Ragtime and Once On This Island Writer Lynn Ahrens Reveals Her List of "Iconic and Influential" Lyrics

News   Ragtime and Once On This Island Writer Lynn Ahrens Reveals Her List of "Iconic and Influential" Lyrics
In Playbill.com's latest feature series, we ask members of the theatre community to reflect on the contributions of other artists whose work has made a meaningful impact on their own craft. We continue with Tony Award-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who shares her list of iconic and influential lyrics from the rock and theatrical worlds.

Lynn Ahrens
Lynn Ahrens

Ahrens, along with her musical collaborator Stephen Flaherty, has left her own indelible mark on the theatrical world, earning a Tony Award for the moving, modern-day classic Ragtime and Tony nominations for Once On This Island.

Their diverse body of work also includes My Favorite Year, A Man of No Importance, Lucky Stiff, Seussical, Dessa Rose, The Glorious Ones, Little Dancer, Rocky and the Academy Award-nominated animated feature "Anastasia," which is currently being adapted for the stage.

Ahrens also penned lyrics for "Schoolhouse Rock," A Christmas Carol, as well as the songs "Here's Where I Stand" and "I Sing For You" from the film musical "Camp."

Lynn Ahrens: This has been a head-spinning assignment—trying to choose only ten lyrics out of the multitudes I love. Please know that this list is in no particular order, and doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of my admiration for so many more—not just lyrics, but the lyricists who wrote them. But these ten are surely "a few of my favorite sings."

Click through to read Ahrens' selections of influential lyrics from Broadway and beyond.

"Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler on the Roof. From the first Broadway show I ever saw comes this gem of a lyric. The words sound as natural and spontaneous as speech ("Do you love me? Do I wha-a-a-t?"), and the way they sit on the music is wonderful. In true Harnick style, the lyric is entirely unsentimental, very funny and surprisingly romantic.

"Nothing," from A Chorus Line. Ed Kleban taught me a lot about the meticulous craft of lyric writing, in which the choice of even the tiniest word matters. This song contains one of the most potent turnarounds of a hook ever—a single word carries us from an actor's humiliation at the hands of a teacher to a scathing epitaph for that teacher. Ed was a great lyricist and I wish he had lived to write more.

"Eleanor Rigby." I've loved this lyric ever since I first heard it. Lennon and McCartney's delicate portrait of "all the lonely people" manages to be simultaneously catchy and mournful, hinting at a mysterious story. The lyric conjures real life through poetic observation, and it's filled with compassion. "Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?" So good.

"Some Other Time" from On the Town. Having just seen the revival for the third time, I'm filled with admiration for Comden and Green all over again. Their comic writing is legend, but in this plainspoken lyric they show us their warmth—the sudden realization that love is in the small details. ("Didn't get half my wishes./Never have seen you dry the dishes./Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.") That "Oh, well" alone is worth the price of admission.

For me, almost any Sondheim lyric is a favorite. But since I have to choose, I'll toss a coin and say "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd because I never, ever tire of it (and I'm mad about the show.) Every phrase, every rhyme and every image is laugh-out-loud funny, a devilish word game tumbling at you and topping itself again and again. I re-read this lyric every now and then, for the sheer pleasure of the way the words roll off the tongue. "Is that squire/On the fire?/Mercy no, sir, look closer. You'll notice it's grocer!/Looks thicker. More like vicar!/No, it has to be grocer –It's green!"

"Hey Big Spender" from Sweet Charity. "I don't pop my cork for ev'ry guy I see." This is such a tough-girl lyric, one that doesn't just illuminate the characters and their world, but the lyricist herself. It's colloquial, unabashedly bold and sexy: "Do you want to have... fun?" Check that suggestive little ellipsis. Clearly Dorothy Fields wasn't afraid to be in the room with the guys. She's one of my idols.

"If I Only Had a Brain," from "The Wizard of Oz." Yip Harburg could do anything, but in this delicious lyric, he demonstrates his talents for comedy and characterization. "I'd unravel any riddle/For any individl" and "...perhaps I'd deserve you/And be even worthy erve you." Just like the Scarecrow himself, the lyric is very smart and sweetly "brainless" all at once.

"Cabaret," from Cabaret. I really can't separate Ebb from Kander — their work is so inextricably bound, so of a piece, and so amazing. But there's a reason this is such a classic – not only for Fred Ebb's darkly buoyant lyric for a damaged character, but also because he finds a perfect lyrical metaphor for a society dancing on the brink of doom. A character song, a thematic number, a stunning coup de theatre.

"Ol' Man River," from Show Boat. I happen to think this is one of the greatest lyrics (and songs) ever written. Hammerstein doesn't show himself off one bit in this piece. Rather, he inhabits the very soul of the character, a man musing on the hard truths of life on the river. The lyric is moving in its forthright observations, and builds powerfully to his personal statement. It knocks me out every time, and has influenced my own writing, for sure.

"Frank Mills," from Hair. When we were in high school, my friend Pam and I used to bomb around the Jersey shore in her car, singing this song at the top of our lungs, as we looked for a Frank Mills of our own. The lyric manages to be utterly specific and delightful, even as it rambles along conversationally without noticeable rhyme or structure. You not only picture the panhandling Frank Mills, but the woebegone young thing who's looking for him. "I would gratefully appreciate it, if you see him tell him – I'm in the park with my girlfriend, and please, tell him Angela and I don't want the two dollars back — just him."

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