INTERVIEW: LYRICIST LYNN AHRENS ON THE TANGLEWOOD RAGTIME CONCERT
After the July 8 evening performance at Tanglewood of RAGTIME: THE SYMPHONIC CONCERT, Dan Dwyer (DD) talked with lyricist Lynn Ahrens (LA) about the concert. Ahrens, who with composer Stephen Flaherty won a Tony Award for Best Original Score for a Musical in 1998 for Ragtime, tells how the concert version came about and reflects on her collaboration with Terrence McNally, who won The Tony for Best Book of Musical for Ragtime. (McNally died from Covid in 2021). Besides Ragtime, together with Flaherty, Lynn has written many musicals including My Favorite Year, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Rocky, Little Dancer, Anastasia and Once on This Island.
DD: Congratulations. The concert was simply majestic.
LA: Thank you. The evening was so wonderful in so many ways. I feel like the show has come into its own in a lot of different ways. Over these years it has grown in significance and meaning, The concert at Tanglewood was spectacular.
DD; How did the re-orchestration of Ragtime come about?
LA: We - Steve Flaherty and I - are old friends of the Boston Pops, which commissioned us several times, including “With Voices Raised” for its orchestral and choral program for the Fourth of July 2000 celebration on the Boston Commons. The Pops are committed to projects that are relevant and meaningful, and it was very important for Pops conductor Keith Lockhart to do Ragtime. We got sidetracked because of the Covid pandemic, which sadly took Terrence McNally. This concert version was the last project Terrence and I wrote together.
DD: How challenging was it to take a full, two-act musical and edit into a concert version?
LA: Terrence and I sat down and figured out how to condense this epic show which usually runs 2.5 hours. It took considerable rethinking to figure out what would work and what wouldn't work in a symphonic scenario. .We lost some of the longer,action sequences which wouldn’t work on the concert stage anyway. It's rather like tailoring a suit when you've lost a lot of weight - you have to take it in very carefully. And then Terrence and I created a narrative that glued the main songs together.
DD: … and you are pleased with this version?
LA: Oh, yes. Terrence never got to see it. Tanglewood was the first time that Stephen and I did. There remain a few little bits and pieces we might add back to beef up some of the secondary characters who lost quite a bit by necessity.. But overall, Stephen and I were so happy with the book revisions.
DD: How did it SOUND different?
LA: The original Broadway orchestration was for 25, maybe 26, instruments which is large compared to many Broadway shows today where you might have, say, just four strings plus synthesizers. With a full symphonic orchestra, everyone - professional performer or audience member - can’t help but be just overwhelmed by the beauty of a full string section or the power of a full horn section. The symphony orchestra at Tanglewood, musically and sonically, was overwhelming, really overwhelming.
DD: Were you involved in the casting of the concert at Tanglewood?
LA: Yes, Stephen and I knew who we wanted so we told the Pops whom we would like to cast. We knew every one of those performers and loved them and have worked with many of them. It was an amazing company. Each performer reached our expectations and then went beyond.
DD: What’s the future hold for this concert version of Ragtime?
LA: There were directors of other symphonies at Tanglewood, who were thrilled with it and are interested in performing it with their own orchestras. I believe this version will definitely have its own life. It's another way to keep Ragtime's message intact and find more audiences to hear its message, which I think is important.
DD: Is Ragtime more relevant now than when it first premiered on Broadway in 1997?
LA: The interesting thing about Ragtime is that it has changed its meaning over the years as politics and as America has changed. The show seems to mirror whatever time we're in. For example, Ragtime had a Broadway revival in 2009 when President Obama took office. It was such a hopeful, wonderful time. At the end of the show when the little Black child of Coalhouse Walker Jr and Sarah runs into Mother's arms, the audience leaped to their feet in tears because they saw Obama in that child. Today, the show mirrors the terrible divisions in our country, and the ongoing struggle of immigrants and women's rights, and the issues of Black Lives Matter and MeToo, all of which underscores the idea of the cyclical quality of American life. I think Ragtime really succeeds in capturing that.
DD: At curtain call I was particularly charmed when you came out on stage. The beaming expression on your face was just fabulous. What a moment.
LA: Oh, well, you know, I go out there and I always feel like I have no idea what I'm doing or saying. I'm like a deer in the headlights. We were all so happy to end up with such a splendid orchestra and beautiful cast - and an evening when it didn't rain! It was just one of the most memorable evenings of my life.