InDepth InterView: Stephen Flaherty Talks NY Pops JOURNEY ON Gala, Plus RAGTIME, ROCKY & More
Today we are continuing BroadwayWorld's exclusive multi-part InDepth InterView series focusing on the New York Pops 29th Birthday Gala concert celebrating the music and musicals of Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty, JOURNEY ON, that will take place at Carnegie Hall on April 30 at 7 PM, by talking to the musical half of the Tony Award-winning songwriting team, Stephen Flaherty. Espousing on a diverse range of topics covering many of his most notable collaborations thus far with lyricist Lynn Ahrens - LUCKY STIFF to ONCE ON THIS ISLAND to RAGTIME to SEUSSICAL: THE MUSICAL, THE GLORIOUS ONES and their new in-development musicals - Flaherty opens up about his commitment to the theatrical form and what inspired his life-long investment in the industry, as well as his recollections of working on the impressive slate of Ahrens & Flaherty musicals created thus far - nine and counting, with two new ones on the way. Besides RAGTIME memories and all about that landmark musical, Flaherty also shares his enthusiasm for his newest project, a stage adaptation of the 1975 Academy Award-winning Sylvester Stallone film ROCKY, and he generously traces the progress of the production in Germany thus far and clues us in on the forthcoming cast album to be recorded later this Spring. Plus, news on the Christopher Ashley-directed LUCKY STIFF feature film, Flaherty's remembrances of his first Broadway experiences and candid observations on his composing colleagues (both contemporary and classic) - and much, much more!
The New York Pops 29th Birthday Gala: JOURNEY ON will be presented on April 30 at 7 PM. More information is available here.
The previous entry in this series, InDepth InterView: Lynn Ahrens, is available here.
PC: RAGTIME came along at the perfect moment in time given the dearth of new musicals on Broadway. It seemed like Broadway was dying for a time there in the 1990s.
SF: You know, that happens like every five years, everybody says, "It's dying! It's dying!" I remember the first Broadway show I saw was BUBBLING BROWN SUGAR and everyone was saying "Oh, the theatre is dying!" And, then, the original CHICAGO and A CHORUS LINE happened right after and it was like "Boom!" So, I think everything happens in cycles.
PC: Incidentally, John Kander and Marvin Hamlisch have both this column. Were those two scores influential to you growing up?
SF: Absolutely. You know, I'm a kid of the 70s and I really cut my teeth on musical theatre in the 70s. I learned so much by seeing theatre and studying the scores for the shows I liked. The best thing that ever happened to me was getting a public library card - you know, cast albums and scores were at the library in Pittsburgh, PA, where I grew up. I only saw a few shows, but a lot of them I would just study the scores and imagine what they would be like - I never saw FOLLIES until years later; I never saw COMPANY until years later; but, I knew those recordings inside and out and I knew every note.
PC: There is no better way to learn how scores are built.
SF: Totally. That's why I impress on people why it is so important to have original cast recordings out there in the world - I'm like, "Don't you understand? There is going to be some kid out there someday who is like me - who is me - who needs to hear these shows and needs to hear these scores; these performances need to be preserved." And, I sort of think of that every time we are in the studio.
PC: That enthusiasm passes on and it's a communal experience for all who fall in love with the theatre in childhood.
SF: Absolutely. Absolutely.
PC: What scores were the most influential on you growing up?
SF: Well, it's funny, because I am a kid of the 70s so I really got to know the more pop-based scores than the classics - I had seen GODSPELL and knew that score before I knew CAROUSEL. So, I didn't get to know the older scores until after I learned a lot of the more contemporary shows.
PC: That's not that unusual.
SF: I was particularly lucky that I had two really influential teachers when I was 14 - one of was my piano teacher and one was my high school drama teacher; both of them opened the door for me at a very crucial time and introduced me to the work of the contemporary composers like Sondheim and Kander, but, also, the classics. My piano teacher also played for the Pittsburgh PLO, so I got to learn classical music, pop music, show music - he was my first composition teacher. It was an incredible, incredible time for me and I am so lucky that I met those gentlemen when I did.
PC: You and Lynn have never really tackled a completely pop/rock score until now with ROCKY, though, would you agree?
SF: Yes. It's an interesting thing, too, because next year Lynn and I start our thirtieth year of our collaboration and ROCKY is my first rock show. I kind of love that. [Laughs.]
PC: Has it been a challenge to use the pre-existing Bill Conti theme from the film of ROCKY in your new original score?
SF: That's an interesting thing, too - first of all, I have to say that we are keeping ROCKY centered in the time that it was created. It's squarely in 1975 going into 1976.
PC: A real period sound close to your heart.
SF: Yeah, you know, I was a teenager growing up in Pennsylvania and, actually, the characters in the show are not dissimilar to those in my neighborhood - not at all! [Laughs.]
PC: It hits close to home - literally.
SF: Yeah, you know, everybody says, "Oh, it's this big franchise!" and this and that and the other, but whatever. The truth of the matter is that we are focusing on the very first script right now and it is so poetic - it's really street poetry - and it's so beautiful and brutal and fragile. The characters are very much like people that I knew - people that I grew up with - so, I think that out of everything I have ever done, I think this is actually the most similar to who I am and where I am from.
PC: When Alan Menken did this column we spoke quite a bit about integrating the 70s Philly funk sound into his score for SISTER ACT, which was happening right around the corner at the same time in history.
SF: That's so interesting - you know, everybody confuses the Philly soul and funk sound with Motown and they are completely different.
PC: They really are.
SF: Yeah - I have really been studying my SOUL TRAIN! [Laughs.]
PC: So, there will be disco in the score, among the other sounds of that period?
SF: Yeah, yeah - it's really the sound of Philadelphia in that period. So, part of it is a really hard-edged rock - a working class bar band type of a sound, not dissimilar to Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band of that period; it has that kind of rough and tumble, not-too-polished quality - and, at the same time, there are the sounds of soul and there are the sounds of funk. There is a really heavy folk influence that I use a lot for the character of Adrian.
PC: And the Conti theme?
SF: Yes, it has to be said that that Bill Conti theme is so in the DNA of that particular piece - of that particular title; that particular character - that you would be crazy not to deal with it in some way. It's just something that you can't ignore, you know?
PC: How do you deal with it?
SF: Well, I was thinking about it for the longest time and I came up with a way - I don't want to talk too much about it because I don't want to spill all my beans…
PC: Of course.
SF: But, there's a creative way, I think, that I have come up with, deconstructing that theme - so, there are elements of the harmony; there are elements of the melody. It's sort of weaved throughout the score so that it really feels like an integral part of the harmonic language and rhythmic language of the piece. It makes an appearance later in the score, too - but, I won't say exactly where! [Laughs.]
PC: Andrew Lippa interpolated the classic ADDAMS FAMILY theme into his musical's score, as did the composers of GHOST. We live in a meta-media age, particularly insofar as musical stage adaptations of movies go.
SF: Exactly. Exactly. I thought it would be kind of crazy if we were to ignore something that is such an important part of that character and that title - but, I think it's all about how you use it and I think I have come up with a really creative, organic way to use it so that it doesn't sound like "Insert Famous Theme Here", you know? It's not that.
PC: It fits in.
SF: It's very organic to the piece and it's a little surprising, actually.
PC: Not unlike what rappers do in sampling other music.
SF: Right - exactly. It's like when you hear Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" embedded in a Janet Jackson song.
SF: It references it, but, in a certain way, it is an homage from one artist to another artist. You know, with RAGTIME, I didn't use any pre-existing rags - I didn't use any Irving Berlin pieces; I didn't use any Scott Joplin pieces.
PC: And there is no classical source music in THE GLORIOUS ONES either, correct?
SF: No, no - there isn't. But, one of the things that was of interest to me as a composer with RAGTIME was that I wanted to show all the different kinds of rags that could be used, and, also, I wanted to tip my hat to Tin Pan Alley rag - which was the white ragtime that Irving Berlin created - versus the Harlem school - which was the Scott Joplin rags.
PC: How fascinating.
SF: Actually, one of my many jobs whenever I was putting myself through grad school was working in the Shubert archives here in New York City and I actually found some really rare Jerome Kern rags that no one else had seen, really.
PC: What did it sound like?
SF: It was really interesting to see how a lyrical composer like Kern - somebody who liberally dipped his pen in operetta - could interface with the ragtime. So, a lot of the ideas of what "New Music" would eventually become - which was a really incredibly lyrical romantic ragtime piece - it didn't resemble that, but it was sort of my homage in a certain way… homage isn't the right word…
PC: It evoked it.
SF: Yes - exactly. So, now, with ROCKY, this is sort of taking that one step further, with taking a piece of music and sampling it, as it were.
PC: Speaking of RAGTIME, could you recount your audition process for the show? Isn't it true Kander & Ebb also auditioned, among others?
SF: I mean, whenever people hear that, they are sort of indignant, I think - because, at that point, we had had two shows on Broadway. People say, "What? You auditioned for that show?!"
SF: Yeah - they can't believe it. But, the truth of the matter is that I knew that we were the perfect writers for that show and I was a longtime ragtime aficionado - I mean, I put myself through undergrad school playing in a ragtime band!
PC: No way!
SF: Way! This was in Cincinnati, Ohio, circa 1980.
PC: What was your band's name?
SF: It was called the Fleeting Moments Waltz and Quickstep Orchestra.
PC: What a name!
SF: [Laughs.] Yeah, we celebrated the American dance music of 1890-1920 and that is squarely where ragtime is situated, so I knew those rhythms and I knew that music and I knew that whole world.
PC: Undoubtedly - especially with that preparation.
SF: Nobody else knew that, though. And, also, we had done mostly more modest productions - you know, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND was a show that only had 11 actors and I think MY FAVORITE YEAR had like 22. RAGTIME was destined to be a large-scale piece, certainly in its first Broadway outing.
PC: To say the least.
SF: I had wanted to write a large-scale Broadway musical drama, if you will - along the lines of PORGY & BESS or WEST SIDE STORY; you know, using Broadway show music to a really incredibly dramatic effect - and I knew that I could do it and I absolutely wanted to job, so the fact that we were able to audition for it was a great thing, I think. You know, it became clear to me that writers can get pigeonholed the way actors can be.
PC: What was the first song you and Lynn wrote for RAGTIME?
SF: It was an interesting thing. We had gotten a sixty-page treatment from Terrence McNally that was basically Terrence's idea of how RAGTIME could be told in dramatic theatrical terms, and, based on that, we then were asked to compose four original songs. Then, we began counting the days…
PC: It was a lot of pressure.
SF: I was actually working in London at the time and Lynn was working here on a different production and we both began to count on our fingers how many writing days we had - and we had eleven.
SF: Eleven days to: write the songs; for me to arrange them; for us to get them to the recording studio to record them; to record them; to mix them; and, then, to press them.
PC: The entire demo process.
SF: It is almost comical to me to think about now! But, in expedience's sake, I said, "Why don't we two with music first and two with lyrics first and then we will swap." And, that's literally how we did it. So, I was getting lyrics from Lynn when I was in London for certain song moments, and, this was back in the days of cassette, so, at the same time, I would put musical ideas on cassette and we would get together and shape the songs. So, that's how we wrote the original first four songs for the show - and three of them are still in the show.
PC: What songs?
SF: It was the title song, "Ragtime"; the end of Act One, "Till We Reach That Day"; a song for Tateh called, "Gliding", which is the immigrant song he sings to his little daughter; and, then, there was song for Evelyn Nesbit because in the original novel she has an affair with Younger Brother. So, that song occurred as she awakens after they have just made love - it was called "You Don't Know".
PC: What was that song like?
SF: It was basically a sort of little ragtime, jazz-baby type song about how they would never work out as a couple because he treated her so well. [Laughs.]
PC: The characters of Evelyn Nesbit and Houdini seemed to be cut down the most as the show developed, did they not?
SF: They changed the most - you know, we were trying to find ways to keep them in the show, and, ultimately, I think that the audience was really involved with the Coalhouse story, the Mother story and the Tateh story.
PC: The recent last tour of RAGTIME was superb, I thought.
SF: Oh, thank you. We were also thrilled that we just got to do it on Broadway again, too!
PC: That Broadway revival was beautiful, as well.
SF: It was. It was so great.
PC: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is coming up at Papermill. Lynne Shankel will be music directing that production - what has it been like working with her? She is so phenomenally talented.
SF: You know, she is one of those people who several people kept introducing me to her and saying, "You guys will totally get along and you must work together," and, I said, "Absolutely. We should definitely work together." She said, at the time, that she was focusing more on her orchestrations and doing a little less music direction work. Then, Lynn and I had this idea to do this new production at Papermill Playhouse and we talked with Tommy, the director, and we said that we wanted to try something new and play with the show a little bit - not necessarily in terms of the text, but we wanted it to be a multi-cultural production.
PC: How intriguing. How did that idea come about?
SF: Well, Lynn and I had seen several of those productions over the years and we just felt like this was the chance for us to sort of bring all different kinds of world music elements into the work. So, I immediately thought of Lynne Shankel - I thought that maybe I could pull her into the MD world, one last time, and we could work together as musical collaborators and bring some world musical elements into the score. And Lynne really knows those influences like the back of her hand.
PC: What new musical flavors can we expect?
SF: Well, we are having some Cuban influences and some New Orleans; a lot of South American influences that were sort of hinted at in the first version of the show but not really brought to the fore. So, it's a new instrumentation with a lot of new ideas. The choreographer, Bradley, did ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Reprise in Los Angeles and he has a lot of really, really, really exciting ideas.
PC: It sounds like it will be a must-see production.
SF: Yeah - it is a mother-load of talent! [Laughs.]
PC: "Come Down From The Tree" is a fantastic song, but Lynn told me it will never find a way back into the show, though. True?
SF: You know, it's one of those songs that works really well as a separate song, but it sort of stopped the action at a time when we didn't want it to. We did use it in the workshop, but, ultimately, it didn't work in the show - the minute we took it out the middle section of the show suddenly worked.
PC: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND would make a terrific film, as well, I think.
SF: I think we could definitely explore that possibility. But, first up, I am really excited about the Papermill production - it starts at the end of May, through June. It's going to be a really great production, I think.
PC: Tell me about the NY Pops JOURNEY ON gala coming up.
SF: 2012 is one of those golden years - there are so many exciting things happening! We are really, really thrilled about the Pops - it's going to be like "This Is Your Musical Life" in Technicolor. [Laughs.]
PC: A thrilling tribute.
SF: I am so delighted about it because we are bringing back a lot of the original artists who created the roles or first sang the songs or people with who we have strong associations.
PC: Marin Mazzie, LaChanze, Kevin Chamberlin…
SF: Exactly. At the same time, we are also working with a lot of new artists that we have not worked with before. I am really excited about the Pops concert on both counts.
PC: Are you looking forward to the upcoming Regent's Park production of RAGTIME? It should be unique.
SF: Oh, it's such an amazing space - I was there a couple of years ago. The director, Tim, is the same director as the INTO THE WOODS that is coming to the Delacorte this Summer. He has some really, really wild ideas for it and it is really exciting to discuss it - it feels very much like a modern musical, as opposed to, "Here's a history lesson," or, "Here's a period piece."
PC: Will the car drive through the audience, perhaps?
SF: [Laughs.] I'm not going to tell you - you'll have to wait and see!
PC: What's next after that - ROCKY in Germany?
SF: Yes, at the end of May we fly to Hamburg to finish casting for ROCKY - we open there in the Fall. Then, I fly back and Lynn and I are performing a new song we wrote for the premiere of Lincoln Center Theater's new space, LCT3. Then, I fly back to London for previews of RAGTIME and we are in Papermill-land. In June, we are doing a workshop of a new piece with Susan Stroman that we have been developing over the course of the last two years.
PC: The Degas piece?
SF: Yeah - it's ballet meets musical theatre. So, that is in June, and, then, in July we are doing a reading of a new piece that we are not allowed to talk about yet. Then, we fly back to Hamburg and we are doing the German-language cast album of ROCKY.
PC: The cast album for ROCKY will be done in German, then?
SF: Yes, that's right. It's Stage Entertainment and the premiere is in Germany, so it will be in German. Then, in the midst of all of this, LUCKY STIFF goes in front of the cameras in June and July with Christopher Ashley as the director.
PC: What can you tell me about the casting?
SF: Well, we are still in the process of casting some major roles, so I can't really say yet.
PC: Will there be some LUCKY STIFF songs at the JOURNEY ON concert, by chance?
SF: Yes, we are going to have a couple of songs from LUCKY STIFF with these new, amazing orchestrations that Michael Starobin did.
PC: The ones that will be used in the movie?
SF: Yes, he did these new, larger orchestrations - I mean, when we did LUCKY STIFF in 1988 at Playwight's Horizons we had four pieces in a tiny little pit! Then, we did a studio cast recording a few years later and we added a couple more pieces - I think we were maybe up to ten total. So, now, for the movie, we are up to 35.
PC: A world of difference.
SF: Yeah, it's great - it's a big, Hollywood string section. So, we are actually premiering two of those orchestrations for the film at the Pops on the 30th.
PC: Will we hear anything from SEUSSICAL at the Pops concert? That score is a standout of your oeuvre, I must say.
SF: Thank you! I'll tell you a little story: I was actually in my hometown of Pittsburgh last weekend because my little niece was playing a Who in her local school production of SEUSSICAL, and, I must say, it was so charming and delightful. It was such a joy to see how these kids responded so much to the characters and the themes - and, a lot of them had not been in musicals before. Two of the guys who normally are in the band, they said, "Oh, this is the first show we have ever done. We thought musicals could be corny but we loved this one." So, I took that as a bode of confidence. [Laughs.]
PC: SEUSSICAL brings theatre to many new audiences with every new production.
SF: That's right - it does. I am so very happy the show is done so much.
PC: Prior to the upcoming LUCKY STUFF, your only other major movie musical was the animated film ANASTASIA. Will we be hearing some ANASATASIA material with Liz Callaway being there? We must!
SF: Yes. There will be some ANASTASIA material. The orchestrations for that are just drop dead gorgeous - you know, they were designed for a large Hollywood orchestra that you can only get in Hollywood; you can't fit that size orchestra in a New York pit. But, yes, Liz will be doing some ANASTASIA.
PC: Will "After The Storm" be making an appearance in the JOURNEY ON concert, perhaps? That is a fascinating piece of yours and I'd love to hear about its creation, either way.
SF: Well, you know, that, too, was a tremendous opportunity to revisit a show in such a special way, years later. What that documentary was about a much larger idea than just a show - it had become this much, much larger idea. So, I really wanted to pay tribute and give back and be a part of it - you know, I didn't want some other composer writing the score! [Laughs.]
PC: Definitely not.
SF: Ledisi, who recorded the song, is from New Orleans, so to have someone from the community to record the original version of the song was really, really incredible.
PC: Out of all the many magnificent musicals you and Lynn have written, is there a particular song that sticks out?
SF: It's always the piece that I am working on now! [Laughs.]
PC: Could it be a song we may not even have ever heard?
SF: Well, it's interesting, you know - it's like having kids; you never play favorites. So, depending on what your personal mood is, it changes. I will say that the piece that I love singing the most is "Streets Of Dublin" from THE MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and I know the piece that I love playing most is "Ragtime" from RAGTIME.
PC: Of course.
SF: I just love playing that one so much.
PC: It's so fabulous that you play that on the new Broadway revival cast recording, as well - a beautiful detail. Was it fun to record that?
SF: It was really, really fun to do - but, it was a little scary. I had forgotten that I had agreed to do that and it was way at the end of the session when we were all sort of hanging on the ropes a bit…
PC: To use a ROCKY analogy!
SF: [Laughs.] But, then, the producer, John Yap, said, "OK, now it's time for you to do your solo, Stephen." And, I'm like, "Oh, did I agree to that?!"
PC: It's such a remarkable achievement that all of your scores exist on cast albums and the ANASTASIA soundtrack. Is that a special feeling for you - especially considering what we discussed earlier?
SF: Yes, it is. And, also, I have to take my hat off and give a tip to the Theatre On Film And Tape Collection at Lincoln Center Theater - it's amazing what they have done there and what Betty started and what Patrick continues to do. It's really the history of live musical theatre - from the early 70s on - and I have been lucky that every production of mine has gotten in there, as well.
SF: There is something about being in the time capsule - you know, for future students of theatre and lovers of theatre, to be able to see these performances and these productions is so, so important. You know, before that, we would just hear about this performance or that production without ever having seen it, so I think it is so important to keep that history preserved.
PC: Do you think that we are in a special age for musicals as a result of GLEE and SMASH and the various singing shows on TV now as well as the general awareness for musicals?
SF: Well, it's funny, I have to be honest and admit that I have only seen one episode of SMASH! [Laughs.]
PC: What do you think of GLEE?
SF: Well, I think it's totally charming. Lea Michele was our original little girl in RAGTIME and I ran into her parents in Sag Harbor at The Farmer's Market - and this was before GLEE - and they said that she had just finished this pilot and they described the show to me.
PC: What did you think of the concept?
SF: Oh, I said, "It's gonna be a huge hit!" It was just so clear. And, I think that the thing I am most excited about about right now, beyond just the individual shows, is that kids - young people - are really excited about music and theatre and dance and telling stories through music; I think it's wonderful. You know, anytime you can get any encouragement for arts education these days is a wonderful thing. For me, visiting with these young high school kids last weekend, I could tell that these are the kids of GLEE - this is the GLEE generation; they watch the show and they know the songs. They are all really excited to be performing together as a group and put on a show and I think it's really exciting to see that. So, I think GLEE is just terrific.
PC: So you are all for a GLEE tribute to RAGTIME, then?
SF: Oh - definitely. They could even put a beat under it or something! [Laughs.]
PC: You have enough going on without having to rework RAGTIME, too! What a busy year this is.
SF: Tell me about it - it's all a little scary. It's all so wonderful, though. It's been a really, really thrilling time.
PC: Lynn was telling me you two haven't had quite as much private writing time as usual as a result, unfortunately.
SF: It's true. It's been a little bit hard - you know, I have had to get up much earlier than I normally do; and, stay up later. The day is just longer. I like to see my friends and see theatre and there are nights when I just can't do that anymore because I am at home proofing scores. But, honestly, these are the kinds of problems that I dreamed about as a kid, so I can't complain - I'm a happy boy.
PC: Broadway People's Problems!
SF: [Laughs.] Exactly - what big problems to have, right?!
PC: The JOURNEY ON concert at Carnegie Hall will certainly be a grand way to celebrate the year of Ahrens & Flaherty - their anniversary and yours!
SF: It will - and, I guarantee everyone who comes to Carnegie Hall on April 30 a great, great, great show; definitely. I can't wait!
PC: I wish you the best with JOURNEY ON, ROCKY, the two other new musicals and everything else coming up, Stephen.
SF: Thanks so much for this today, Pat. This was really great. Bye bye.