How do you know that you’re a cat?

For all sorts of unrelated reasons, I find myself thinking a lot about Flaherty & Ahrens recently.

This time of the year, I’m frequently queried “What song should I sing in my winter showcase?” Faced with a rich-voiced, young, handsome and black questioner, I instantly thought of Some Girls.

Some Girls, for me, was the gateway drug to the amazing oeuvre of Flaherty & Ahrens. I kept hearing that a great team had emerged from the post-Lehman Engel BMI workshop (I left when Lehman left…this mortal coil).  Word had it they’d written a heartbreaker about a dog and a waltz called Some Girls. With no YouTube or Spotify to refer to, I patiently waited for the songs to magically appear on my piano. (Accompanying classes and piano bars, I could count on that sort of thing.) The day it did, I thought “Wow: this waltz exceeds its hype.”

some girls

The tune employs ascending intervals you don’t often hear, and they lend freshness and surprise to a fairly traditional harmonic structure. Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics are the paragon of specificity. In combination with the music, deeply-felt emotion comes through. And there’s a genuine surprise at the ending, one that revises everything we’ve felt about the character before.

Sometimes, specificity elicits a huge response in me, and there’s an example in Flaherty & Ahrens’ At Times Like This:

Give me a quiet night, a stack of books, a tuna melt on rye.

For some strange reason, I burst into tears upon hearing that.  Why?  Because Ahrens was able to come up with something specific that perfectly captures what would make this particular character happy.  The telling example is the Holy Grail, something we lyricists are always looking for, and my hat’s off to her.

The Cat in the Hat, for a time, seemed to be the character so hard to cast, it was threatening to be the team’s undoing.  When Flaherty and Ahrens’ Seussical opened on Broadway, it was widely panned.  The pans got me to stay away, but they talked about production design being overwrought and the libretto trying to tie together too many Dr. Seuss stories. The producers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to fire David Shiner, who was playing The Cat in the Hat, and replace him with Rosie O’Donnell, the widely-loved comedienne and talk-show host.  Can we examine this move for a moment?  David Shiner, who, some time earlier, had worked with my improv buddies, The Chainsaw Boys, is a dazzling physical comedian with a modest but serviceable voice.  He’s comfortable interacting with audiences, ad-libbing, and being generally charming.  Rosie O’Donnell is an aggressively obnoxious and often foul-mouthed comedian, one who loves Broadway but has the singing voice of a rampaging bull.  Physical grace, she ain’t got.  So, the substitution didn’t make a lot of sense to this outside observer.  But I was also struck that the critics had never said “This show needs a better Cat in the Hat, one who’s a star.” The producers took actions as if they had.

All of that’s water under the bridge as Seussical, post-Broadway, has gone on to become the new century’s most-produced musical.  I stumbled across a blog that talks about the score from a musical director’s point of view:

Stephen Flaherty is a tremendous pianist, and his excellent pianism shines through every measure of vocal score of his music. The piano is the strong voice of his accompaniment, and the voicings of his chords are without exception beautifully spaced, crystal clear, and fall under the hand very naturally. If you are a pianist MD, take a little time to work out the score ahead of time. There are some tricky spots…but Flaherty is more a Chopin than a Liszt; you will find that whatever’s bothering you is very playable once you get your head around it. Nothing is written awkwardly for its own sake; it’s all clearly written TO BE PLAYED. It’s really a joy.

High praise indeed, and it got me thinking about how I react to composers from a pianist’s perspective.  It’s possible that the difficulty I have negotiating Michael John LaChiusa’s jagged accompaniments lead me to appreciate him less than I otherwise might.  Jason Robert Brown’s Liszt-like piano parts, to my mind, inevitably require the accompanist to steal focus from the performer; there’s nothing I loathe more.  Adam Guettel often writes for far more accomplished players than me.  But what I’m really saying here is that I wish more composers wrote like Flaherty: the melodies are clear and singable; they always support the lyrics; and, as that musical director’s comments confirm, they feel good in your fingers.  Something to think about.

Recently, I accompanied a rather glorious rendition of Back To Before from Ragtime.  There followed a discussion of the emotional frame of mind the character is in.  The singer needed to dial back her anger, because, the more we looked at the song, the less ire we could find.  It struck me that if a different songwriting team had won the job of writing Ragtime, they would have made the character angry.  (Indeed, the producer had various teams write songs on spec before choosing Flaherty & Ahrens.)  Too many writers feel anger is dramatic gold on stage.  Ahrens knows that someone who manages to avoid getting mad is far more interesting.
Due to their keen grip on what makes a song theatrical, Flaherty & Ahrens don’t have their characters bleat one thought from start to finish. Rather, they make sure their characters go through stuff, evolve, make discoveries. This, I think, is the key to what makes them the pre-eminent showtune writers of the past quarter century, a period in which Sondheim’s given us Assassins, Passion and Road Show, and Lloyd Webber, Aspects of Love, Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game, The Woman In White and Love Never Dies. At times like this, we sure could use…more Flaherty & Ahrens.


One Response to How do you know that you’re a cat?

  1. Jake says:

    I’ve been on this soapbox for a while now. It’s a shame we have seemingly forgotten Flaherty and Ahrens. We choose jukebox-euro-trash-every-Christmas-show-imaginable-schlock and send them packing to Germany to put up their show. It’s time to bring them back (and hopefully good theatre writing with them)!

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