A Conversation with
Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens were in town this week to conduct a master class for Harvard University's "Learning from Performers" series. Coincidentally, the first regional production of their most recent work, A Man of No Importance, is running at the Boston Center for the Arts now through November 9th. Directed by Paul Daigneault, it's a co-production of SpeakEasy Stage Company and The Súgán Theater Company.
Lynn, Stephen and I met for breakfast at their hotel in Cambridge the morning after they saw the show at the BCA. The time we'd agreed upon now seemed less civilized given how long the evening before turned out to be. When the enthusiastic post-performance "talkback" with the authors finally wrapped up, audience and cast members alike simply spilled over onto the stage and kept the dialogue going. Not until the ASMs pointed out that the last 'T' trains would be leaving soon were they able to clear the theatre and finish resetting for the next performance.
The first thing mentioned after the coffee got poured was how surprising it was - given the competition from the first Red Sox/Yankees playoff game - to have a sold-out Wednesday night audience, two thirds of whom stayed for the Q&A. I assured them that Bostonians could be almost as passionate about theatre as they are about sports - and that a radio in the lobby was kept tuned to the game.
Like any long partnership (they've been collaborating for twenty years now) the two of them sometimes speak in tandem and are prone to finishing each other's sentences. Prompted by the reason for their being at Harvard, we talked about their early mentors, the events leading up to their first production (Lucky Stiff) in 1988 and their development process for a new work.
Suzanne Bixby: What was it like to see A Man of No Importance now that you're totally removed from the creative process?
Lynn Ahrens: I love the show, just love the show. Sometimes you go after a little bit of time and you think, "Oh, that doesn't work. I should have rewritten that. This could be a little better." But I didn't have that feeling last night. In terms of the writing, I just was so happy with it. I thought it was really solid.
Stephen Flaherty: With time away from it, you can become much more objective because you're not emotionally involved in the daily creation of the work. It's nice to be able to do that. I also think it's interesting to see somebody else's take on the work. I feel like we did what we wanted to do and now this is part of the joy of letting a piece go into the world.
SB: The idea to do A Man of No Importance came from [book writer] Terrence McNally and you've said he was instrumental in coming up with suggestions to musicalize it that appealed to you, but what was the emotional hook that convinced you to spend months, even years, with this material?
LA: The main character Alfie Byrne is so appealing - so heartfelt, passionate, sad and funny - as are all the others in the show, that we fell in love with the characters. Of course, there were other factors - Stephen loved the Irish milieu - but I think, initially, it's always the story and the characters that grab you by the heart.
SF: I loved what the piece had to say about friendship, about the creative spirit and how it binds people together. And for me, I'd never written a gay character before so that was really important for me. I was very excited about that. And it was set at an interesting time, in an interesting world.
SB: Did you talk at all about removing it from the Dublin setting or changing it from 1964?
SF: That seemed to be really part of what made the show so specific and interesting. Without that I think we would have lost a lot of its flavor and character. It seems so embedded into the story - the religious aspect of political and social politics at that time.
LA: And the changing music - the changing world - the Beatles coming in, all of that stuff. It was a time of little chips in the Catholic armor. Of course, the actors have to get those Dublin accents down ...
SF: ... it becomes really difficult to cast because of that.
SB: That's one reason it was so fortuitous for SpeakEasy and Súgán to collaborate here - one with a reputation for doing quirky, little musicals and the other known for producing Irish plays. And it made it possible to have a cast of fourteen.
LA: I think the collaboration of not-for-profits is great. I know it's going to happen more and more. It has to.
SB: Because of the size of the cast?
LA: Yes, it was too big for Off Broadway.
SB: So this show, economically, was headed from the Mitzi Newhouse ...
LA: ... to the Beaumont, if things had worked out.
SB: It would have to be done on that scale?
LA: Yes, which is sad really when you think about it.
SF: I thought the space last night was so perfect, scale-wise, for this piece. Actually, in a weird way it reminded me of the original Playwrights Horizons. It's almost the exact number of seats - 145 at Playwrights - and the fact that there are odd structural things that are part of the theatre.
SB: Last night there were a lot of young writers in the audience and this afternoon you're giving a Master Class at Harvard. Could you outline the events leading up to your first show Lucky Stiff?
LA: Stephen and I met in the BMI Workshop in 1982. We started working together - collaborating - in 1983. Our first attempt was a show called Bedazzled. We couldn't get the rights to do it, but it got us noticed by people in the theatre community. We presented it at various workshops and got some notice. One of the important people, I guess, who noticed us was a fellow named Ira Weitzman who got us an NEA Grant and put us together with writer/director George Wolfe [now artistic director of the Public Theatre.] We tried to do an original idea called Antler [with George] and none of us could figure it out.
We couldn't find a story that worked, so we abandoned that and decided to do a children's show [The Emperor's New Clothes] for TheatreWorks USA. That was actually our first produced show and was a wonderful, wonderful learning experience for us. And after that, we decided, okay, we're sort of getting this together. I found the novel that Lucky Stiff was based on, and we started working on it. That was the chronology from 1983 to the production of Lucky Stiff in 1988.
SF: The funny thing is, to put it in context, that, basically, Lucky Stiff was this tiny, chamber knock-about farce. We were working on that during the time that Les Miz and other very serious, very grand shows were hitting.
LA: We never seem to be in sync ...
SF: The hilarious thing is now that we tend to do more serious, dramatic material, Hairspray is all the rage. Lucky Stiff is actually going to be done in two weeks at the York Theatre as part of their "Musicals in Mufti" series, so it will be interesting to see how that little comedy plays at a time when comedy seems to be the thing.
SB: Who were your mentors during these early years?
LA: We have a fantastic mentor list: Stephen Sondheim critiqued us when we were first starting, Peter Stone, Sheldon Harnick ...
SB: Was that at the Dramatist Guild?
LA: Yes, but we also did the ASCAP panel thing where we met Richard Maltby ...
SF: You know what's an interesting thing? I don't think I ever received a musical mentor until Bill Brohn [orchestrator for Ragtime and A Man of No Importance]. At most of these workshops, the topic tends to be the dramaturgy and the craft of songwriting - which is great, but not in terms of literally finding someone to learn from and discuss the nitty-gritty of the music. When Bill and I started working together as a team, I started really learning more things about instruments - not necessarily the theatrical use, but from a music perspective.
LA: No one had regular meetings with us or anything like that. We would do these workshops and get critiques. They were incredibly valuable, for me anyway. I learned an enormous amount from a number of people along the way who taught me about the craft of writing and structure. Sondheim was very, very kind to us - sort of behind our backs. He would recommend us for things and we'd find out later. We never asked him for anything, but he was really great.
SF: Very early on, before Lucky Stiff, he recommended me for this trip that went to Eastern Europe, an exchange program with the International Theatre Institute. They picked one writer, one designer, one director, one dramaturge. At the time I felt I wasn't even a blip on his radar, but, obviously, he must have seen something and wanted to encourage me. I had never traveled outside the United State before. We went to Poland, Bulgaria and Italy for two weeks studying music and theatre and sharing with each other. I felt really good to be pulled out of my small world at that time and thrown into the larger community.
SB: A lot of the programs you took advantage of in the '80s are still in place today.
LA: Only we sit on the other side of the table now. We co-chair a Dramatist Guild program called the "Jonathan Larson Fellows," sponsored by the Jonathan Larson Foundation, where we give weekly Master Classes and critiques. I sit on the Richard Rodgers Committee every year reading scripts, and we both sit on ASCAP panels now.
SF: It's important to give back, but it's not just a charitable gesture. I think it's really important to keep in touch - see what younger writers are listening to, what's important to them. What are the sounds they find exciting? That's how you keep current, by having that dialogue.
SB: Are you optimistic about the "state" of the American musical theatre?
SF: I think these are confused times, certainly on Broadway.
LA: Nobody quite knows what to write. We sort of go forward and write what we want to write and hope it will get produced. And if it's going to be in not-for-profit theatres or regional theatres for a while - or if that's where the really interesting work is being accepted - then that's what you do.
SF: It's tricky. I think a lot of people know what they want to write, but I don't think a lot of producers know what they want to produce.
LA: They're afraid to produce. If you start trying to figure out what "they" want, with a capital "T" for they ...
SF: The tricky thing is there's so much less funding for the arts in general - private foundations, government subsidy. Every not-for-profit theatre around the country is missing the boat trying to support itself. The work that at one time was supported Off Broadway is hard to find. Everybody's missing the boat.
LA: A lot is getting developed by corporations and by committee. And that's our cross to bear. Sometimes the shows they turn out are good, and that's fine. And sometimes they're really not, and that's not fine. The downside of it is, you run the danger of cookie cutter stuff getting developed here by a bunch of executives who think they know what the formula is for a hit show as opposed to producers nurturing individual voices.
SB: So we need more Lincoln Centers?
LA: We do.
SF: They're fantastic!
LA: They really are. We've done so many shows with those people, with André and Ira [André Bishop and Ira Weitzman, the artistic director and associate for musical theatre development, who moved from Playwrights Horizons to Lincoln Center] and they just know when to make a comment and when to shut up and go away. Mostly, they aren't even part of the process. It's really about the writers.
SF: Until there's enough to be heard.
SB: They allow the process to happen ...
SF: That's right.
LA: They completely do. They make a few smart, intelligent comments and then they go away again and hope you do it. And if you don't, you know what? You don't! They're really wonderful.
SB: They should be mentoring other producers.
LA: Yes, they should. They absolutely should.
SF: They treat you with utmost respect. It's a given that they respect you because you're working in their theatre. Not like some weird dramaturgical thing where there's some "dramaturge from hell" with a gun to the writer's head saying, "do this or" ...
SB: They haven't invested their own egos in the project.
LA: That's right. It isn't about their success; it's about our process. We've worked for a number of different producers now, so it's sort of interesting to be aware of what the differences are.
SB: What can you tell us about your next project [currently titled Dessa Rose] that's expected to be part of Lincoln Center's next season?
SF: We did a reading there with Graciela Daniele [director/choreographer for Once on This Island and choreographer for Ragtime] in June a year ago, and we just did a three and a half week workshop this past June with her as director and choreographer.
LA: It's perfect for her. We just love her so much. She's also doing this little production of Lucky Stiff at York. We were so thrilled, because, you know, it's just a little thing ...
SF: A lark!
LA: ... five days of rehearsal. We asked ourselves who would we like to be in the room with and who could understand how to do this farce in five days? Graciela! We called her up and she said, "Sure!"
SB: At what point do you like having a director added to the process?
LA: Pretty much after we have a solid first draft, I think.
SF: It's important that we at least take the first pass at our initial impulse with the piece so we have something to discuss.
SB: At that point, are you headed towards a deadline to do a reading or a preliminary workshop or something? How do you use deadlines?
LA: We make them. It was different with Ragtime because we had a producer who brought the project to us so he had his deadlines - his idea of when he wanted things to be done - that we tried to aim for. Usually, we work as quickly and as efficiently as we can. You just keep writing and try and get things out when you feel they're ready, but sooner is always better than later!
LA: The only people present were our partners and our agent and ...
SF: Joe Mantello
LA: ... who at that point we'd invited, saying, "would you come and look and see if this in anything you'd like to do?" And he said, "yes."
SB: What was it like working with Mantello on his first musical?
LA: He was fantastic. He has such musical instincts. You can almost tell it from his play direction. Everything flows, and it's very economical in terms of the movement of scenery.
SF: He has wonderful dramaturgical instincts.
LA: With A Man of No Importance, I credit him with, not coming up with a solution for the whole end of the show, but pinpointing a problem that we had with that point. I don't think we would have addressed it. We thought it was working fine, and he said, "Something's wrong. Right here."
SB: What advice would you offer to young writers to help them avoid the pitfalls?
LA: In writing or in business?
SF: I personally say, in terms of writing, that nobody knows your show better than you do. Trust your own instincts. It's coming from you. You're the creator. You're the person who sees not only what's there, but also what the potential is for the piece. Trust your gut instinct about what you know intuitively about the piece that you're writing. At the same time, listen to other people's thoughts and opinions, but trust what you know about the piece. Whenever you go against what you believe the piece is, that's when you tend to go down the wrong road.
LA: Really, that's what it is. There's a tremendous desire when you're a young writer to be produced and you run the risk of some producer, or someone, coming along and saying, "Why don't you do this?" It's the devil speaking! You have to do what your heart tells you. You have to go with stories and characters and ideas that you feel passionate about. There's certainly something to be said for earning money and for working for money. But on the business side, I would say to young theatre writers, "Do not give up your copyright for anything. It's not worth it. It's your intellectual property." I would say, "Never write what 'They' want; write what you want."
SF: That sums it up.
A Man of No Importance, a co-production of SpeakEasy Stage Company and Súgán Theatre, runs through November 9th at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Performances are Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 4pm & 8pm and Sundays at 3pm & 7pm (no 7pm show on Sunday 11/02.) Tickets are priced at $30 or $35, depending on the performance, with a $5 discount for seniors and a $15 "Fleet Student No-Rush" at all times (subject to availability.) Tickets can be purchased from the BCA Box Office at 617 426 2782 or on-line from the SpeakEasy or Súgán websites: www.speakeasystage.com and www.sugan.org
Lucky Stiff, part of the York Theatre's "Musicals in Mufti" series, October 24th-26th, directed by Graciela Daniele. Location: The Theatre at Saint Peter's, Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue (entrance on 54th Street) in New York City. Performances are Friday at 8:00; Saturday at 2:30 and 8:00; Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 with an audience discussion following each matinee. For tickets call 212 935-5824, extension 25. For more information: www.yorktheatre.org.
Photos from SpeakEasy Stage/Sugan Theater Company co-production of A Man of No Importance by: Eric Levenson