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Ahrens and Flaherty

AHRENS AND FLAHERTY


Members: Lynn Ahrens (born New York, New York, 1 October 1948); Stephen Flaherty (born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 18 September 1960).

Genre: Musical Theater

Best-selling album since 1990: Ragtime [Original Cast Recording] (1998)


The team of lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty found a marked degree of success within the musical theater world of the 1990s, writing with enough complexity to please critics while retaining a cheery tunefulness that appealed to mainstream audiences. Stylistically, the pair falls between legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, whose work has been critically praised but often popularly ignored, and Frank Wildhorn, whose hook-laden pop scores gained 1990s commercial success but critical derision. Ahrens and Flaherty are unique in their ability to write in many different styles; the sound of their work is largely shaped by the setting and subject matter of the material. While they gained recognition in the late 1990s for film scoring, Ahrens and Flaherty remain devoted to the musical theater form, with several of their shows ranking among the most recognizable Broadway theater productions of the decade.

Lynn Ahrens came to musical theater after a distinguished career in television writing and production. During the 1970s she contributed songs such as "Interplanet Janet" and "Do the Circulation" for the popular children's Schoolhouse Rock television series. In 1982 she attended the prestigious BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, where she met Flaherty, who had written musicals since his teenage years. Soon the pair began working on a theatrical version of the 1967 film, Bedazzled, but were forced to abandon the project after failing to obtain the stage rights. Fortunately, the musical captured the interest of Playwrights Horizons, a New York off-Broadway theater company known for its development of new writers and their work. At Playwrights Horizons, Ahrens and Flaherty developed their next two projects, Lucky Stiff (1988) and Once on This Island (1990), the latter the musical that would establish their commercial and artistic reputation. Sporting a lush score that combined gentle Afro-Caribbean rhythms with bright, cheerful melodies, Once on This Island a compelling love story notable for its entirely African-American castsold out at Playwrights Horizons and soon moved to a larger Broadway theater, where it ran for more than a year.

By the early 1990s, Ahrens and Flaherty were widely recognized as up-and-coming talents within the theatrical community. After premiering the Broadway musical My Favorite Year (1992), which was dismissed by critics as overblown and unfocused, they rebounded with Ragtime (1996), a musical based on author E. L. Doctorow's acclaimed 1975 novel of early-twentieth-century history. One of ten writing teams considered for the project, they succeeded in composing four songs for an audition tape in less than two weeks. Winning the contract, the pair created a rich, varied score that includes standouts such as the exuberant "Gettin' Ready Rag" and "Back to Before," a powerful, rousing ballad. Opening in 1996 in Toronto, Ragtime arrived two years later on Broadway, where it ran until 2000.

Featuring a high-profile cast, the Broadway production starred such notable stage actors as Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, and, in the performance that made him a Broadway star, Brian Stokes Mitchell, portraying an entertainer who takes the fight for racial justice into his own hands. Writing for Mazzie's character of "Mother," a well-to-do white woman who comes to a gradual awareness of inequality and racial injustice, Ahrens crafted some of her most compelling lyrics: "Each day the maids trudge up the hill / the hired help arrives / I never stopped to think they might have lives beyond our lives." Successfully inter-weaving plot lines featuring a wide range of historical charactersfrom famed magician Harry Houdini to architect Stanford White and his scandalous lover, Evelyn NesbitRagtime captures the narrative feel of an epic. In 1997 Ahrens and Flaherty scored another commercial triumph when they contributed songs to the hit animated film, Anastasia.

In 2000 the pair completed Seussical, a musical based on the stories of famous children's author Dr. Seuss. Starring noted comedian and clown David Shiner, the show was largely rejected by critics as forced and overproduced, bearing a flashy, high-tech production but few distinctive or memorable songs. The replacement of Shiner with famous comedian and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell in January 2001 did little to help sales. Seussical was a rare commercial and artistic misfire for Ahrens and Flaherty, closing after a six-month Broadway run. In 2002 the pair premiered A Man of No Importance, based on the 1994 film about a middle-aged bus driver coming to terms with his homosexuality, at New York's Lincoln Center Theater.

Ahrens and Flaherty rank as one of contemporary musical theater's most versatile composing teams, crafting accessible, intelligent works that draw upon source material ranging from children's stories to award-winning novels. With Ahrens providing sharp lyrics and Flaherty creating melodic songs, the pair has established a long-lived and successful creative partnership.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

Original Cast Recordings: Once on This Island (RCA, 1990); My Favorite Year (RCA, 1993); Lucky Stiff: A Musical Comedy (Varese Sarabande, 1994); Ragtime (RCA, 1998); Seussical (Polygram, 2001). Soundtrack: Anastasia (Atlantic, 1997).

WEBSITE:

www.ahrensandflaherty.com.

david freeland

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