Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty met and began collaborating on musicals at the BMI Workshop in 1982. Their first Off-Broadway show, Lucky Stiff, won them a Richard Rodgers Award and their next, Once On This Island, moved to Broadway and became a staple of the genre with productions on all levels around the world for years to come.
Since then, Ahrens and Flaherty (the rare songwriting team referred to with the lyricist's name first — somehow it just sounds better than "Flaherty and Ahrens") have been a go-to pair for some of the most anticipated productions to come down the pike, including this season's mega-musical Rocky. Ahrens and Flaherty have the rare ability to craft songs that have a contemporary perspective and sound, while seeming inextricably linked to the grand tradition of the Great American Songbook.
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Ahrens and Flaherty songs.
Ahrens and Flaherty's 1992 musical adaptation of the hit 1982 film received only mixed reviews and failed to run beyond its initial Lincoln Center Theater engagement, although the production received several award nominations, and Andrea Martin won the Tony for Best Featured Actress In A Musical. Luckily for musical theatre fans, an original cast album was recorded preserving more than a few toe-tapping, stirring melodies, with smart, catchy lyrics, including one of the most exciting opening numbers of the last few decades: "20 Million People," which captures the behind-the-scenes excitement of producing a television show.
It's not hard to imagine Ahrens and Flaherty getting the job to write Rocky when you listen to "The Streets Of Dublin" from their 2002 Lincoln Center Theater musicalization of the 1994 film, A Man Of No Importance. It's the rare contemporary showtune that feels full of testosterone, a man's song. The character Robbie's celebration of the city he loves is invigorating and enchanting.
Although another flop for Ahrens and Flaherty on Broadway in 2000, Seussical has gone on to be one of the most produced musicals in the regional, stock and amateur worlds since then. An ambitious musical amalgamation of several Doctor Seuss books including "Horton Hears a Who!," "Horton Hatches the Egg" and "The One Feather Tail of Gertrude McFuzz," Seussical has gotten a somewhat unfair bad rap for failing to synthesize its elements into a slick, easily digestible Broadway package, when what it succeeded at was impressive on its own terms. Seussical's score is an immensely appealing collection of quirky characters numbers resounding with humor and heart. Perhaps the hardest to resist is "Alone In The Universe," sung by Horton and Jojo, who make up one of the most movingly mismatched pairs in Broadway history.
Seussical features so many charming songs, any of which could make a Top Ten list. Also, for whatever was wrong with the original Broadway production, it boasted a highly gifted cast that included Kevin Chamberlain, Janine LaManna, Michelle Pawk and Alice Playten, making it hard to chose favorites. Still, I think, even removed from LaManna's winning performance, "Notice Me, Horton" is a first-rate character ingénue ballad, arguably in the vein of "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors and even "Mr. Snow" from Carousel.
It's hard to imagine now, just a couple of decades later, white writers taking on a Caribbean story like Once On This Island, but it seems that Ahrens and Flaherty's work was hardly questioned. Perhaps it's because they didn't condescend to the material. "Come Down From The Tree" (although cut from Once On This Island for dramaturgical reasons) is emblematic of the entire score in that it's about these people, but it could be sung by anyone's mother, or perhaps it's what we wish our mothers would sing to us.
Although Ragtime's lavish original 1997 production lost money, its two-plus-year run can easily be looked at as a success, considering its popularity and impact. There are more than a few big, epic, emotional ballads in Ragtime, but perhaps the most notable is "Wheels Of A Dream," and it's certainly the one that has often been pulled for out-of-context performance, particularly in the original production starring no less than Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald as Coalhouse and Sarah. Just try not to sing along.
One of the hallmarks of the BMI Workshop is the "I want" song, usually presented early in the show to establish the main character's personality and conflict. Ahrens and Flaherty took this to a glorious level with the intoxicating "Waiting For Life." The song manages to combine the beauty of a ballad with the thrills of a big belter number. It's a b*tch to sing, but a pleasure to hear.
Ragtime is such an epic show with so many characters and so much action, it's hard to anticipate any kind of 11 o'clock number, let alone two. Of the two, "Back To Before" and "Make Them Here You," the former is particularly unexpected in that the character of Mother has been the silent rock, the heart of the story until that point, but her shifts have happened subtly. When she comes forward and acknowledges them, her own transformation in the midst of the changing world, with the stunning "Back To Before," the effect is thrilling.
There are a handful of songs that transcend their origins to stand alone out of context as a rich expression of a particular idea or feeling. "I Was Here" is such an anthem, and deserves to be sung along with similarly powerful showtunes like "I Am What I Am," "Cabaret" and "I'm Still Here." For those unfamiliar with The Glorious Ones, check out some of the lyrics to this should-be classic asking some of the great "whys" about show business, art, and life:
Why does a boy carve his name on a tree
Or the first-born inherit the throne?
What is a sculptor aspiring to be
When he spends half his life carving stone?
Kings built their tombs for the ages
Poets and fools fill up their pages
At the very beginning of Ragtime, before the opening number begins to weave its vast tapestry across the stage, a simple tune, a rag, is played on a single piano, establishing the lifeblood of the piece. This tune becomes the song "New Music," extrapolating the metaphor of the entire work. If my description sounds clinical, the music itself is ravishing and the lyrics are as human and real as any in song. The analogy between the new music heard in this country as society was in upheaval is a powerful one that resonates today.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues,andnbsp;currently on a worldwide tour. Read more about the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)