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A theatre lover's tribute to the songwriting team of Ahrens and Flaherty
March 23, 2017. That date had been imprinted on my brain for nearly a year: the first preview of Anastasia on Broadway. I bought my ticket the first day they went on sale. I had to be there. After all, I've been at every first performance of every Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty show for the past 20 years.
This improbable journey began when I was in my twenties and volunteering at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Sometimes, in return for giving tourists directions to the bathroom and the box office, we were given free tickets to shows playing there. One summer Sunday in 1992, I was offered comps for the touring production of Once on This Island. I knew nothing about the musical beyond the "a Caribbean retelling of The Little Mermaid" line we were instructed to recite when people asked about the show. But I was not one to refuse anything free. So I sank into my seat with no expectations. Yet, when the curtain fell a mere 90 minutes later, I felt as if my whole world had shifted.
Once on This Island (which, by the way, is set to be revived on Broadway this fall) was unlike anything I had seen. There were no stars in the cast; no fancy sets or costumes. Two flashlights were used to represent headlights on a car, and nothing but the human voice to simulate frogs and trees. It was a simple story told through the most perfect and precise marriage of words and music I had ever heard. Songs that could only be sung by those characters in this story. It was the first time I saw a show and asked myself, "Who wrote this?"I scanned the Playbill: Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Nope, I had never heard of them. Then suddenly, I realized I had. In the middle of Lynn's bio it said: "Her songs are a mainstay of the renowned series Schoolhouse Rock." When I was a child, those brief animated educational sketches that ran in between the cartoons had been the highlight of my Saturday mornings. Schoolhouse Rock was the reason I became fascinated with American history and studied political science in college. I couldn't believe that one of the people responsible for Once on This Island had also taught me the Preamble to the Constitution. I often say that Lynn was my hero long before I knew her name. That day, I vowed to remember it.
A few years passed before I heard it again. I was at a Smithsonian lecture where theatrical producer Garth Drabinsky announced that his company would be producing a musical version of Ragtime with a score by Ahrens and Flaherty. I let out a gasp so loud that I'm certain the entire audience thought I had suddenly taken ill. By this time, the Internet was in its infancy and I found my way onto some of the earliest musical theatre chat boards. Someone in Canada agreed to send me the concept album of Ragtime, which was not yet available in the U.S. After an excruciating two-week wait, I popped the CD into my player with nervous excitement. As soon as the epic opening number reached its crescendo, I was hooked. And by the time I heard "Wheels of a Dream" and "Back to Before," I knew that Ragtime was not just another show. The music was sweeping and majestic, and the lyrics so specific and visceral that I could see the whole show in my mind.
I wanted to write to Lynn to tell her how much I admired her work, but what could I say that would be different or remotely interesting? The answer appeared a few weeks later when, during my weekly story time as a children's librarian in the underfunded and technologically backward D.C. Public Library, I showed a 1976 filmstrip (Google it) of the Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel. At the end, there was a little song called "My Kind of Friend," written and sung by…Lynn Ahrens! When I saw that, I knew there had to be a reason that her name kept popping up in my life.
So I wrote that first letter -- an e-mail, actually. Someone from the official Ragtime website said he would forward it to her. I didn't believe him, of course. Still, I checked my inbox obsessively for the next few weeks. Nothing. Then, one day, there was an envelope in my real-life mailbox with no return address and handwriting I did not recognize. It took me a few minutes to realize that Lynn had written back! The letter was short, simply thanking me for taking the time to write, and asking me to keep my fingers crossed for Ragtime, but it made me so happy that I even framed it.
As the start of the Broadway run of Ragtime neared, I could hardly wait to see this show I had been obsessing over. I had a ticket for the final preview, but at work on Christmas Eve, 1997, I logged on to Ticketmaster just to see what might be available for the first preview on December 26. When seat B-103 popped up, I couldn't believe it! I would have to be back at work in D.C. the following morning, but if I took the midnight train back, I could do it. No, that's crazy I thought But, it's Ragtime! I took the sudden appearance of this seat as a sign that I was supposed to be there. With trembling fingers, I typed in my information and bought the ticket. Thus, my first preview tradition was born.
I remember that night so vividly, seeing Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie and Audra McDonald from the second row. Those soaring voices singing that incredible score. It was everything I had imagined, but perfected down to every detail, like the lace on Mother's dress and the gleaming Model T. I didn't get back to D.C. until 6:30am, with just enough time to drop my stuff off, change clothes, and get to work. I was an exhausted zombie, but an exceedingly happy one.
My sole disappointment was that, despite waiting at the stage door until the last possible second, I didn't meet Lynn and Stephen that night. Happily, Ragtime announced a D.C. run starting mere months after the Broadway opening. I knew this was my chance. On the afternoon of that opening night, I camped out at the National Theatre until I saw them. My voice was shaking and I was a blithering idiot. I said some stupid thing about the Preamble song and "thank you" and all the completely unmemorable things that every other fan had probably already told them. But at least I finally got to say it in person.
By the time the first preview of Seussical rolled around two years later in 2000, a lot had changed in my life. I had moved to New York City for a dream job that became a nightmare before I had even fully unpacked. In those really dark days when I was lost and questioning everything, Seussical saved me. I would go to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, sometimes several times in a week, and just push away all the bad decisions and regret. For two hours, Horton and Gertrude and Jojo helped me feel slightly less "Alone in the Universe."
The other big change was that -- despite the awkwardness of our initial meeting -- Lynn and Stephen didn't give up on me. They somehow looked past my gawkiness and, miraculously, tolerated my persistence. Slowly, our relationship developed. Knowing that I was not "in the business," they began to trust that my admiration for them came from a truly genuine place. They invited me to the Seussical opening, the first of several such offers. They even allowed me to become a small part of their story by letting me create their initial website and, later, run their Facebook page. Because of their friendship sparked by my fandom, I've been to workshops and recording sessions and other places that most theatre lovers don't get to go. I have traveled to foreign lands (Rocky in Hamburg, Germany) and to the middle of nowhere (Seussical in Indianapolis) in support of their work. I saw the first preview of Anastasia during its out-of-town tryout at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Well, sort of. The first preview was cancelled as things weren't quite ready, but because Lynn and Stephen knew that I was planning to be there, they invited me to watch the dress rehearsal that evening instead. As I sat there, I kept thinking how, even after all this time, it was still surreal that I, a librarian with no theatrical background whatsoever, should be lucky enough to be one of maybe 60 people in a room watching a show be born. It was better than being at the actual first preview.
More than one person has told me that I am crazy to expend so much time and money on this devotion, but I disagree. No amount I spend could approach what I feel I have been given. I also believe that, when things haven't gone their way, Lynn and Stephen have been heartened by my unwavering faith in their work. Through it all, I have never lost my sense of awe at the beautiful art they create, and the way they constantly reinvent themselves as writers. I will also always be grateful for the small glimpses of their world they've so generously shared with me. Few people are lucky enough to have their heroes present in their life, or can say that, after decades, they still idolize those heroes.
And yes, I was there for the magical first preview of Anastasia on Broadway last week. I found it beautiful and soaring and electric. I know I'll be there several times more in the future, as well as wherever else this "wonderful journey" takes me.
Have you ever forged a personal connection with a theatre artist you admired? Share your story in the comments.
Ronni Krasnow works as a librarian. In her far more interesting life as theatre nerd, she runs the Ahrens & Flaherty Facebook page, serves on the reading committee for NYMF, and creates theatre-related collage art.
Top image: The Hartford Stage production of Anastasia. Photo by Joan Marcus.