NEW YORK — The songwriting team of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens has lasted longer than many marriages — 30 years, a number that even shocks the duo.
“It’s insane. I like to say we started at 7,” Ahrens says, laughing.
“It’s such a big number and it’s so exciting,” says Flaherty. “You either embrace it or you hide from it.”
They’ve chosen to embrace it with a series of six concerts over three evenings ending Saturday at the Broadway nightclub 54 Below featuring their songs sung by a rotating cast of Broadway stars including Stephanie J. Block, Jeremy Jordan, Annaleigh Ashford, Marin Mazzie, LaChanze and Brian Stokes Mitchell.
It’s a chance to look back at a career that includes the Tony Award-winning musical “Ragtime,” the Academy Award-nominated “Anastasia” and the celebrated shows “Once on This Island” and “Seussical.”
But the duo isn’t resting on any laurels. They’ve collaborated on the score for the upcoming Broadway musical “Rocky,” starring Andy Karl and Margo Seibert, and “Little Dancer,” a musical making its premiere at the Kennedy Center next year. One of their old shows, “Lucky Stiff,” is being made into a movie directed by Christopher Ashley.
The Associated Press sat down with the talented pair to ask how they met, the way they approached “Rocky” and the secret to staying together.
And yes, they do finish each other’s sentences.
AP: You met in 1982 at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. How did you join forces?
Flaherty: Me being the strange person that I am, I waited for the last class assignment. I’m walking down the street and Lynn is walking away and I’m thinking, ‘Schmuck, turn around.’ I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise and I turned around and yelled, ‘Do you want to write a song together?’ And she said, ‘OK.’
Ahrens: I was so shocked.
Flaherty: I had come out of the classical conservatory world where I would hide away in a little room and score everything and try to think important thoughts. And Lynn was much more of a free, almost improv kind of gal. We worked totally differently and I thought, ‘This could be really good ...’
Ahrens: ... Or really bad.
Flaherty: Or really bad. But we owed it ourselves to try. We had so much fun writing that first song. Then we wrote the first show and then the next show and then the next show. And here we are, 30 years later.
AP: What’s the secret to staying together?
Flaherty: I know how to deal with her now. (Laughs.)
Ahrens: We always got along really well and I think, as the years have passed, we’ve learned to be just more open and more relaxed about accepting that he might not like my lyric or I didn’t like his melody. We’ve become more flexible.
AP: A musical based on the film “Rocky” initially sounds crazy. How did you first react?
Flaherty: I said, ‘Lynn, sit down.’
Ahrens: He told me the project and the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘That’s crazy! I don’t even like boxing.’ And then my husband scolded me. He said, ‘Just look at the movie. Just read the screenplay.’ He immediately thought it was an amazing idea. So I looked at the movie, read the screenplay and I fell madly in love.
AP: It’s an original score, but the “Rocky” theme is used as well as “Eye of the Tiger.” How did you navigate that?
Flaherty: The theme that everybody knows from the first ‘Rocky’ is so much a part of the musical DNA of that character and that story that I think we’d be crazy to deny or pretend that it doesn’t exist. Either you deny it and run away from it or you embrace it and think, ‘How can I take this and do something surprising and unexpected and fresh and organic?’
Ahrens: It’s an iconic movie and there are moments in it that everybody knows — running up the steps, ice skating with Adrian, the raw eggs. If you ignore some of them, I feel like it’s cheating. You have to take them and theatricalize them.
AP: Any advice to upcoming composers and lyricists?
Ahrens: This is the God’s honest truth, whenever we set out to write a show, all we wanted to do is write that show. If it’s good, it’ll find a home. We fall in love with the character and go from there. I think that’s good advice for anybody. You can’t predict who’s going to love the show or who’s going to put it onstage. The point is to keep writing, keep writing. Because that’s the life you’re living.
Flaherty: Yes, and exciting work can be done anywhere as long as you have exciting people to do it with you.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits