How Terrence McNally inspired ‘Ragtime’s’ most moving musical moments

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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.

Ahrens: He cared so much about everything that went on the page, so he and I butted heads all the time. We could get into a fight about a word, really. It never ended! But it was fine. We would have a fight one day, and then the next day, we’d be in love all over again.

And he would lecture the cast of actors and say things like, “When I write a comma, I want you to pause. And when I write a period, I want you to stop. And I don’t want you to pause when there is no comma or when there is no period.” I have been present for these talks with the cast, and I found it so annoying but endearing, because he believed in what he wrote so much.

Flaherty: He also insisted that the typeface be 16 or 18 point. Huge.

Ahrens: He always wanted everything he worked on to be profound and serious at its heart. Even “Anastasia,” which is based on an animated movie, he wanted to explore the history and tell a grown-up story.

He wrote so many cogent lines in so many of his shows, but there’s one in “Anastasia” that goes, “We never know which goodbye will be the last.”

We were in Florida last week, doing a show (“Knoxville”) at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and he was supposed to come down to see it. We both emailed him separately and told him to stay home, it’s not a good time to travel. The rest is history, but we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

Flaherty: He also had a wicked sense of humor. He was really, really funny. And that’s what I love about him and his work: one moment, it’s very moving, and the next moment, it’s outrageously funny. I think he understood that about life: the humor of it, the darker moments, it’s all part of the same thing. You find that all through everything he does.

Ahrens: There was a little show that we did with him called “A Man of No Importance.” On some level, I think that was his favorite show. It was such a quiet show. It was about a gay Dublin bus driver who is in love with a man who is straight. It’s utterly a Terrence story. He brought the idea to us. We made a delicate little musical out of it that is not widely known.

There’s a line in it that we’ve always used with each other jokingly, but now it’s just stuck in my mind: “I’m blessed in my friends.”

That sums up Terrence: He was surrounded by love and by friends, and he gave opportunities to young writers. He wrote shows for actors who had never had a break and they became stars. He was such a giving person to the people who surrounded him.

Flaherty: All of our lives have changed so much because of knowing him, and for the better.


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