ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty Go "Back to Before"
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
Back to traveling! This Saturday I’m in New Orleans with Megan Mullally for two shows, and in a week I’m in Milwaukee at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts doing my deconstructing show. And, this whole week I’ll be rehearsing for the big salute to Marty Richards, which will happen April 8. But, nonetheless, I feel a lot of pressure has been lifted because March 31 was the last performance of the Midtown March Medley. It was a creatively satisfying month coupled with the highest stress level I’ve ever been under. OMG! Writing, rehearsing, acting and producing the shows (with James) was a nachtmare but also thrilling! And, we had so many wonderful people working with us as actors, on the creative teams and doing tons of behind-the-scenes stuff. Often we’d have four shows a day starting at 1 PM, and the backstage staff worked all day long. I kept waiting for Emma Goldman to convince them to strike. (PS, I’m not referencing her social activism I learned about in school. Pretty much everything I know about her is because I played piano in the Broadway orchestra of Ragtime. Apparently Emma Goldman was a big supporter of unions and a sassy belter.)
Speaking of Ragtime, I had an amazing Chatterbox this week with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composing team that gave us Ragtime and many others. Stephen grew up in Pittsburgh going to Catholic school, and he wrote the score for his first musical when he was still in high school. Each scene in the show was set in a different Pittsburgh neighborhood (there are that many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh?), and he decided to write each one in a different style (a showtune, a rock-and-roll one, a country western one). While he composed, he differentiated the styles by using a different colored pen for each song. His piano teacher (who also coached him on composing) discouraged him from his Technicolor writing telling him that “no one would take him seriously” with his multi-colored writing. His teacher asked Stephen, “Do you think Sondheim uses different colored pens?” PS, not only do I approve of using multi-colored pens, I say to use the kind my sister had in the 70’s where the red smelled like strawberry and the purple smelled like grape. Different styles, different colors, different toxic chemicals to inhale.
Stephen also verified one of my favorite Liz Callaway stories. He and Lynn wrote the score to the animated film "Anastasia" (which they’re currently working on bringing to Broadway), and he was at the film premiere with Liz Callaway (who was the singing voice of Anastasia). They ran into Meg Ryan, who did the acting scenes as Anastasia, and Liz introduced herself and told Meg that she sang the Anastasia songs. Meg looked at her and said, “Oh. I told my friends that I did all the singing.” Then she walked off. Stephen said there was no way to know if she was completely serious or if she had the driest sense of humor ever. To this day, both he and Liz don’t know whether Meg was joking, and he said it remains as big a mystery as the actual story of Anastasia! Here’s her version of the story:
PS, back to his colored ink. When he and Lynn wrote Seussical, Stephen told her he’d be able to write the songs in different styles throughout the show because he’d done it before (albeit, based on Pittsburgh neighborhoods). And, he’s actually changed his style with every show. Look at Once on the This Island versus Ragtime! He calls himself a “musical Meryl Streep.” He changes styles as often as she changes accents.
Stephen remembers the specific date he moved to New York (Sept. 15, 1982) and, years later, he discovered that was the exact same date that Marin Mazzie arrived in the city. To this day, they always call each other on that day and wish each other a happy New York anniversary! Lynn and Stephen met at the Lehman Engel BMI Musical Theater Workshop in 1983, and their first big New York show was the Off-Broadway Lucky Stiff, which gave us the stalwart audition song “Times Like This,” which most people call “The Dog Song” (It’s times like this, a girl could use…a dog). Adorable! Most people don’t know, but the original singer of that song was…Julie White! People know her as a comedienne, but she’s also a sassy singer. Julie also told me one of my favorite first-date lines she said to the guy she married when she first met him. They were at a BBQ and began talking. She was older than him, and he looked at her and said, “What are you…like 30?” She told him that she said yes because “at the time I was 35, which is ‘like 30’.” Brava!
Anyhoo, Lynn discovered the story that their musical Once on this Island is based on. They approached the author for the rights and had to present the material to her for final approval. Lynn’s description of that experience is hilarious because first they had to disguise how they were going to end the show. Lynn says the book concludes with something like “And then a large storm engulfs the island and Ti Moune’s dead body is put on the side of the road for the garbage collectors.” Stephen then added, “The End.” What a fun musical! Lynn wrote an outline for approval and mysteriously ended it with “And at the end of the play, the Gods bless Ti Moune.” AKA, she kept it vague. Then they presented four songs to the author. Lynn remembers that after the songs were sung there was an extremely long silence. Finally, after the tortuous nothingness filled the air, the author intoned, incredibly slowly, “Well…..that….was……wonderful.” Why make it so terrifying? And, back to the ending of the piece (spoiler alert), if you don’t know, after Ti Moune’s love marries another girl, she dies and one of the gods transforms her into a tree. I bought my sister Nancy tickets to see the show (20 years ago), and she was traumatized by the ending. PS, she is still mad at me that I didn’t “warn her.” To this day, whenever I take her to a show she’ll glare and ask, “Does anyone turn into a tree?”
I asked them about writing Ragtime and, if you don’t know, composing teams had to audition for that gig! Garth Drabinsky asked a slew of composer/lyricists to write him four songs based on a 65-page treatment of the show written by Terrence McNally. The teams recorded them, and he listened to them all without knowing who wrote what. Stephen and Lynn had 11 days to write and record them all! They wrote a song for Evelyn Nesbit that she sang to Younger Brother (the scene was later cut from the show), "Ragtime," "Gliding" and "Til We Reach That Day." They did full recordings of each one with Stephen's vocal arrangements, and he said that the harmony he wrote for “Til We Reach That Day” remained exactly the same when the show opened four years later! PS, he also added that his “secret weapon” on the recording was having the alto line sung by…Billy Porter! Having a guy sing that high added an urgency and sass to the harmony. If you’ve never heard Billy’s amazing voice, go see him in Kinky Boots and watch this deconstruction! Amazing!
We only got up to Ragtime in the Ahrens/Flaherty Chatterbox, so I’m going to bring them back next month to discuss the rest of their shows…including their current musical overseas…Rocky! You can watch an excerpt of their Chatterbox right here and see the entire thing (ending with their performance) at www.SethTV.com. And, watch my new Daily-Shout Out videos, which I’m posting every day!
Well, the Midtown March Medley might be over, but one of the shows is planning a transfer in a month! James’ play Unbroken Circle is slotted to start previews mid-May, which is super quick in the world of theatre. It’s exciting and stressful! We’re working with investors now and trying to get all the money together ASAP. Stay tuned for details and feel free to drop off a $10,000 check at the Chatterbox this week! Peace out!
(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)
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