Power duo songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have two critically acclaimed musicals running on Broadway: Anastasia and the revival of Once On This Island. But where did it all begin, you ask? I’ll tell ya!
Stephen grew up in Pittsburgh and wrote the score for his first musical when he was still in high school. Each scene was set in a different Pittsburgh neighborhood and represented in different style of song—rock ’n‘ roll, country and western, a big showstopper, and so on. He differentiated the styles by using a different colored pen for each song. His piano teacher—who also coached him on composing—pointedly asked, “Do you think Sondheim uses different colored pens?” I’ve never interviewed Sondheim, so that question remains unanswered. Flaherty, however, set the stage for his career with those colored pens because his scores have remained a myriad of styles! Once On This Island and Anastasia sound completely different from one another, and neither sound similar to his 1998 Ragtime. He calls himself a “musical Meryl Streep.” Basically, he changes styles as often as she changes accents.
Lynn spent most of the 1970s at an advertising firm, and brought her guitar to play and sing in her office during lunch. One of the executives asked her if she wanted to work on a new project called Schoolhouse Rock. She said yes and thus became a permanent part of my childhood and that of many others! She wrote music and lyrics to “Interjections” and “Nouns” and wrote and sang such classics as “Interplanet Janet” and “The Preamble,” a song about the opening statement of principles of the U.S. Constitution. She’s slightly mortified/proud of having rhymed the word “the” with the last syllable of “America.” Stephen pointed out she did the same thing in Ragtime: “Bringing the nation a new syncopation the people called it ragtime.”
Lynn and Stephen met at the Lehman Engel BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in 1983, and their first big New York show was the musical farce Lucky Stiff, which premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1988.
It was Lynn who discovered the story upon which Once On This Island is based. They approached the author, Rosa Guy, for the rights, but had to prove themselves to earn her approval. They presented four songs, and Lynn remembers that after the songs were sung there was an extremely long silence. Finally, Rosa intoned, incredibly slowly, “Well… that… was… wonderful!” They had the rights, and audiences were blessed with the original Tony-nominated run and the current revival.