Lynn Ahrens: A Lyric Life -Our Foremost Female Lyricist

Leave it to a wordsmith to put together one of the most illuminating, articulate Lyrics and Lyricists in the cannon. Like her work, Lynn Ahrens is smart, sensitive, witty, and editorially adroit .

The artist is a New York native raised by bohemian parents. Her photographer father taught Lynn to observe specifics, while her mom read to her “tirelessly” giving Ahrens an appreciation for storytelling. After writing parodies of old show tunes, she taught herself guitar at college and began to create completely original material.

Ahrens’s first New York job was as a secretary in an advertising agency. During lunch, she’d unearth her guitar, sing and write. One day, she found someone looming over her. “That’s how I became the first woman writer on Schoolhouse Rock.”  (The cast offers excerpts from several numbers out of the popular television show.) Jingles and children’s songs replaced filing. In 1982, Ahrens was admitted to The BMI Musical Theater Workshop. Here she met collaborator/composer (extraordinary talent) Stephen Flaherty with a simple, cinematic, “Hey, Lynn, wanna write a song together?” Kismet. Suddenly she was writing for character. And loved it. (They’re professionally together 35 years and counting.)

The $1.50 purchase of an out-of-print, second hand novel lead to the partners’ first musical, Lucky Stiff. Nikki Renee Daniels’ sings “Times Like This” : A friendly face/The kind of face/That melts you with a grin/The kind of eyes that welcome you/The minute you walk in/A tender glance/You simply can’t refuse…Times like this, a girl could use…a dog. The song is charming. (Stephen Sondheim thinks so too.)

Nikki Renee Daniels and the Company

“I Am” numbers, which often appear at the top of a show, include Margo Seibert’s stirring rendition of “Journey to the Past” (Anastasia) and Daniels’ exuberant “Waiting For Life” (Once On This Island). Both shows are experiencing current Broadway revivals. “Writing a musical is like entering a new world. I look for very different subjects. I love the research.”

Selections from Lucky Stiff, Once On This Island, Ragtime, Anastasia, My Favorite Year, Seussical, The Glorious Ones, A Man of No Importance, Rocky, and The Dancer’s Life… exemplify the writer’s desire to explore and stretch. Tonight’s audience takes a voyeur’s journey from television to Off Broadway to Hollywood “We got to dress up and walk the red carpet…” (at The Academy Awards), Broadway – and the world.

 

Alton Fitzgerald White

Illustrating eloquent specificity are David Harris’s alas, unromantic interpretation of “Streets of Dublin” (A Man of No Importance), Alton Fitzgerald White’s gritty, resonant “In the Ring” (Rocky) and Brandon Uranowitz’s utterly captivating “Larger Than Life” (My Favorite Year). A cleverly directed company presentation of “We’ll Go From There” (Anastasia) is described as “viewpoint, viewpoint, viewpoint, counterpoint.” If this evening weren’t so thoroughly entertaining, it might serve as a songwriter’s primer.

Nine writing teams auditioned for Ragtime, developed from the E.L. Doctorow book. This is a complete anomaly. Ahrens/ Flaherty had only two small musicals under their belts, yet they pushed through a tight deadline to win the job. “IF YOU DON’T GIVE ME SOMETHING GREAT, I’LL FIRE YOU!” Garth Drabinsky congratulated them. “That’s true.” The show garnered four Tony Awards. Walking across the stage in back-lit silhouettes with precise gestures, the cast offers a medley from the show.

Margot Seibert and David Harris

“A Thousand Little Dancers” comes from the musical Little Dancer inspired by a Degas statue Ahrens’ saw that roused her curiosity. Harris plays Degas: …such a difference between a thousand little dancers and Marie…the song delicately muses. Illustrating inspiration, it’s followed by the anthemic “I Was Here” (Glorious Ones), performed by Fitzgerald White with heart and guts: This is my key to the portal/How I can leave something immortal/Something that time cannot make disappear/ Something to say ‘I was here…’

Ahrens is comfortable enough to share some first draft mistakes with wry humor. A high-falutin’ word is called out of a verse as is the ‘voice’ of the lyricist instead that of a character. “If a collaborator can survive rewrites, he can survive anything…” She comments that no art is more collaborative than a musical, enumerating some of the many contributing creative artists.

Brandon Uranowitz

Having spent so long as the only woman in the room (we see a cartoon of Dorothy Parker peeking out of the Men’s Room at The Algonquin), Ahrens is also conscious of representative responsibility. Siebert performs the pithy, blue collar, written-for-a-man “Keep On Standing” (Rocky).

Two intimate lyrics close the show. As we look at a photo of Ahrens and her husband, Uranowitz and Harris sing the poignant “Love Who You Love” (A Man of No Importance). “How Lucky You Are” (Seussical) follows, sharing the writer’s own feelings about being able to do what she does (excels at.): When your life’s going wrong/  When the fates are unkind/When you’re limping along /And get kicked from behind /Tell yourself how lucky you are…

A terrific show spotlights a remarkable talent.

David Harris, Margot Seibert, Lynn Ahrens Alton Fitzgerald White (behind), Nikki Renee Daniels, Brandon Uranowitz

Nikki Renee Daniels has a splendid vocal instrument, but never connects with the audience and sings with little characterization. Margot Siebert is warm and personal, often appearing to think of lyrics in real time. Brandon Uranowitz inhabits his numbers adding slight accents, physicality and conversational phrasing. His “Man in the Mirror” (A Man of No Importance) is especially moving. David Harris’s high point is dialogue accompanying “Alone in the Universe” (Seussical). Otherwise, though vocally fine, he’s removed and unsympathetic. Alton Fitzgerald White grounds his numbers with presence, thoughtfulness and balletic hands.

To my mind, the only number that doesn’t work is “Green Eggs and Ham” (Seuissical) which emerges a wall of loud sound during which we can barely make out lyrics, leave attitude. Seuissical, it seems, was a dreadful experience for the partners. Ahrens anecdotally regales us with details of its overproduction and downfall. Much later, the rewritten/shortened musical rose like a phoenix, true to its unique vision, “with not much more than a few feathers, a ladder and imagination.”

Director Jason Danieley creates appealing, show-centric vignettes. If only he gave some thought to the overall look of performers who dress with no apparent awareness of how they look on stage together.

Matthew Haber’s Projection Design is wonderfully evocative and deftly executed.

“My life is writing lyrics, a tiny specialized corner of theater. My goal is never to be noticed (as Lynn Ahrens), only to give voice to characters in a natural way…”

Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Lynn Ahrens

92 Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents Lynn Ahrens: A Lyric Life
Lynn Ahrens- Featured Lyricist and Host
Jason Danieley- Director
Mary-Mitchell Campbell- Music Director
Michael Gacetta- Co-Music Director
Featuring: Nikki Renee Daniels, David Harris, Margo Siebert, Brandon Uranowitz,
Alton Fitzgerald White
Band: Aaron Heik- reeds, Monica Davis- violin, Nate Brown-guitar, Pete Donovan-bass, Clint De Ganon- drums
92Y- Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street 
NEXT: Frank Loesser-Lyricist   
Saturday June 2- Monday June 4 2018

About Alix Cohen (939 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.