Tony Award-winning Broadway legend Lynn Ahrens calls her journey into musical theatre lyric-writing “dumb luck.”
Hoping to become a copywriter after her graduation from Syracuse University, the twenty-something New Jersey native moved with her then-husband to New York City. She answered two New York Times employment ads – one for an insurance agency, another for an advertising agency. “We were broke,” Ahrens told a reporter in 2014. “I would’ve taken the first job offered.” The ad firm struck first, so she joined the secretarial pool at McCaffrey & McCall.
Though it seemed inconsequential at the time, that job opportunity changed the course of Ahrens’ life.
She was “bored silly as a secretary.” To help pass the time, she brought her guitar to the office and played music on her lunch breaks. One of the firm’s creative directors took notice of her musical talent and invited her to write a piece for one of his artistic babies—an educational television program called Schoolhouse Rock. Ahrens leapt at the opportunity. Before long, she’d written – and recorded! – a number called “The Preamble.”
It was a hit.
Suddenly, Ahrens’ dreams of copywriting shifted to songwriting. She fielded an increasing number of requests to write not only for Schoolhouse Rock but also for other children’s programming (e.g., Captain Kangaroo) and television commercials (e.g., Klondike Ice Cream Bars and Bounty Paper Towels).
Many successes and nearly a decade later, Ahrens needed a new challenge. She was aware that her composition skills were limited – she only knew five chords! – so she enrolled as a lyricist in the 1982 BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Also enrolled was a recent graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music named Stephen Flaherty. Flaherty had written musicals—both composing the music and writing the lyrics—all through high school and college. The two became acquainted early in their Workshop tenure and admired each other’s work; however, it was nearly a year before they decided to team up. As Ahrens recalls it, Flaherty asked her if she’d like to write their final assignment together-she’d set the lyric to his composition. Ahrens agreed. That class time collaboration never ended. They’ve been writing together ever since.
Interestingly, one of the pair’s earliest outings was a work for young audiences. New York’s TheatreWorks, a children’s theatre company, commissioned an adaption of The Emperor’s New Clothes. In addition to writing lyrics for Flaherty’s music, Ahrens was also called on to write the hour-long show’s libretto. Audiences of more than one thousand children at a time thrilled at the result of Ahrens and Flaherty’s labors. The two grew increasingly confident that their fledgling collaboration was one worth maintaining.
Next up, the pair created a show called Lucky Stiff. Based on Michael Butterworth’s book The Man Who Broke the Bank of Monte Carlo, the quirky musical was a farcical send up of a story about a shoe salesman who takes a dead body on vacation. It ran at off-Broadway’s Playwright’s Horizons for a limited engagement of 15 performances in the spring of 1988. Most importantly, though, it wet the team’s whistle for another project.
They found it soon after. Ahrens came across Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl, which was a Caribbean retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. First attracted to the book because of its colorful cover, Ahrens was further endeared to its story of an exotic island world very different from the one she inhabited. She immediately called Flaherty. “I think I’ve found our next show,” she reported.
He was thrilled.
Since its release, Flaherty had been captivated by Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland.” Infused with the intoxicating rhythms of South African street music, “Graceland” won a 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Flaherty was excited about the idea of trying his hand at music written with that sort of international flavor. He and Ahrens got to work.
For nine months, they joyfully labored over what would become Once on this Island. Calling it the “fastest writing they’d ever done,” Ahrens and Flaherty were nearly finished writing the musical before they secured its rights from the author of their source material. When they finally met with Rosa Guy, she agreed that the show could go on. It premiered at Playwright’s Horizons in May of 1990 – just two years after Lucky Stiff!
New York Times reviewer Frank Rich was effusive in his review of the production: “A 90-minute Caribbean fairy tale told in rousing song and dance,” he wrote, “this show is a joyous marriage of the slick and the folkloric, of the hard-nosed sophistication of Broadway musical theatre and the indigenous culture of a tropical isle.”
Theatregoers and, perhaps more importantly, producers took note. By that fall, Once on this Island had made the leap to Broadway, where it was honored with eight Tony Award nominations and ran for more than a year. The show has gone on to great success in regional, community, and educational theatres, and even a Tony Award-winning Broadway revival (2018).
For their parts, Ahrens and Flaherty have gone on to become one of Broadway’s most bankable songwriting teams. In addition to Once on this Island, the team hit its stride collaborating on shows, like Ragtime (1998), Seussical (2001), and Anastasia, a 2017 adaptation of the 1997 animated film for which they also wrote the music. Their decades-long career, however, was jumpstarted by the success of their first outing on the Great White Way.
And according to Ahrens, Once on this Island is as relevant today as it was at its 1990 premiere.
She said, “There’s this timely quality to the show in a world that’s divided and that is in need of something to heal it as quickly as possible.”
Special thanks to Kristin Stultz Pressley, aka Dr. Broadway