This week's Brief Encounter is with Tony-winning composer Stephen Flaherty.
Following their mammoth musical, Ragtime, Flaherty and his lyricist, Lynn Ahrens, plunged into the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss for the bumpy Broadway experience, Seussical, the Musical. Though its Broadway run was short-lived, the show spawned a cast album and is now enjoying a new audience in a revised — and critically embraced — road tour starring Cathy Rigby. Flaherty, Ahrens and librettist Terrence McNally, who collaborated on Ragtime, liked working together so much that they reteamed for A Man of No Importance, a decidedly intimate, small-cast show about a middle-aged bus conductor and amateur drama director who comes out of the closet and finds riches within his small circle of friends in Dublin. Flaherty, Irish-Catholic, fell in love with the world of the film source material, and the show blossomed this fall at Lincoln Center Theater's Off-Broadway space, the Mitzi Newhouse (where it continues to Dec. 29 with Roger Rees in the central role of Alfie Byrne). Tony Award-winning composer Flaherty talked to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about the new work, which is likely to find its way into the regional theatre repertoire, and about works yet to come.
Playbill On-Line: How is the stage musical, A Man of No Importance, different than the film of the same name?
SF: There are actually quite a few significant changes. The characters, a lot of them, have secrets. I think one of the things the piece is about is the nature of love: Miss Rice [played by Sally Murphy] is a young woman who is unmarried and pregnant and Alfie Byrne, the bus conductor, is in love with the young driver of the bus [Robbie, played by Stephen Pasquale], who, in turn, is in love with a married woman [played by Jessica Molaskey]. These are all different relationships that are not accepted in the world of Dublin 1964. The whole subplot with Robbie involved with the married woman — that's not in the film. That's something that Terrence has created. It really helps, I think, to have that triangle. Alfie and Robbie bond because of that — knowing who they love is not accepted. It makes the piece more interesting and rich.
PBOL: The role of Miss Rice is heartbreaking and speaks to the inexplicable nature of love: The idea that you can't control who you love.
SF: In the film, with Alfie, there's nothing that she has learned from her experience of knowing him, or nothing that she gives back to him. By using the song "Love Who You Love," by her singing that back to him, I think that's the emotional climax of the piece. It's about telling someone, "Listen to your own words — you know what's right for you." That moment isn't in the film. I think it's one of the most powerful and simple moments in the musical.
PBOL: Powerful, particularly, because her brush with love was really unhappy and she's still able to give this gift, this advice, to Alfie.
SF: That's right. Nor does she regret her actions and where it's led her. I think she's more of a mirror of Alfie, and I think the catalyst is Robbie. PBOL: What did you and Lynn say when Terrence first said, "A Man of No Importance, the Musical."
SF: I'm one of the few people, I think, that saw the film when it was released in 1994, and I loved the film and the character and I loved what it had to say. But I never would have thought it would have made the basis of a musical. When Terrence and Lynn and I had come off Ragtime, we began talking about what would be next. We loved the experience of working with one another. We all decided, I think consciously, that after Ragtime — which was a really large piece with large emotion written on a very broad canvas — we couldn't get any bigger. We consciously decided we wanted to do a very intimate, chamber-sized musical. Terrence had asked me, "What kind of music would you like to write, what sort of a musical world?" Off the top of my head, I said, "I've always been interested in Irish music." I've always wanted to write an Irish piece. After Ragtime, I didn't want to do an historical drama. I'm not interested in doing the Potato Famine musical. And I am Irish Catholic. He chewed on it and came back a couple of weeks later and he had rented the video of "Man of No Importance." I wasn't sure how the music would come out of such a naturalistic story. We needed to find a way to make it more theatrically heightened. So Terrence had come up with the idea that the entire piece would be performed with simple props — with the tables and chairs from the St. Imelda's Players, the amateur theatre group in the piece. The idea is that it would be a play within a play. And the idea of Oscar Wilde becoming a character — that really enabled us to explore Alfie's personal life and his private life. It gave it a much more theatrical way to bring that about. Once we added Oscar Wilde as a character in the play, that really freed up the music for me. He's not in the film.
PBOL: One of the great strengths of your work is your attention to the humanity of the characters. That you can articulate the mundaneness of life.
SF: [Alfie] was a real challenge to write for because he's not the kind of person that, in his personal life, would belt out show tunes. So finding these humble musical gestures, it was a challenge to me as a composer. There's something about the essence of who Roger [Rees] is that seemed absolutely right for the character if Alfie Byrne. Then I began working with Roger and sculpting the vocal music so it fit him like a finely-tailored suit. He is very musical and yet he's not a Les Miz kind of singer. He's a wonderfully charismatic and thoughtful actor.
PBOL: Alfie is not a popular Irish tenor-type, he's a repressed, internalized guy.
SF: Exactly. That was the challenge of the whole piece, to make it sound as if these were real working class and workaday people who were heightened through music, as opposed to a bunch of musical comedy performers. There was a song we had in the final spot for Alfie to sing and it was a much more declamatory kind of number, a big number. It's the kind of number that if George Hearn were Alfie it could work, but it didn't necessarily feel right for the character or right for the moment. [Director] Joe [Mantello] was wonderful in terms of keeping his finger on the pulse of the piece and what the tone needed to be.
PBOL: In a time when the American musical seems in trouble, I love that Lincoln Center Theater is committed to new musical theatre work, whether it's letting Susan Stroman experiment, or giving you and Lynn a home. There's a sense of a laboratory about the place.
SF: Man of No Importance really is its own thing. There's no other musical that sounds like it. It's sort of like the Anti-Broadway: The sounds of the score are much more in the world of Irish folk music. There's a lot of fiddling, there's no brass, we don't have a percussionist for this show. I think to their great credit, [Lincoln Center producers] Andre [Bishop] and Bernie [Gersten] understood that and they just allowed the piece to develop and become itself, which I think is the most important thing you can do with any new musical.
PBOL: Can you tell me about your musical, The Glorious Ones?
SF: It's a piece we've been working on for a long time. It's sort on a side-burner. It's a piece based on a novel by Francine Prose. We had done a reading of an early draft of it before we had the opportunity to write the score for Ragtime, so when Ragtime came up we had to let that go and we've been periodically revisiting it. It's set in the world of the commedia dell'arte and it's about the characters and where they come from in life and art and the creative spirit. Some shows write themselves quickly and some take time. This is one of "take time" shows.
PBOL: It's still something you're interested in and have the rights to?
SF: Yeah. Also, Lynn and I had done a reading of a new piece, another piece, at Lincoln Center last June, so we're going to be doing a workshop coming up for that. I don't wanna say too much because it's really fresh. It's a piece based on a novel called "Dessa Rose," and it's set over the course of the 1800s and it's based on two historical women: A runaway slave and a woman who helps her to freedom, and in doing so become "free" herself. The two women who did the reading were Donna Murphy and La Chanze. The characters get to play themselves at different points in their lives, so La Chanze gets to be an 85-year-old woman and a 15-year-old girl.