Broadway Team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty On 40 Years (And Counting) of Musicals

As a one-night-only-benefit evening of their music approaches, the team behind shows like 'Ragtime' and movies like 'Anastasia' talks about their past, present, and future.

The cast of the ‘Ragtime’ reunion concert. Jenny Anderson

Stephen Flaherty, who wrote his first musical score at 14, was a sophomore at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music before Broadway conductor-composer-arranger-teacher Lehman Engel caught up with him. Impressed with the 20-year-old’s musical gifts, he advised Flaherty to quit college immediately, high-tail it to New York and join the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop. A chronic completist even then, Flaherty stayed the course until he graduated in 1982, then rushed to New York and enrolled in Engel’s famous school for songwriters.

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It was a room full of 32 other composers or lyricists or book-writers, one of whom was Lynn Ahrens. Already an established writer, composer and singer, working mostly in commercials and children’s television (Schoolhouse Rock), Ahrens was shopping around for a composer, Ahrens was shopping around for a composer. Enter Flaherty, who—at the time and “primarily by default”—was struggling with all three chores: music, lyrics and book. It suddenly occurred to him to “shake things up a bit and work with somebody for the first time in my life, so I hollered after her down the street, ‘Do you want to write a song together?’ She was surprised since—according to her—I’d never expressed any interest in collaborating before. ‘Yes, absolutely,’ she said. ‘Let’s do it.’”

Their first song was a class assignment, a duet of two people trying to communicate with each other via ads in the  Village Voice. Their song, indeed, was called “Village Voice.”

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens Courtesy of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens

That was May of 1983. This is 40 years later. Classic Stage Company, which presented the most recent Ahrens-Flaherty musical (A Man of No Importance with Jim Parsons), is marking this occasion with a one-night-only-benefit evening of their music, titled after a big number from Ragtime, “Make Them Hear You,” Monday, April 17, at 7 p.m. at the CSC Theater on East 13th.

“We’re still shuffling songs right now,” says Ahrens, “but I can tell you there’ll be something from Ragtime, of course, several numbers from A Man of No Importance, something from Once on This Island . . .” Also expected to be represented is their work on 1992’s  My Favorite Year and the 1997 Disney animated film Anastasia, which brought them a couple of Oscar nominations. “It’s sort of a smattering of 40 years of career,” she promises, “and I think it’ll be a fantastic evening.”

The selections range from their earliest Off-Broadway effort (1988’s Lucky Stiff) to their latest, which is still winding its way to Broadway (2022’s Knoxville), and they’ll be rendered by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Liz Callaway, Lea Salonga, Quentin Earl Darrington, Courtnee Carter, Christy Altomare, A.J. Shively and Jason Danieley. The latter doubles as director and performer. 

Their 40th anniversary as a songwriting team coincides with the 25th anniversary of their biggest hit, Ragtime. That was just celebrated March 27 as a benefit for the Entertainment Community Fund (nee The Actors Fund). “They filmed it,” Ahrens is proud, and relieved, to report. “So you’ll get to see it, thank goodness. I just want the world to see it. It was magnificent. Magical. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was like lightning in a bottle—you know, an explosion of joy.”

Audra McDonald performs at the ‘Ragtime’ reunion concert. Jenny Anderson

Flaherty seconds the emotion: “It was mind-blowing. I was telling myself that I should just try to be in the present—but I was always in the present and in the past at the same time. I remembered when we had written these individual songs. Seeing the original performers we’d written them for reinforced that. When we got Audra McDonald to join us very early on, I began to write for her, so hearing her sing ‘Your Daddy’s Son’ brought me back to the day we had written that song for her in Toronto. Even a lot of the ensemble people. I remember the immigrant section where they’re coming through Ellis Island—[director] Frank [Galati] devised that through improvisation in one afternoon. He was the ultimate collaborator, very much into the group effort and the idea of ensemble. We had a lot of very smart people in that first production—people who had done much more than what they were credited for. Santo Loquasto, who did our costumes, was a great set designer. Graciela Daniele is a choreographer as well as a director. Everybody brought their A Game and their best ideas to the room. It was infectious. It lifted us up. It was a perfect collaboration because we felt we were supporting one another.”

It was billed as a reunion concert, and, to a major degree, it was. “Most of the Ragtime cast who were still alive showed up,” she says. “They came from Canada, England and Australia to do it again. Of course, there were some who couldn’t make it because they now have real jobs and couldn’t get out of work.” They were replaced by actors who had played their parts on tour or during the show’s marathon run (it put in 839 performances on Broadway).

Starring a Tony-nominated Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Ragtime world-premiered in Toronto on Dec. 8, 1996—the same day Howard E. Rollins, who originated the character in the 1981 movie, died of cancer in New York. “Stokes, believe you me, took notice of that,” Flaherty recalls. “He felt, in some weird way, it was like a cosmic passing-of-the-torch.”

Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky produced the musical and, with so much riding on it, is said to have been a tough taskmaster on the show’s creatives—but not according to Ahrens.

“He was demanding, alright,” she admits, “but we got along really well. He yelled, I yelled back, everyone yelled—it was sorta like that. I didn’t find it onerous at all. His particular process is his particular process. We all managed to get along and fit into that. And look what came out of it: a masterpiece of a show. He really wanted to do something epic, and I think he succeeded.”

Flaherty and Ahrens feel blessed to have had two future collaborators aboard Ragtime: Frank Galati, who helmed the show, and Terrence McNally, who wrote it. Both men led the songwriters into a different dimension of a musical than what they had started out with.

“Terrence, from the get-go, said, ‘I really want to use a lot of E. L. Doctorow’s language from the novel in this theatrical presentation of Ragtime,” recalls Flaherty about how the playwright set boundaries. Sometimes, he didn’t. With A Man of No Importance, McNally suddenly created the character of Oscar Wilde, who didn’t exist in the movie, but, says Ahrens, “it gave us a key into the show.” He turned Anastasia into a romantic triangle by adding a whole new character to the mix to make the film less cartoony and more real, more historical. “It was a wonderful change that kinda came out of just wanting to make the story accessible to everyone,” she says.

Galati got his Tony and his reputation the hard way—by bringing John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to Broadway. “His thing is all about taking great works of literature and adapting them for the stage,” explains Flaherty. “At the time of Ragtime, he had never directed an original musical before—just these adaptations of literature as theater. We thought, ‘That feels really good.’ He seemed like the absolute right person to us to bring Ragtime to Broadway.”

The three got together last year as Galati was trying to adapt and direct another favorite novel into an Ahrens-Flaherty musical while battling cancer (which claimed him two days into 2023). 

Knoxville comes from A Death in the Family, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that James Agee died while writing, and All the Way Home, Tad Mosel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play version. 

Paul Alexander Nolan and Jack Casey in ‘Knoxville’ at Asolo Rep in Sarasota, Florida. Cliff Roles

“When John Kander heard that we were working on A Death in the Family,” laughs Flaherty, “he collared me at the theater and said, ‘Damn you! That’s such a great idea. I wish I were writing that show.’ At first, I didn’t know what to make of the idea. I just knew that I wanted to work with Frank again. It was very inspiring, and the show turned out beautifully. Right now, we’re in talks about doing Knoxville in Knoxville, and we’ve already put our lines out for Broadway. We’re like fishermen. We cast our lines in the water and see what bites. There has been some interest, but we’re still trying to figure out the best course to take for the piece.”

So, is Flaherty amazed that this collaboration with Ahrens has gone on for 40 years? “Well, you know, I’m Irish Catholic,” he offers as an explanation, “and we always go to the dark place. Most of us don’t think we’ll go 40 days.”

With Ahrens and Flaherty, 40-plus years isn’t nearly enough. Their work goes on. She says the aging problem with their Tiler Peck musical, Little Dancer, has at last been licked, and a third mounting is in the offing. They expect a future for a radically revised version of their 1992 show, My Favorite Year. A film of their 1990 Once on This Island is now in development, and it will be staged anew in London this month. All that, and Knoxville.

“We’re still hanging in there,” says Flaherty modestly. An understatement

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Broadway Team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty On 40 Years (And Counting) of Musicals