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Overview for Stephen Flaherty
Stephen Flaherty

Stephen Flaherty


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Also Known As: Died:
Born: September 18, 1960 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA Profession: Music ... composer music producer arranger pianist


Once he saw a stage production of "Godspell" at the age of 12, Stephen Flaherty knew he wanted to be a composer and within two years was trying to write his own stage shows. He enrolled at the Cincinnati College Conservatory and encountered Lehman Engel, the famed composer-conductor and administrator of the BMI musical theater workshop in NYC. Over a two year period, Flaherty remained in touch with Engel with the goal of joining the workshop once he had graduated. Engel's 1982 death was not a deterrent and Flaherty managed to talk his way into the workshop without going through the audition process. He was then introduced to songwriter and TV producer Lynn Ahrens and a partnership was born.

Flaherty and Ahrens began working together on a musical adaptation of the 1967 film "Bedazzled." Despite a favorable reception to a workshop, they were unable to obtain the stage rights. That show did catch the attention of Ira Weitzman, the director of musical theater at Playwrights Horizons. Under his guidance, the pair developed projects, including their first adult musical "Lucky Stiff," adapted from the novel "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo." (In the interim, Flaherty and Ahrens received a commission to write a one-hour children's musical based on "The Emperor's New Clothes" which premiered at NYC's TheaterworksUSA). "Lucky Stiff," which drew on the Victorian music hall tradition, was a farce that contained some lovely melodies but only played for six weeks Off-Broadway in 1988.

The pair next collaborated on what became their breakthrough show, "Once on This Island," based on Rosa Guy's novel "My Love, My Love." A twist on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" (which was then popular thanks to the 1989 Disney animated movie), the musical was a love story between a peasant girl and the son of a wealthy landowner and had an emotional core previous Flaherty and Ahrens collaborations lacked. After its premiere at Playwrights Horizons in the fall of 1990, where it won strong reviews, "Once on This Island" quickly moved to Broadway where it had a successful run, garnering eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical and Best Score. The London production earned the 1995 Olivier Award as Best Musical.

Almost immediately, Flaherty and Ahrens became hot properties. They entertained various offers to write songs for animated motion pictures and also continued to develop material for the stage. Their third musical, "My Favorite Year" (based on the 1982 film), was workshopped in 1991 and put into full production the following year. The final result, however, was uneven. The entire show seemed overproduced and some key roles miscast. The score was appropriately brassy and but there were no real showstoppers and it seemed dubious to build a musical around a character with a drinking problem. While it had some positive moments (and an award-winning supporting turn from Andrea Martin), ultimately the show was a financial and artistic disappointment.

Flaherty and Ahrens were among several songwriting teams who were asked to submit material for consideration for a proposed musical adaptation of E L Doctorow's novel "Ragtime." Over a period of less than two weeks, the pair fashioned four songs and submitted an audition tape just under the deadline. Chosen to write the score, the pair attempted their most challenging stage project to date. An epic musical that interwove historical personages with fictional characters, "Ragtime" went through a long gestation period from readings to a workshops to final production. A concept recording, "Songs from Ragtime," was released in order to fully market the show. When it opened in Toronto in December 1996, it received generally favorable reviews. After minor changes, "Ragtime" premiered in the USA in Los Angeles in June 1997 and on Broadway in January 1998.

By the time "Ragtime" was underway, Flaherty and Ahrens had been selected to write the songs for "Anastasia" (1997), the first animated feature released by 20th Century Fox. Initially, they were reluctant to accept the job, partly because there had been an unsuccessful stage musical and partly because they felt the material was too dark. After seeing the script outline, however, Flaherty and Ahrens were won over and composing several songs ranging from the delicate waltz "Once Upon a December" to the "I want" number "Journey to the Past" to the showstopping "Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)." Their efforts garnered two Golden Globe nominations and were on the short-list for Academy Award consideration.

As a composer, Stephen Flaherty has delved into several idioms, rarely repeating himself. He and Ahrens write specifically for the project at hand and have stated that they do not recycle material nor do they have trunk songs. With "Lucky Stiff," Flaherty worked in a style reminiscent of the Victorian music hall. "Once on This Island" employed Afro-Caribbean rhythms and marked the first time that the composer interwove themes and motifs, with the melody of one song becoming the bridge of another, etc. He continued in that vein with the brassy, big 50s Broadway sound in "My Favorite Year." While these musicals had their charming moments and feature hummable, character-driven songs (thanks in part to Ahrens' lyrics), only one song ("The Human Heart" from "Once on This Island") has had any kind of life after the production. "Ragtime" is his richest and most varied score to date. The brilliant opening number, which is a riff on a syncopated rag, musically establishes the show's themes (both literally and figuratively), intertwining white suburbanites with Harlem residents and Jewish immigrants. Similarly, Flaherty's blends a number of musical styles from gospel (the first act closer "'Till We Reach That Day") to Americana (the Stephen Foster-inspired "Henry Ford") to vaudeville ("The Crime of the Century") to full-out theatrical ballads ("Back to Before"). He adopted a similar approach with the song score to "Anastasia," which also found a central musical theme and employed several musical styles. Although some critics found the music to be schmaltzy others felt it was appropriately Broadwayesque.

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