ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty Go "Back to Before"

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02 Apr 2013

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens

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.


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