, who taught me about three-act structure using an image of a plank of wood and three nails and a handful of rubber bands and it works, that’s all I can say.”

“Alfred Uhry, who heard a very early draft of Once On This Island and we had comedy songs—I can’t even describe it, they were practically tap dancing on the island—and he very simply and quietly said, 'You know you should just let the show be what it wants to be.'”

“Martin Charnin. He critiqued us one day and he was in a really bad mood, we learned later he had had a bad day, and he said that we were nothing but Sondheim clones and that our show was undirectable and unproduceable, and that taught us the power of rewrites. We rewrote and rewrote and rewrote and that was our first produced show, Lucky Stiff.”

“And of course Terrence McNally, who never mentored us exactly, but when we first did Once On This Island Off-Broadway we thought we each got a separate handwritten note from this famous playwright named Terrence McNally, who we had never met. And he congratulated us and he said how much he admired our work and then a number of years later we went on to write three shows with him. So it just gives you an idea of the generosity that matters so much to us all as writers.”

But Ahrens and Flaherty have also imparted wisdom.

“You always say you didn’t teach us anything,” said DGF Fellow alum Justin Paul from the stage. “I’ll tell you what you taught us: You told us that our songs didn’t need to go from A to Z. … That maybe let one song go from A to B and the next from B to C, because that’s writing a musical.” In gratitude, he and writing partner Benj Pasek dueted on “Waving Through a Window” from their smash hit Dear Evan Hansen.

The evening also featured performances by Ciara Renée singing “Over the Rainbow,” Betsy Wolfe singing “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along, Betty Buckley singing “Memory” from Cats, Christiane Noll singing “Back to Before” from Ragtime, Michael Arden singing “Streets of Dublin” from A Man of No Importance, Liz Callaway singing “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia, and Mitchell singing “I Was Here” from The Glorious Ones.

As Mitchell said, “My drama teacher drilled into my head that the actor’s first obligation is to the writer.” And as DGF reminds us, so is ours.

Flip through photos of the gala celebration:

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