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How Terrence McNally inspired 'Ragtime's' most moving musical moments

Ashley Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Terrence McNally died on Tuesday from complications related to the novel coronavirus. Lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, who collaborated with the playwright on the musicals "Ragtime," "A Man of No Importance" and "Anastasia," spoke to Times staff writer Ashley Lee on Wednesday, paying tribute to the theater giant in this edited conversation.

Lynn Ahrens: There's so many things to remember about him, it's hard to really pick just one. Whenever we got together, he would order bagels and chicken salad, and he'd make coffee ...

Stephen Flaherty: Coffee was the one thing that he knew how to make.

Ahrens: Oh, yes, and it was very good! We would just talk about what we'd seen in the theater and the gossip and all of that. It was always a getting together of old friends, which was so, so nice. We'd just be having a great time, and little by little, we would wend our way to the work.

He had this beautiful way with words. He was such a great writer for people who write musicals because he would write a paragraph about a character, and when I looked at it as a lyricist, I would say, "Oh my gosh, that should be sung, that should go to music." He was so poetic and lyrical and really had a way of inspiring songs in his musical collaborators.

Flaherty: Yes. He was a very generous writer in giving to his collaborators. For "Ragtime," he had written a 60-page treatment of how you might musicalize the novel for the stage.

 

There was a beautiful moment in it when the character Mother was saying goodbye to Father before his expedition, and he wrote, "Goodbye, my love, God bless you. And I suppose, bless America too." We read that and thought, "That must be a lyric for a song." I started writing the music, Lynn developed the lyric further, and it became this beautiful, musical moment.

Ahrens: He also had Mother just say this one line to Father: "We can never go back to before." I'm like, "Oh my God, that's the song." I wrote the whole song in a night!

He loved that "Ragtime" is still being done all over the country, in schools and regional theaters. It meant a lot to him to have the show recognized, all these many years later.

Flaherty: He was also a great lover of music: symphonies, opera, musicals. He was always analyzing musical structure; he was aware of the setups of the great song moments and the crescendos to what would be the arias, and he wrote that way.

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