Stephen Flaherty opted to become a composer of musical theatre when struck by Godspell at the impressionable age of 12 — so it's possible, as he now contends, that it took a real fire-and-light show of a thunderstorm to get those notes uncorked and flowing for Dessa Rose, his newest (and ninth) collaboration with librettist-lyricist Lynn Ahrens.
"I was looking for some dramatic sign from nature to jump-start the project," confesses Flaherty, who got what he asked for in soggy spades. Reflecting on this in the greenroom deep in the cozy caverns of Lincoln Center, he admits it took a decade before he could wrap his mind around the story that Ahrens had embraced immediately.
"Lynn found the novel around the time we were doing our first Lincoln Center show, My Favorite Year. Maybe it was because I was coming off this light musical comedy, but at the time I couldn't see how ‘Dessa Rose’ could be adapted to the stage. It's so densely packed — full of action and ideas — and so many of the events happen on the road."
The musical is, in a literal sense, a journey, made by two women in the antebellum South — a white woman on a deserted farm in northern Alabama and a black slave named Dessa Rose. Rachel York and LaChanze star as the two traveling damsels in question. "These women existed in real life, although I don't think they ever met," Ahrens interjects. "The novelist, Sherley Anne Williams, in doing her research, found the lives of these two women and wove their true stories together into one narrative. She found her Dessa Rose in slave records — a woman who had taken part in a slave rebellion, been captured and was eventually lynched, but, because she was pregnant and the child was property, they waited until her child was born. That's a real incident in history. The other incident involved a woman who gave haven to runaway slaves, which was extremely unusual at that time. The author imagined what would happen if they had met, and the result was 'Dessa Rose.'"
A book review obligingly pointed wordsmith Ahrens to "Dessa Rose," and she saw its theatrical potential right away. Flaherty was less moved, bringing out Ahrens's tenacity streak. "I'm like a drip of water," she says. "I just kept asking every day," but, after a decade, she was sensing The Lynn Ahrens Water Torture Test was getting her nowhere. Time for desperate measures: "I did something I have never done before: I wrote about 50 or 60 pages of libretto without Stephen having seen a word of it. We have never worked that way. We're always very collaborative. I did this to convince him. We were both going away on our summer vacations, and I gave him a pile of papers. I said, 'Just read it. I don't know how else to convey what I see here.' Three weeks later he called and said, 'I'm working on it. I love it. I can see it.'"
When they got together again, Flaherty had 50 minutes of music. "I had told Lynn, 'I need to enter your mind,' and that's what she let me do when she handed me what was essentially the first-act libretto, as if this were an opera. In a lot of ways, it has turned out to be a folk opera, nearly through-composed."
Once the vision was shared, the creative juices started to percolate for Flaherty. "I remember just reading it and reading it while I was out of the city. I was in the country, which I think actually helped, because this is a very rural piece. It really spoke to me. I sat with it for maybe two weeks, looking for a sign when to begin to write the music. Then, there was this huge thunderstorm. It knocked out all the electricity, and that's when I began writing the piece. The music came very quickly, very easily, from that point on."
One of the attractions to the piece Flaherty discovered when he got up a full head of steam was that the setting and period provided him with yet another musical idiom in which to work. African-American is the latest flavor on his musical spice shelf, joining Caribbean (Once on This Island), Russian (the animated "Anastasia"), Irish (A Man of No Importance), turn-of-the-century Americana (Ragtime) and Monte Carlo (Lucky Stiff).
"Historically and musically, Dessa Rose is sort of a forerunner to Ragtime — only it's set in the Deep South. It's the first time I've gotten to really explore American roots music — blues, folk, different hymns, early kinds of gospel, the idea of call-and-response, which was a coded way the slaves communicated so that the white people thought they were just singing. Even though this is an American story, there are a lot of the African sounds — a lot of tribal drums — because these are people from an African culture that had been transplanted in America. It was interesting, finding a way to interface those primitive sounds with American sounds and turn them into a common musical language."
Case in point: the jaunty rag that begins Ragtime, bringing on blacks, whites and Jews with ethnic individuality, foreshadowing the saga ahead. "I don't know if it's my favorite song, but I think it's my favorite party piece. That's the one that, whenever someone says, 'Play something of yours,' nine times out of ten I play that. It's fun to play. It feels good.
"It's actually the thing that I love the most about writing with Lynn and writing for musical theatre. You can take a song like that, which is maybe a 32-bar tune, and find some way that will dramatically tell all these different facets of the story. You can do all that when you discover how to turn 32 measures into a ten-and-a-half-minute number.
"Dessa Rose is a more intimate piece than Ragtime. That's why it's beautifully suited for the Newhouse, which is 299 seats. You can be really close up to these lives. Graci [the show's director-choreographer, Graciela Daniele] calls it 'an epic, told in closeup.'"