By Matt Windman
What makes the musical theater songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty stand out amongst other contemporary composers like Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, William Finn, or Michael John LaChuisa? Well, for one, they are one of the very last songwriting teams! That is, Lynn Ahrens writes book and lyrics while Stephen Flaherty writes music. However, their songwriting structure is not the only thing that matches the Golden Age Rodgers & Hammerstein model. Their songs do, too! They write authentic character and plot-driven songs in a narrative context that few other contemporary writers can or dare to match.
The team’s previous work includes such musicals as “Lucky Stiff,” “My Favorite Year” (which is currently receiving a revival by the City Light Opera Company at the Fashion Institute of Technology), “Once on This Island,” “A Man of No Importance,” “Ragtime,” and “Seussical.” They seem to be one of the last consistently working songwriting teams that can appeal to a commercial Broadway audience. Their work, although varied in structure and themes, not to mention the overall success of these productions themselves, has been consistently well written. No doubt, their biggest hit by far was “Ragtime,” for which they won the 1998 Tony Award for Best New Score (over “The Lion King.”).
Last week, Merkin Concert Hall’s Spotlight on Broadway series presented a tribute concert to Ahrens and Flaherty featuring performers like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Malcolm Gets, Andrea Martin, and Janet Metz. Although a number or two from each of their shows was performed, as well as a few new numbers from upcoming musicals, the content presented was about half of that which was given at last year’s concerts for Bill Finn and Charles Strouse.
No one can deny that the greatest moments were those when Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald reprised their original roles from “Ragtime” of Coalhouse and Sarah. Brian Stokes Mitchell opened up the show with “Make Them Hear You,” the penultimate anthem from “Ragtime,” and McDonald later made an appearance with “Your Daddy’s Son,” her character’s harrowing solo number. Then, they took each others’ hands and performed a duet of the central optimistic wishing song of ” Ragtime”: “Wheels of a Dream.” Needless to say, the house went wild.
Malcolm Gets also provided sweet renditions of “Shoes” (cut number) from “Lucky Stiff,” “Larger than Life,” Benjie Stone’s tribute to the memory of matinee movie idols from “My Favorite Year,” and “Alone in the Universe” from “Seussical.” However, even more of a standout was Andrea Martin in her reprise of her original role in “My Favorite Year” in the song “Funny,” in which she vainly attempted to make a humorless Janet Metz into a somewhat funny person.
However, even if you did miss this concert event, there is currently a production of the newest Ahrens & Flaherty show at Lincoln Center: ” Dessa Rose.” As has been the case with their previous work, the content and sound of “Dessa Rose” is completely unlike anything that the team has previously written. The show concerns the relationship between two women, an escaped African American slave and a lonely white woman, in the Antebellum American South (Charleston, South Carolina and Linden, Alabama) of 1847.
The musical, based on the novel of the same title by Shirley Ann Williams, opens with what has become a trademark of Ahrens & Flaherty shows: a strong, eye-popping opening number (Along the lines of “We Dance,” “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think,” “Ragtime,” ‘Twenty Million People,” and “Something Funny’s Going On”). In a prologue titled “We Are Descended,” the cast sings a tribute in recognition to women and mothers, directly reminding us that we have from a long line of brave, insurmountable women.
Moments later, the story begins in the form of what seems to be a flashback. Ruth (Rachel York) and Dessa Rose (LaChanze) pretend they are old women in their 80s, though neither is actually dressed or physically prepared to look as such. Rather, each tries to alter their posture and voice to convey age. These two characters are actually at the ages of 16 and 20 for the rest of the show. As such, these moments when they try to act old (to which they revert throughout the show) are among the most awkward and problematic of all. Perhaps Ahrens’ book should be revised so that this technique is not necessary, or two other actors could be used to represent the older Dessa and Rose.
The tale begins with parallel stories of Ruth and Dessa’s unhappy lives. Ruth begins as a neglected housewife, and Dessa as the slave to an abusive master. After her master strikes Kaine, a fellow slave and her lover, a pregnant Dessa strikes back, causing her to be sentenced to solitary confinement and eventual death. It is then that Dessa comes to the attention of Adam Nehemiah (Michael Hayden), a writer who attempts to take down Dessa’ s story, and also talks to the audience in flashback form. However, this pursuit is cut short when Dessa manages to knock him unconscious and escape with other slaves including Nathan (Norm Lewis). Eventually, the lives of Ruth and Dessa intersect. Although Ruth is able to provide Dessa with shelter and protection, their relationship continues to be more antagonistic than loving, a feeling which increases when an attraction later brews between Ruth and Nathan.
The 12-person cast, as staged by longtime Ahrens & Flaherty director Daniele Graciele, presents a moving tale throughout the show. However, the material, especially in Ahren’s dialogue scenes, can be very repetitive and can seem overly sentimental. This is often the case with Ahrens & Flaherty shows, which usually contain a batch of stunning musical numbers performed by excellent actors in shows that never seem to be perfected – say “My Favorite Year,” “Ragtime,” and “A Man of No Importance.” Of course, one is glad that Ahrens & Flaherty’s shows get regularly produced on Broadway, Off Broadway, and at Lincoln Center.
Next up for the pair is a revival of “Ragtime” at Papermill Playhouse. For more info visit http://www.papermill.org.
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts