STAGE REVIEW:
Flaherty and Ahrens present their
latest musical collaboration

By Christopher Rawson
April 22, 2007


The cast of the new Flaherty-Ahrens musical, from left, front row: John Kassir (lying down, as Dottore), David Patrick Kelly (Pantalone), Julyana Soelistyo (Armanda) and Jeremy Webb (Francesco); and back row, Paul Schoeffler (Flaminio), Natalie Venetia Belcon (Columbina) and Jenny Powers (Isabella Andrenini). Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photos

It’s a kind of marriage, the collaboration of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist/librettist Lynn Ahrens, who’ve worked together almost nonstop for nearly 25 years.

“No, it’s better, because we can leave at the end of the day,” laughs Ahrens. But she admits she occasionally calls her partner by her husband’s name, or vice versa, “which is really bad.”

Interviewed together at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, they certainly interweave and overlap like a couple of long standing. It can be hard to recall just who says what. Not that it’s hard to tell them apart. Flaherty is the Dormont native, age 46; Ahrens is the New Yorker, a few years older. But they’re equally compact, and both have faces that shine and crinkle with enthusiasm for what they do. It may be hard even for them to keep each other straight.

Jenny Powers and Jeremy Webb

Do they fight? “Oh, yes,” says Ahrens. “Not so much anymore. I think we worked out a lot of issues early on. You just stop bothering about what annoys you. And although we might not agree, we never fight about work.

“It’s an open marriage. If there’s something great, I’d go for it. But Stephen is my partner. We’re completely committed to each other.”

That commitment has produced one of the finest bodies of work in contemporary musical theater. To their well-known Broadway shows -- Once on This Island (1990), My Favorite Year (1992), Ragtime (1998) and Seussical (2000) -- add Lucky Stiff (1988), A Man of No Importance (2002), Dessa Rose (2005) and the movie Anastasia (1997).

Now they’re adding something new: The Glorious Ones, a musical chronicling the adventures of a troupe of 17th-century Italian actors, which has its world premiere at Pittsburgh Public Theater, now in previews and opening Thursday for critics and inquisitive industry powers.

“It’s a real stand-alone production,” Flaherty is quick to insist -- not just a tryout for New York.

Together they wax enthusiastic about the quality of the cast and creative team the Public’s Ted Pappas has helped put together, led by Theater Hall of Fame director and choreographer Graciela Daniele.

They’ve been here for a month, working constantly. Along with the inevitable rewriting, “we’re protecting our baby,” Flaherty says. “John Kander once told me you spend maybe 10 percent of your time writing tunes” and the rest of the time protecting them and getting the show on its feet. “You have to be commander of the ship, so that at the end, someone can say, ‘That was a nice tune.’ ”

Commander, indeed. Flaherty’s music team includes music director, orchestrator, music copyist, music contractor (who hires the musicians), sound designer and all-purpose assistant. Including Flaherty, that’s a “music department” of seven, to which add seven musicians.

“And Steve’s in room 707,” says Ahrens. “I’m the 0 in between.”

As they talk, work goes on all around the O’Reilly Theater. From the start, the show has been densely, almost continually scored, with set pieces, monologues and travel songs, but they’ve been cutting, the better to free up the improvisatory, physical humor that is such a big part of the story.

“It’s a theater piece about improvising theater,” says Flaherty. “We have to create mayhem and then lasso it with notes on a page.” Sometimes, “to give the actors utter spontaneity, you can’t score it,” Ahrens says.

Flaherty has the orchestrator and copyist working full speed. “I’m trying to keep up with Graciela in the other room,” he says. They looked forward to the first orchestra rehearsal. Until then, they rehearsed with only a piano: “It’ll be like hearing it in color for the first time.”

“The most thrilling is the sitzprobe,” says Ahrens. That’s the show-biz term for when the performers and orchestra get together. The actors hear the rich music for the first time and the musicians hear the story that ties the music together. It may be the only time they see the cast, since they will be down in the pit thereafter.

Is it Ahrens and Flaherty or Flaherty and Ahrens?

They seem amused. It’s usually Ahrens and Flaherty (for example, on www.ahrensandflaherty.com), obeying the mysterious collaboration law that says when a two-syllable name is paired with another of one syllable or three, the two-syllable comes first: Gilbert and Sullivan, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart. (Note that some put the lyricist first and some the composer.)

Defending her priority, Ahrens says, “I’m older, it’s alphabetical, and I’m female. ... But in Pittsburgh, maybe it’s really Flaherty and Ahrens. ... I was thrilled to come to Stephen’s hometown. It’s such a warm place.”

She wasn’t referring to the snow outside.

“It’s been fun to spend time in my own neighborhood,” says Flaherty. When he’s working away from his New York home, “immersed in creativity,” the downtime is usually boring, since he doesn’t have time to know his surroundings. But here, “even the downtime is thrilling,” visiting with his family in Dormont, re-exploring the sites of his youth.

Flaherty left Pittsburgh early for college in Cincinnati, and he’s been a New Yorker ever since. His life partner, Trevor Hardwick, whom he met in New York, actually knows Pittsburgh better, since he worked here for 16 years at Mellon Bank.

Ahrens graduated from the University of Syracuse school of journalism. She started writing ad copy, then jingles, and she performed, which led to producing TV shows. She was also involved in “Schoolhouse Rock.” An interview with Howard Ashman, who was working on Little Shop of Horrors, led her to the famous BMI Workshop.

“That was the moment I said, ‘This is what I should have been doing.’ ” In the workshop, she met Flaherty, and the rest is collaboration history.

Although renowned as a lyricist, Ahrens hasn’t received as much recognition for her librettos. But she’s been the book writer on all their work except Ragtime and A Man of No Importance, when they teamed with Terrence McNally. Now she’s started writing short stories and a memoir, with publication upcoming in the Kenyon Review and the online Narrative Magazine.

Typically, the team has several future irons in the fire they can’t talk about, because it’s premature or they don’t yet have the rights to works they hope to adapt. “Writers are very protective of their works,” Ahrens says.

A project they can discuss is an evening of two song cycles. One is based on a 19th-century New England farmer’s diary, with a song for each month, touching on such subjects as weather, slavery, birth, death. The other is based on photographs by her father.

Both have to do with legacy. That concern also informs their work as co-chairs of a Dramatists Guild fellows program that helps new composers, lyricists, librettists and playwrights “follow established writers into the trenches ... sort of everything I wish had been around when I was that age,” says Flaherty.

In two dozen years, their open marriage has yielded Ahrens one major creation without Flaherty -- lyricist (with composer Alan Menken) and co-book writer (with Mike Ockrent) on the version of A Christmas Carol that ran for 10 Christmases at Madison Square Garden, then became a 2004 TV movie with Kelsey Grammer. And Flaherty has had one without Ahrens -- his Gertrude Stein musical, A Long Gay Book (2003), revised as Loving Repeating (2006) -- and has also written incidental music for Neil Simon’s play Proposals.

A composer of great variety, Flaherty has written in many idioms -- Caribbean, ragtime, Irish, modernist. He calls Glorious Ones his “most European.”

“There’s only so many notes on the piano,” he says, gesturing to the keyboard in their office at the Public. An astrologer friend once told him his star chart was half reason and half intuition, which is perfect for a musician.

“You need the science to lasso the ideas,” Flaherty says, “to catch something with a butterfly net. I always carry a pad or recorder to capture an idea during the day. I have some of my best ideas walking across town.”

He gestures out the window across Penn Avenue to the stage door at Heinz Hall. “That’s where I had my first professional job,“ in high school, as CLO rehearsal pianist: ”coming full circle, I feel very lucky.”