Songwriter Profile: Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty

Respected musical theater duo, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s latest composition, “How Do I Tell You?,” was written for Nasrin, a documentary film about Iranian human rights activist, Nasrin Sotoudeh. Delivering a poignant and timely message of hope and humanity, the original song is performed by four-time Grammy-winner, Angelique Kidjo, and was inspired by letters from Sotoudeh to her children while behind prison walls, in her effort to explain her absence.

Shares Ahrens, “She's not just an activist, not just a woman who's going to fall on her sword for her ideals. She's a mother, and the pull of that was so moving.” Added Flaherty, “We were both very, very moved from that first rough cut. It’s the kind of project that you just can’t say no to because her life and her activism are so powerful and so moving and so needed.”

For this new piece, initial melody lines delivered Ahrens an image of “the night sky sparkling stars and somebody looking at it through prison bars,” she said. “It just felt like that to me, and it just seemed so right. It was one of those things that was very spontaneous.” As a narrative about an isolated woman, Flaherty crafted the choruses as larger musical gestures to give the idea that the message is still reaching many people throughout the evolution of the piece. “It was inspired by her letters to her kids,” chimed in Flaherty, “but it’s almost like she’s writing to the world.”

Their collaboration began with Flaherty being struck by Ahrens’ generosity of spirit, gifted economic wordsmithing, and her ability to distill complex ideas. “It has been something we've done for decades now and it never gets stale,” gushed Flaherty when asked what keeps their partnership working. “The fun has never gone out of it.”

Early failures solidified their partnership. “Going through failure really lets you know if this is the person you should continue to write with,” revealed Ahrens. “The joy of working together in a room really just kept us pulling us forward through the failures and disappointments, until we finally had some success.” Voiced Flaherty, “[There are times when] you know that the experience is so intense that there's no way that you can come out the other end the same way you entered - either it's going to pull you apart, or it's going to make you a superhero. What we found is that we became more like the superhero version of who we had been.”

Grateful for mentorship by industry greats (including Stephen Sondheim, Peter Stone, Sheldon Harnick and John Kander), the pair are supporting the next generation, serving on the Council for the Dramatists Guild of America and as active Co-Founders of the DGF Fellows Program for Emerging Writers. Flaherty credits Artistic Director André Bishop and Musical Theater Director Ira Weitzman for giving them their start and continuing to support them at the Lincoln Center. “There's something to be said about the luxury of having an artistic home in an ever-changing world.” Continued Flaherty, “It’s not just the building, but a group of supporting artists and mentors that are not just interested in ‘this year’s model’ but also in what you’re going to write next. That has made all the difference in the world.”

One of Sotoudeh’s letters was recently read to a group of human rights organizations, which Ahrens found very applicable to America right now: “The arts help people like me in bringing about freedom and justice. I'm so grateful for this collaboration. It is this kind of partnership that keeps up our pride and determination in this corner of the world.”

“People you may never meet in your lifetime are affected by your music,” summarized Flaherty. “That's why I think it's important to be very aware of what you're putting out there.”

The four-time Grammy nominees, eight-time Tony nominees, two-time Oscar nominees, winners of Tony and London Olivier Awards, Oscar Hammerstein Lifetime Achievement Awards (2014), inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame (2015) and the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2018), have projects for Disney+ and Netflix on the way.

Contact Jeff Sanderson, Chasen & Company, [email protected]

Learn more about Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty at ahrensandflaherty.com