PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Lynn Ahrens

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30 Apr 2002

Jerry Dixon and LaChanze star in the <I>Once On This Island</I> reunion benefit concert.
Jerry Dixon and LaChanze star in the Once On This Island reunion benefit concert.
Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown

On May 12, members of the original cast of Broadway's Once on This Island will assemble for two benefit concert performances of the 1990 Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical, at the Winter Garden Theatre. The Caribbean set fairy-tale musical will star LaChanze, Jerry Dixon, Sheila Gibbs, Kecia Lewis, Afi McClendon, Gerry McIntyre, Milton Craig Nealy, Nikki Rene, Monique Cintron (who played "Andrea" on the first National Tour), Eric Riley and Ellis E. Williams, with a special guest appearance by Lillias White (she stepped into the original Broadway run as Asaka). The Tony Award-nominated show marked the Broadway debut of librettist-lyricist Ahrens and composer Flaherty, whose previous musical was Off-Broadway's Lucky Stiff and whose subsequent work included Broadway's My Favorite Year, Ragtime (for which they won the Best Score Tony Award) and the short-lived Seussical the Musical, which will be launched on a national tour come fall. Their upcoming show is an adaptation of the 1994 Irish-set film, "A Man of No Importance," for Lincoln Center Theater, about a repressed bus conductor who stages a play by Oscar Wilde at his church in the 1960s, prompting him to confront his true nature. The libretto is by Terrence McNally. It premieres at LCT in September. Lynn Ahrens spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about Once on This Island and Ahrens & Flaherty projects past, present, future and shelved.

On May 12, members of the original cast of Broadway's Once on This Island will assemble for two benefit concert performances of the 1990 Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical, at the Winter Garden Theatre. The Caribbean set fairy-tale musical will star LaChanze, Jerry Dixon, Sheila Gibbs, Kecia Lewis, Afi McClendon, Gerry McIntyre, Milton Craig Nealy, Nikki Rene, Monique Cintron (who played "Andrea" on the first National Tour), Eric Riley and Ellis E. Williams, with a special guest appearance by Lillias White (she stepped into the original Broadway run as Asaka). The Tony Award-nominated show marked the Broadway debut of librettist-lyricist Ahrens and composer Flaherty, whose previous musical was Off-Broadway's Lucky Stiff and whose subsequent work included Broadway's My Favorite Year, Ragtime (for which they won the Best Score Tony Award) and the short-lived Seussical the Musical, which will be launched on a national tour come fall. Their upcoming show is an adaptation of the 1994 Irish-set film, "A Man of No Importance," for Lincoln Center Theater, about a repressed bus conductor who stages a play by Oscar Wilde at his church in the 1960s, prompting him to confront his true nature. The libretto is by Terrence McNally. It premieres at LCT in September. Lynn Ahrens spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about Once on This Island and Ahrens & Flaherty projects past, present, future and shelved.

For more information or to purchase tickets for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Once on This Island benefit shows (3 PM and 8 PM May 12) call (212) 840-0770 ext. 268 or visit www.broadwaycares.org or www.island benefit.com.

PBOL: Once on This Island is one of my favorite shows because it makes me cry, but also because it's joyful and theatrical and lean and economical — a fairy tale in 90 minutes.
Lynn Ahrens: It's very lean. I feel there's a lot of story in it. You're taken on a complex and satisfying journey but it is short and sweet.

PBOL: It's set in the Antilles and focuses on a poor rural girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with a rich city boy, Daniel, from the other side of the island, who has crashed his car in her neck of the woods. The story has so much tension and conflict: Black vs. brown skin, rural vs. urban, rich vs. poor, polytheism vs. Christianity. Is all that in the source material?
LA: It's all inherent in the book [Rosa Guy's "My Love, My Love"]. It is. In all modesty, we made certain improvements: We underlined tensions, we brought out the emotional moments. In the middle of the book is a sequence that's quite long — it's basically a third of the book, where Ti Moune leaves her family and goes in search of Daniel on the other side of the island. That particular part of the book is very long and rather tedious because there are all these passing characters and there's quite a bit made of them but they never have any real impact on the story. And they never come back at the end in any way, so we had to address that. That whole middle of the book became the song, "Some Say," to get her from Point A to Point B. We fleshed out her relationship with her parents, her relationship with the gods, why the gods do what they do. It's kind of interesting in hindsight to read the book, if you know the musical well.



PBOL: Whose idea was the show?
LA: I found the novel in one of my browsing forays into Barnes and Noble...

PBOL: The same foray that every musical theatre writer has when looking for source material...
LA: I keep looking for that book, "Great Musical Ideas Contained Within, All Public Domain." I haven't found that book yet but I'm still looking. ["My Love, My Love"] was something I picked up, they were selling discounted books and I was looking for ideas. I found it just about a week after Lucky Stiff closed. We were both very depressed, having had our first show close. We were sort of taken aback by the whole experience. That was 1988. I found the book, and we wrote it and started going into production in one form or another in 1989 and it got to Broadway in 1990.

PBOL: Two years is quick.
LA: We're fast. I don't know if that's good or bad. We tend to work very hard. We work every day. This was a spontaneous bubbling-up of material and our state of mind at the time.

PBOL: Did you know in the beginning that Once on This Island would have a frame of storytelling? That it would be about telling a story to a little girl during a storm?
LA: "[The storm] was [director] Graciela [Daniele]'s idea. We had a very presentational storytelling quality to it. In the very first rehearsal, she said, "Would you mind if I tried something? Put the child down front and let them tell her the story." We said, "Sure, give it a try." It suddenly focused the whole meaning of the tale. It focused the idea of passing it on — and one generation learns from the next and teaches the one that comes after. It informed the whole show in such an important way.

PBOL: Was the song "We Tell the Story" part of it originally?
LA: No, that was written rather late. I was talking to Stephen about it the other day and I remember that when we first starting writing it, we were trying to cram [songs] into a more traditional format. I remember we played a few of the very very early songs for Alfred Uhry. He was so wonderful, and he looked at us and said, "This is a beautiful project, let it be what it wants to be. Stop writing comedy songs." We took that so much to heart because when you're writing, a show generally dictates and tells you what it wants to be. We hadn't learned that lesson yet. We did learn it with that show.

PBOL: Was it hard getting rights to the novel?
LA: No, it was scary but it wasn't hard. We contacted the author and the scary part was that we had fallen in love with the property and had been writing it. We had written virtually the whole show by the time we actually got to meet Rosa Guy. She said, "Yes, I will give you the rights but I must hear four songs and you must give me a presentation." And we were done writing the show. I thought: If she doesn't like these songs I'm going to have to commit suicide. So, it was a very tense morning. We brought singers in and did the best performance for her that we could, of our four best songs, we felt. At the end of it, I will never forget it. She's a very queen-like woman, beautiful and tall and somewhat reserved. She sat there and there was this long moment of silence when we had finished. She said, "Well..." And I thought: Oh, my God! And there was a long silence, and she said, "It's wonderful." I just got a note from her yesterday, we're still in touch, she's gonna come to the benefit.

PBOL: Have you learned your lesson now, that you don't write a show before you get the rights?
LA: You'd think I would, but I still do it. You know what we tend to do? When we find something that we love we write a little bit of it anyway to see if it is really gonna feel good.

PBOL: Didn't you write a stage musical based on a film and you couldn't get rights after you completed the work?
LA: Yes, we could never get the rights. It was "Bedazzled."

PBOL: Is it heartbreaking still?
LA: No, not really. It was heartbreaking at the time because we wanted, as every young new writer does, to get produced. We were getting great feedback and people were saying, "This is a great idea, this should be produced," so it was frustrating at the time. It was our very first show and then we went on to write two more unproduced ones, and then we wrote one for Theatreworks USA, a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes" — that was the first time I ever wrote book, the first time we ever got produced, the first time we ever did anything real.

PBOL: What were the other two unproduced shows? Will we ever see them?
LA: You will never see them in a million, billion years. One of them was called Antler, and, believe it or not, we wrote it to a certain point with George C. Wolfe, who was also a young writer. It was based on a news item that I found about a very elderly man in South Dakota, I think, who was giving away his land because his town was drying up and dying and the school system was closing and he wanted to keep his town alive. I guess he had a lot of acreage, so he advertised across America: I will give you an acre or two (or however much it was) if you will come and live full-time in Antler. We started writing it and went pretty far with it. It was one of those concepts in search of a really good story, and we never could find a good story.

PBOL: It wasn't Antler!, with an exclamation point, was it?
LA: No, it wasn't quite that bad.

PBOL: What was the third show you and Stephen worked on that never materialized?
LA: We started something called Changing Ernie, which we did a little bit on, which was gonna be about my ex marriage, and I just realized it wasn't all that interesting to anybody and particularly to me. And then I think we had a couple of other false starts along the way. Once we got our Theatreworks production, then we started getting produced.

PBOL: I know you write for specific story and character, but do you ever recycle trunk stuff?
LA: No, we really don't. We did that once. I'm not gonna tell you what it was or when, but we took a melody we really liked and used a little bit of it to trigger another song. Basically, we never do that.

PBOL: Once on This Island has appeared in theatres around the world. There's a wonderful cut song from the show called "Come Down From the Tree." Does it ever appear in productions?
LA: No. We've actually had various requests from schools, or whoever happens to be doing the show, if they could put it back and we say no because it really doesn't belong in the show. I don't think I could have ever structured anything better than that [show]. It's very tight and it works beautifully and there was a reason that song popped out, as much as we loved that song.

PBOL: Every writer looks back at past work and sees something that might be tweaked or changed. You don't feel that way about Once on This Island?
LA: No, not for Once on This Island, I've never thought that for a minute. I think it about every other show, but not that one.

PBOL: For the non-Equity Ragtime tour, you cut "He Wanted to Say."
LA: Yes, we did. I was the one who wanted to do it. I've been pushing to do that since before it went on Broadway. I said, "This is a great song but it's slowing down Act Two, because it's sung by secondary characters." And we had all these big, anthem-like sort of things in a row. Somebody said, "Oh, Lynn, shut up, OK? Try it for the non-Equity production." We saw it, and it was so startling to see it not there that I can't quite say it was a good idea, but I know it wasn't a bad idea. We're gonna withhold judgment until we see it again.

PBOL: Is there a licensed version of Ragtime yet?
LA: We're gonna put out a "preferred version" but offer other songs that were cut in case people do want to use them.

PBOL: Do you read online theatre news services?
LA: I don't read anything online anymore. I'm too scared. I used to dabble in it, and then once Seussical struck [and the internet helped fuel negative word of mouth] I couldn't do it anymore.

PBOL: I think I read a quote from you saying that you felt the internet message boards and chat rooms about theatre and new shows were not a healthy thing.
LA: No, I don't think it is. I think it's healthy for people to talk, but I sort of think the whole internetting, e-mailing phenomenon is somewhat unhealthy anyway because it really divorces people from each other and from responsibility for what they say. And what they say goes into print and anything in print looks like a fact.

PBOL: Can you say a little about the new Seussical tour?
LA: Y'know, I sort of can't because we haven't even gone into production with it yet, and we're gonna be having a creative workshop for the choreographer and director in a few weeks. I'll know more about it then. I don't want to talk too much about it now. I can tell you it's an entirely new production. And it'll be slightly refocused. Some of the writing is gonna be what it was on Broadway, with some tightenings and refocusings. No new songs. We have to work with the director [Christopher Ashley] and choreographer [Patti Colombo] to see what they need. Basically, the show we wrote is the show that's going out on the road because it's a beautiful show and it just needs a second airing.

PBOL: Was the turbulent Broadway production of Seussical painful?
LA: It's not painful at all, it's just not positive. It was a negative experience in many ways although there was a lot of great stuff about the experience as well: Writing it was great, doing the workshops with our actors, and the cast was phenomenal. For a list of about 115 different reasons it became a negative experience, and it's not worth dwelling on especially when it's going on in a new, great form.

PBOL: Can you talk a little bit about A Man of No Importance?
LA: A little. We're going to have a small reading next week, just to get our heads back into it. We're still casting certain roles. We go into production Aug. 1 — we start rehearsals.

PBOL: We heard Richard Thomas was attached.
LA: No, Richard Thomas is not attached. Richard was unable to do the production for a couple of different reasons. So we still have not cast the lead role and we're just holding our judgment on that for a little while.

PBOL: How big is the cast?
LA: It's 13.

PBOL: It's an intimate show.
LA: Very. After Ragtime that's what we wanted to do, something really small.

PBOL: Whose idea was it for a musical?
LA: [Playwright-librettist] Terrence [McNally] found it. He had seen it, and he brought it to us. We had been talking about doing something else together [following Ragtime]. We saw it and we loved it.

PBOL: It's set in the 1960s?
LA: Yes, we haven't changed the time or place.

PBOL: Can you talk about the flavor of the music?
LA: It's all kinds of Irish, from contemporary stuff to '60s stuff to really traditional Irish stuff, but it's all Stephen Flaherty. It's Flaherty-inflected.

PBOL: You guys don't repeat yourself.
LA: We try not to. I'm hoping we don't.

PBOL: Do you have a wish list of projects and properties and ideas in a big "Lynn Ahrens File"?
LA: I have a really teeny Lynn Ahrens file. It's so teeny that there's maybe one other idea in there that I think is really viable. But I'm always looking. Good ideas are very hard to find and sort of obvious ideas are easy to find, but I don't want to do those.