Lynn Ahrens: From a Boardwalk Town to Broadway Success

Tony-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens is making a splash yet again on the Great White Way with the revival of "Once on This Island."

Tony-winning lyricist Lynn Ahren's portfolio of hit Broadway musicals includes the current revival of Once on This Island.

Tony-winning lyricist Lynn Ahren’s portfolio of hit Broadway musicals includes the current revival of Once on This Island. Photo courtesy of Nathan Johnson

Coming of age in Neptune, Lynn Ahrens loved “bombing around” Asbury Park in her car with her best friend. Together, they would make up lyrics to popular show tunes and belt them out at the top of their lungs. “This hooked me on the sheer joy of lyrics,” says Ahrens, “and I haven’t stopped since.”

That’s a good thing for fans of Broadway musicals. For three decades, Ahrens—in partnership with composer Stephen Flaherty—has been one of the most prolific and successful lyricists and playwrights for the American stage. The current Ahrens-Flaherty collaboration, the Circle in the Square revival of Once on This Island, opened in December to rave reviews. With its calypso-infused score, immersive staging and timely story about a hurricane-devastated Caribbean island, the deeply engaging musical garnered eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical. (The original 1990 production, with book and lyrics by Ahrens and Flaherty, also received eight Tony nominations.)

Ahrens and Flaherty’s Broadway output also includes My Favorite Year, Seussical, Rocky, Anastasia and Ragtime, for which they won the Tony for best original score. “I’m one of the very few lucky writers who have managed to get produced steadily over the years, both off-Broadway and on,” Ahrens says. She credits that to her ongoing relationship with Lincoln Center Theater, having premiered four musicals there, and with big-time successes like Anastasia and Ragtime. “These are serious-minded shows,” she notes, “but ones with high name recognition.”

And that, she says, is just what today’s Broadway fans are looking for. “The majority of today’s audiences are more likely to want to see known quantities—shows with a famous title, or known songs, a known star or a familiar revival. It makes it harder for original shows to find producers,” Ahrens explains.

None of this seems daunting to Ahrens and Flaherty. “Our method is simply to find a project we’re in love with, get together, and talk a lot about the idea, the characters and the structure,” she says. “Then we start to write songs, and little by little the show emerges. Our tastes are very eclectic, and we try never to repeat ourselves.”

No doubt, the 69-year-old Ahrens continues to gain inspiration when she flashes back to her youthful days in Neptune, “flag-twirling for the Scarlet Fliers at Neptune High School, working as a carhop at a drive-in restaurant called Horner’s, going to Mom’s for pizza, summers on the beach, and high school graduation ceremonies under a giant, electrified American flag at Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium.” Who knows, maybe Ahrens’s next musical will be about shouting out show tunes at the Jersey Shore.

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