with Lynn Ahrens
As her newest musical, Little Dancer, premieres at the Kennedy Center, Narrative has ten questions for writer/lyricist Lynn Ahrens.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction (or in a play); your fave character in life?
May I talk mostly theater? I’m crazy about Mama Rose, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee in the musical Gypsy (by Jule Stein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents). She’s the devouring stage mother of all stage mothers, who, by force of will, sees to it that at least one of her daughters becomes a star, the star that she herself could never be. What a fabulous character—heroic, selfish, witty, brazenly manipulative, and pathetic. Every time I hear her yell, “Sing out, Louise!” the hairs on my arms stand up.
In life, I’m finding my own mother a pretty fascinating character these days. Since my dad passed away, she has re-created herself—she’s more spiritual and philosophical, more open, more introspective and outgoing, all at once. Having been through a serious illness and operation this past year, she told me that if she could be any age, this is the age (eighty-nine) she would choose, because it’s been so interesting.
2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote)?
I wrote this couplet in 1989 or so, for the first musical of mine that made it to Broadway, Once On This Island. I still enjoy it—it’s one of those lucky, simple lyrics that strikes without warning and once written, feels inevitable, as if it had been there always, just waiting to be set to music. It’s sung by a group of islanders at the very end of the show, as a storm fades away into the distance and their story, told to a young girl, comes to an end.
And out of what we live and we believe,
Our lives become the stories that we weave.
3. The play or show you wish you could see again for the first time?
The original British production of Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from the Dickens novel; it landed on Broadway in 1981 and was directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, a groundbreaking piece of theater that inspired me, even though I hadn’t yet begun writing for the theater. It was eight and a half hours long, and I saw it in two parts, but I could easily have watched it straight through, again and again, experiencing that epic tale, told in such a physically inventive, hilarious, and simple way, and filled with the joy and juice of storytelling. I began to try my hand at theatrical writing the next year, and ever since then I think everything I’ve done has been inspired or influenced in some way by Nicholas Nickleby.
4. Best part of the day?
At around 4:00 p.m. (if I have the time) I stretch out on the couch and take a nap (or sometimes it’s just a bit of comfy thinking time) surrounded by piano, books, plants, the sounds of the wild birds on the terrace and NYC in the street, and my husband working at the long table in the next room, his blueprints and sketches spread out all over the place. This is when I think—this is exactly where I always wanted to be and I miraculously seem to have arrived.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
I would have immediately answered “pay attention to my cat” except that our Alfie died this past summer. I guess my spirit is still a bit flagged as a result, so I suppose I will settle for: “Blast Carole King.”
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
I take my old mentor Ed Kleban’s advice very seriously—try never to repeat rhymes, not once in an entire show. It tires the ear. It’s a “little death.” I put that same advice to use in essays and short stories. I’m eagle-eyed about repetition, and I read everything out loud to make sure I do it as little as possible. But in life it’s another—and embarrassing—matter. My husband tells me I tend to say “you know” a lot, when I don’t know what I want to say next. I also confess that I fell into “like” for a while, like, very often. I’m trying hard to, like, stop.
7. What’s your current obsession?
My mother’s health, and as a result, my own. I’ve been on every medical website there is. I’m an expert on what the odds are of what I might or might not get. Ask me about mutated genes, Lynch syndrome, allergies to gluten, unbalanced crystals in the inner ear, symptoms of gout—you name it, I don’t have it, but know all about it, just in case.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
“You’re nothing but a f---ing Sondheim clone.” Believe it or not, as mean-spirited and thoughtless a remark as it was—made by an established lyricist to an emerging one (me) in front of an audience, yet!—it was a very helpful wakeup call early on in my career, and I think in some way it helped me to find my own voice. C. Clearly, I’ve never forgotten it!
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten, and/or what do you know now you wish you knew then?
I wish that when I was twelve, my current self had said—“Dear, no one is looking at you. Stop brushing your hair compulsively. Stop trying to catch a glimpse of your face in any shiny object. Stop saying, ‘I don’t know anything, but . . .’ about things you know a lot about.”
I wish that my twelve-year-old self could remind me how to whistle between two fingers—that loud, imperative blast I used to love doing. Living in New York, it would come in so handy for hailing cabs, but I’ve forgotten how.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
There’s a lovely bit of dialogue from the play Marvin’s Room by Scott McPherson that brought me to tears when I first heard it. A character is told she’s lucky because she’s loved by so many people. And she replies, somewhat baffled, no, no, she’s lucky because she loves so many people. That seems to me at least a piece of the truth about love.