Women Wonders: “Ragtime,” “Seussical” “Nasrin”, Lynn Ahrens Forged Ahead In Theater & Film Never Looking Back

(Photo: Nathan Johnson)

I don’t know where to begin. “Un-Block The Music” spoke to Emmy and Tony winning writer and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. She is half the famed songwriting team of Flaherty and Ahrens who wrote the song , “How Can I Tell You,”  for the documentary Nasrin (about Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer unfairly and brutally imprisoned.) Lynn is someone I have wanted to speak to for some time, having written Ragtime, Once On This Island, The Seussical and Anastasia (just scratching the surface here.) How could I ever stick to one topic when speaking to her???  Lucky for me, she graciously accepted my enthusiasm.

Lynn is a woman in a man’s world, and her musicals have been diverse and inclusive long before anyone admitted there needed to be diversity. Sometimes I interview artists and I am disappointed with their energy. Not at all true here. Lynn is positive and real. While, of course, she takes her work seriously, she doesn’t analyze. She just does it, and says, she is lucky “to be able to channel an elephant (Seussical) or an activist (Nasrin).

Always a songwriter, Lynn started her career as an advertising copywriter which led to jingle writing. The agency she worked for produced Schoolhouse Rock which started her on the path to children’s television. Eventually Lynn enrolled in the BMI writer’s workshop. “I thought, ‘I have never tried that before,’ and soon realized it was something I should have been doing all along.” That’s for sure! “the workshop was… and still is a wonderful place for songwriters to learn their craft and create a community.”

Lynn was a self-taught musician; piano and guitar by ear.  The five chords she knew was enough to write songs, but “I joined the BMI workshop to branch out. I thought theater demanded more than the knowledge I had at that point. I wanted to collaborate.” It was there she met Stephen Flaherty.

“During the first year of work shop, I collaborated with five or six different theater composers. For the very last assignment of the year, I didn’t know who I was going to work with. Stephen approached me to write with him. I was so shocked because he never even spoke to me the whole year,” she laughed. “But, when we wrote our first song together, we knew it was a great relationship. Stephen is classically trained and very serious, and writes everything down. I was more the girl who put her fingers down and banged out the tune.”  Her spontaneity offers great balance.

The duo’s first break came with the musical adaptation of Han Christian Anderson’s The Emperors New Clothes. However, the first “Broadway” break came with Lucky Stiff. It won the Richard Rodgers Award and went off Broadway after that. “It was thrilling,” Lynn said.

The duo has written so much that I love, however, it is Ragtime and its consistent pertinence that astounds me. Ragtime just had its 20th anniversary. Lynn said, they had been planning a reunion concert for The Actor’s Fund with much of the original cast. Then came Coronavirus. “Un-Block The Music” hopes and prays this will all come together as live performances start up again.

Terence McNally wrote the Ragtime book for Broadway based on the novel by E.L. Doctrow. It is the story of three families at the turn of the 20th century, confronting the contradictions inherent in American reality. Over the course of the show, the worlds of a wealthy white couple, a Jewish immigrant father and his motherless daughter, and an African American ragtime musician intertwine.

The original Ragtime cast included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Peter Friedman and Audra McDonald, who were all nominated for Tony Awards. The show had 13 Tony nominations overall with Terence, Lynn and Stephen, Audra (for featured actress) and William David Brohn (for orchestrations) winning statues.

“Un-Block The Music” talked to Lynn about her relevance as one of the few women to break the mold on Broadway. “To be perfectly honest, nothing seemed to stand in my way being a woman. I never thought about being a woman in a man’s world…until recently. If anyone has issue, it is too late. Here I am!”

What brings me to Lynn today is the heartfelt song, “How Can I Tell You,” sung by Angelique Kidjo for Nasrin  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8oC–5Vreo&ab_channel=NASRINFilm). The documentary is about Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who was sentenced to 38 years and six months in prison and 148 lashes because of her work defending women’s rights and protesting against Iran’s discriminatory and degrading forced veiling laws. “Un-Block The Music” watched this documentary which is so well done, and so hard to watch.

The filmmaking team of Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross had worked on a documentary about Terence McNally (Every Act Of Life), so they knew what powerful songwriters Lynn and Stephen are. They asked the duo to write a song for the end credits of Nasrin. Lynn said, “we saw a rough cut of the documentary and thought, not only is it an important movie, but she is extraordinary and anything we can do to help her we want to do.”

Lynn and Stephen were given letters Nasrin had written home to her two children. “Her letters were simple, beautiful and heartfelt. She makes no excuses, and just says, ‘I have to do this’.” Lynn and Stephen had a ZOOM call with the filmmakers, the singer, Nasrin’s husband and two kids. It was so fabulous. We felt like we knew each other and it was a beautiful conversation. It’s hard to know what will help Nasrin. Iran is such an oppressive regime, but the documentary has gotten attention from the international community. Petitions have been created on her behalf. She has been given some international awards.” While you may feel sad watching the movie, the song is uplifting. Lynn said, the song is uplifting because “Nasrin herself is uplifting. She doesn’t look for pity or make apologies. She doesn’t complain and she thinks only of other people.”

What’s next for Lynn? At shutdown, the Flaherty/Ahrens show Knoxville was getting ready to play in Florida, so hopefully that will start up soon. And, yet another of their shows, Marie “was circling Broadway at shutdown. I am hoping it will come to Broadway in 2022,” she said.

What are Lynn’s expectations for theater as this pandemic hopefully winds itself down? Like all theater lovers say, no one knows exactly what to expect in terms of what people want to see. She hopes it will be a mix of perspectives from all sides of the musical spectrum because whether the show is Phantom of the Opera or Hamilton, they both have great stories to tell.

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