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The Songwriters: Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Jeff Richmond, and Nell Benjamin

April 2, 2018 by Suzy Evans
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Photographed by Nathan Johnson

It all comes back to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty for Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. On their first date, they discussed their favorite writers, and they both immediately said Ahrens and Flaherty.

“They’re our heroes,” says Lopez, who along with his wife, Anderson-Lopez, wrote the score for “Frozen” and also won their second Academy Award for “Remember Me” from “Coco” this year. Anderson-Lopez notes that some of Ahrens and Flaherty’s influence can be heard in “Frozen’s” “Fixer-Upper.” “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best,” she says.

Nell Benjamin and Jeff Richmond also found themselves looking to Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Once On This Island” when crafting the score for “Mean Girls,” as the musical opens in Africa. “Whenever we were writing the new number in that slot, we were always going, ‘Oh, it sounds like “Once On This Island,”’ Richmond said. “And I love it.”

“If you meet someone who works in theater, and that’s not one of their top shows, just walk away,” Benjamin says.

Ahrens and Flaherty simply joke that they’ve paid off their friends to compliment them. “Once on This Island” is enjoying a critically acclaimed revival at Circle in the Square, and the pair also has “Anastasia” at the Broadhurst Theatre.

“It’s fun because we have our most recent show on Broadway, and we have our very first Broadway show back on Broadway at the same time,” says Ahrens. “It’s this full-circle thing where you realize you’re part of this community.”

The six composers and lyricists trade notes after a photoshoot, excited for the opportunity to escape their insular rehearsal rooms. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

On creating a musical based on a “brand”
Ahrens: “Once On This Island” was based on a novel, and so we had a blank slate except for this little book. In that sense we could be totally adventurous and totally ourselves.
Flaherty: A lot of the people coming to Circle in the Square don’t know the show, so it’s pretty much like a word-of-mouth kind of a thing.
Ahrens: “Anastasia” is just the opposite. Everybody knows it. Young women grew up on it and come in wearing tiaras and sing along.
Richmond: [“Mean Girls”] is iconic; everybody loves it. We’ve got to do it in a way where people see it and recognize it for what it was, but still create something that is brand-new and its own thing.
Benjamin: I don’t feel like we ever thought, “How can we protect the ‘Mean Girls’ brand?” We just thought, “How do we make a great theater piece that also respects that people love the movie?”
Lopez: For producers, the brand is this tempting comfort that makes them think, I can get butts in seats right away. But then it also becomes this complicated issue of, will we live up to this brand? Is this brand going to work on Broadway?
Anderson-Lopez: I know every writer in this room would not be like, “Oh, I’m writing for my brand.” If we think that way, we can’t write anything, and in fact we fight against it in a way. “Frozen” wasn’t based on anything. It was based on us talking about sisterhood and true love, and childhood.

On the process of writing a musical
Jeff Richmond: Tina [Fey] and I come from film and television, where you write it, teach it, and shoot it today — maybe tomorrow if you’re lucky. So we were in this fantasy of, so we’ll write it in six months then it’ll be up, and we’ll be on to something else. It’ll be five years almost to the day we started when this thing actually opens.
Lopez: It was a lot of stress. In September 2015, they invited us to Disney, and they had a big easel covered with a cloth. They pulled the cloth off, and there was a big schedule on it with thousands of little tiny boxes. It was like, “Here’s your life.” We needed to have our show done in May. It was an intense period of working on one thing, which is a lot of fun when you’re working with a person you love more than anything in the world.
Flaherty: “Once On This Island” was the fastest writing we had ever done. We wrote the entire show in six months.

On writing for strong heroines
Benjamin: We have an incredible cast, and honestly the challenge is to feature everybody. But it’s also been great because you really challenge yourself to differentiate those songs. You can’t say, “Oh, put a woman out there and she’ll screlt, and it’ll be fine.” Because they’ll all screlt, and that won’t work.
Anderson-Lopez: I don’t think there would be an Anna without a Tina Fey and an Amy Poehler. I think we were able to say in the room, “It’s time to bring the Disney princess musical into a world where ‘The Office’ and ’30 Rock’ exist.” This is what female heroines are. They look like us. They sound like us. They stain their blouses like us.

On growing up on cast albums
Richmond: The first album I ever had was “Once Upon a Mattress,” and I’ve been listening to [cast albums] forever.
Anderson-Lopez: I had a table and a record player, and I’d sit under the table so I could feel the vibrations of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers. I sang “Annie” on my front steps every night as the sun set, waiting for Charles Strouse to drive by and say, “You. You’re my Annie.” He never showed up.
Flaherty: When I was 12, the nuns took us to the Jesus show, “Godspell.” From there, I went backwards and started studying the classics after that. Cast albums were my education.
Ahrens: I’m sort of the Grandma Moses of no training. I just listened to rock ‘n’ roll. and pop. When I was in high school at the Jersey shore, I would drive around with my best friend, and we would set our own lyrics to show tunes. So, we would write dirty lyrics to “Man of La Mancha” and things like that.

Hair and makeup by Dana Arcidy

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