Six Questions with Stephen Flaherty

This is the first in an occasional series in which I ask a bunch of theatre composers the same questions and see how similar and different they are. Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Once On This Island, My Favorite Year, Seussical, Rocky) was the first to reply...

Have most of your projects been initiated by you or by others?

The ideas of most of my projects have come mostly from others. I am good at finding musical worlds I am interested in exploring but the actual stories and underlying properties have come from others.

Does your writing process change with different collaborators?

I principally work with lyricist-librettist Lynn Ahrens and though we know one another very well and have certain ways of approaching material and ideas, our process can morph from project to project. It's never exactly the same.

I recently worked on a dance theater piece, an original, with director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli called In Your Arms and could not rely on the spoken word at all, so that process was very different for me and I flexed many new muscles.

What’s the most important element for a story to have to make a great musical?

It needs a heightened quality and the stakes must be really high. And it must have a protagonist that says "Make me sing!"

What’s your most common mistake or stumbling block when you write?

I don't believe in mistakes firstly. Stumbling block? Probably doing emails before I put out the first rough ideas of the day. Emails can kill you!

Do you write a lot of songs that don’t make it into the final score, and if so, why do you think it happens that way?

I think work begets work and the more you write the more you discover what it is that you are writing about. So sure there are songs that lead you to the songs that ultimately stay in the score. But nothing is ever wasted. Every step enriches the next step.

As an opening night gift I make a book of all the “cut songs” from the show and give it to my partner, Lynn Ahrens. It is beautiful to see them all together; you can see the arc of the writing of each show, where you began and how you got to opening night.

Who’s your favorite post-Sondheim theatre composer (other than you)?

I have always loved Jonathan Larson's work and I am always interested in seeing what Jeanine Tesori and Michael John LaChiusa come up with next.

Many thanks to Stephen Flaherty! More to come...

Long Live the Musical!