Interview with Ragtime and Anastasia's Lynn Ahrens
Lyricist Lynn Ahrens is one of Broadway's most prolific songwriters and over her illustrious career has won the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award as well as two Academy Award and two Golden Globe nominations, among countless other achievements.
Together with her writing partner Stephen Flaherty, she has worked on musicals as diverse as 'Lucky Stiff', 'Once on This Island', 'My Favorite Year', 'Ragtime', 'Seussical', 'A Man of No Importance', 'Dessa Rose', 'The Glorious Ones', 'Little Dancer' and most recently on Broadway, 'Rocky the Musical'.
Together the pair also wrote the music and lyrics for the 1997 animated classic Anastasia, which has recently been adapted for the stage in a brand new Broadway-bound production at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, USA, where it is running to 12 June 2016. We attended the world premiere and were lucky enough to speak to Lynn to hear more about the production and her previous work.
DOH: Dom O'Hanlon
LA: Lynn Ahrens
DOH: Lynn, it's a pleasure to speak with you. I am, like many people, so excited for Anastasia. What is it about that story, and indeed your work, that resonates with so many people?
LA: I think the story resonates because it’s one of the “seven great stories”—in this case, the classic tale of a determined heroine who experiences a great loss, goes on a quest to find “ home, love and family” and triumphs over adversity to regain them all. There’s a reason the Anastasia myth has been around for a hundred years, and why it seems to resonate so strongly. It’s Dickensian in a way—an adult fairytale we want very much to be true, even when we know for a fact it isn’t. We’re discovering in previews that there is a tremendous fan base for the songs we wrote for the movie, and those who’ve seen the show seem thrilled with the new ways we’ve incorporated those songs, as well as the brand new score.
DOH: There's obviously a trend for turning animated films into stage musicals. How has the process been different for 'Anastasia', creating a brand new musical rather than just a screen-to-stage adaptation?
LA: We made a very conscious effort not to slavishly recreate the animated feature onstage. None of us were interested in doing that, as lovely a film as it was. My collaborators and I wanted to do something that was more sweeping and romantic, while still honouring the artistic achievements of the film. We used some of the original songs from the movie, because we still love them, but we've adapted and re-written them for the stage, placed them differently, and have written a completely new score which includes more than fifteen brand-new songs. There’s also huge dance sequence, completely new underscoring, not to mention an entirely new book by Terrence McNally which contains, in my opinion, some of the best scenes ever written for a stage musical.
|Photo: Kate Scott, Design: Nikki Davison
|Christy Altomare, Derek Klena
DOH: As well as revisiting your work on Anastasia, you also recently had the opportunity to revisit Lucky Stiff. Do you enjoy going back to rework older material, and is it harder looking back on your work with a fresh eye some years later?
LA: I think you’re talking about the movie that was made of “Lucky Stiff?” The fun there was to try and write a screenplay adapted from my own work. I had to change hats, and try to think visually, as opposed to verbally, which is what I usually do. Musicals are about heightened (sung) language. Movies are about visuals—things that could never work on a stage but can be done on film. It was a fascinating experience for me to write that screenplay, and after so long away from the musical, I could come at it with fresh eyes.
DOH: The historical background is so rich to the story of the Romanovs. How much research did you do when writing the musical, and how did that historical context challenge your work?
LA: I re-read many of the books I had on my shelf from the days of the movie version. I also felt I was in the hands of a genius director and designers, whose research knew no bounds. I could ask them anything, and they would immediately know what was or wasn’t appropriate to the period. Our musical spans many years—from the Romanov dynasty, to the Revolution of 1917, to a number of years later, in both Russia and Paris. Lots to read, lots to learn, and lots to use! It’s been an enriching project for me, and I think for us all. When you hear the score, see the scenic design, videography and costumes, you will know how everyone has been inspired by this project.
DOH: Both you and Stephen excel in writing strong powerful songs, especially for female characters, and Anya is another example of such. Do you find female characters easier to write for?
LA: They’re not necessarily easier to write for, but I think maybe women are a little more open in expressing their emotions. But we’ve written some big songs for male characters as well—Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Ragtime, Flaminio Scala in the Glorious Ones—I think really it depends on how withheld or outgoing the character is, male or female.
DOH: What is your usual process when starting to write a new song from scratch? How does inspiration hit you?
LA: Stephen and I tend to write in the same room, batting ideas and musical vamps and lyric lines back and forth until something gels. It usually begins with one of saying, “What is this character feeling at this moment?” and Stephen may then sit at the piano and noodle something, or I may scribble a line. The inspiration often comes from a monologue or book scene, sometimes out of thin air, and sometimes it comes from a lyric first, or a melody first. That’s how songwriting is—ephemeral and hard to describe.
Flaherty and Ahrens
DOH: What advice would you offer to new musical theatre writers, especially those who struggle to break through within the industry?
LA: See and hear as much theater as you can, listen to recordings, analyze the work of the greats and learn about craft, structure, and character development. Read anything Sondheim has ever written. Find a day job that will give you free time to write. Try to develop a peer group of writers to discuss and support one another’s work. Join a workshop (I’m reminded of BML in London, the equivalent of the musical workshop where Stephen and I met.) Try to get your work performed by young performers — put it out there. Keep writing, experiencing the world, finding good stories that you want to tell.
DOH: London audiences adore your work - we have two productions of Ragtime this year alone. What do you think it is about that particular show that remains so powerful throughout multiple different productions?
LA: I couldn’t be more proud of Ragtime. I think it captures America in its essence—hopeful, brutal, tumultuous, naíve, brave and ever-changing. The show always manages to feel relevant, never a period piece. Look what’s happening in our country now—this insane election cycle, the plight of immigrants, Black Lives Matter—on and on, the show seems to resonate. I think audiences respond to its honesty, its craft, and (if I may say so) its score. It’s always thrilling, even when done with six characters and sock puppets. (No kidding—that was a production done in a Women’s House of Detention, and it got raves!).
The world premiere of Anastasia is currently running at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, ahead of a Broadway run. Read our review of the production here.
Lynn's 1998 musical Ragtime returns to London in two productions this year:
Ragtime at the Bishopsgate Institute, an amateur concert production using the full original orchestrations, runs 14-19 June 2016.