Creative Conversations: Lynn Ahrens on MARIE, DANCING STILL

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How did the concept for this musical and this exceptional collaboration of Broadway visionaries come about?

I’d seen Degas’s famous sculpture many times in various museums, and I always paused to admire it. But I happened to visit the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA one summer, and for the first time I started to wonder who the unknown model was. In the car driving home, I remember saying to my husband, “I wonder if that girl might be the subject of a musical.” After some reading, research and lots of discussions with Stephen Flaherty (with whom I’ve been collaborating for thirty-five years!)  we made some preliminary stabs at writing, and then brought the idea to a meeting with Susan Stroman. I’d worked with Stro on Madison Square Garden’s 10-year run of “A Christmas Carol,” and I always wanted to do another show with her. With her incredible directorial and choreographic skills, plus her experience in choreographing ballets, she seemed a natural choice. We met, and lo and behold, she had just returned from Paris, and had Marie in her head as well. A new musical was born out of the synchronicity of inquiring minds.

Are there particular challenges with creating a show that is so ballet intensive? 

It was interesting for me as a bookwriter and lyricist to write scenarios for dance that communicate “non-verbally.” I worked closely with my collaborators to develop dances that continued to tell the story. Every dance is specific—even at its most abstract, there’s no dance in this show that doesn’t do its fair share of storytelling. Every moment of the show tells a story, whether in words, in music or in dance—a wonderful collaboration of art and artists.

New musical development is one of the most mysterious elements of theater work to the general public. Marie had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2014. Rather than quickly pursuing a follow-up staged production, the team opted for further re-development. Why did the team make that choice, and what kind of work has happened since that time? How much has the show changed in the last few years?

Every show happens in its own time, and it’s always better to go slowly than leap too fast. In this case, the show was very successful in Washington, playing to sold-out houses, but we nevertheless all felt we wanted to make certain changes. Most importantly, we wanted to focus more on the relationship between Marie and Degas, and slim down the material for some of the secondary characters. We felt we needed some more developmental steps to really achieve what we wanted to do. And of course, we all had a number of other commitments and productions that overlapped in the interim, which is the story of our lives–scheduling!

What do you as creators learn from industry readings and what do you learn from having a full audience? Are you excited to have a broad audience watching the show again?

Industry readings are useful because you have extremely knowledgeable and critical people assessing the piece. They often have suggestions and reactions, and sometimes they offer very sage, practical advice. But the real thrill is to see the show before a live audience of theatregoers. That’s when we see if we’re moving them, touching their hearts, sweeping them away with a well-told and exciting story. “Reading the audience” is one of the things I enjoy most about this process of putting on shows—seeing and feeling how the show is landing with the audience.

This show has a sensational cast including ballet royalty Tiler Peck as Marie and Broadway luminaries like Terrence Mann and so many more. What is it like as you create a new musical like this to have such incredible talents in these roles and how does their work inform the shape of the show?

Our cast is stunning–one of the joys of being a writer in the musical theater is that you get to work with powerhouse actors like these. In addition to writing the show, my goal is always to make the material perfect for each actor. I’m always willing to hear what they have to say, because they’re not just talented, they’re smart and self-aware. They have good ideas, and they also know what suits them. It’s like tailoring a beautiful new set of clothes for each individual. Do they sound good? Can they sing the words comfortably? Does the material suit their range and the personality of the character they will portray? Some of these collaborations between writer and actor not only make the show better, but they evolve into wonderful friendships, too. That’s another perk.

What drew you to Seattle and The 5th Avenue Theatre for the next fully-staged production of Marie? 

When I tell people this will be my first time in Seattle, their eyes widen, and they gasp, “You’ve never been there? It’s such a great city!”  So I couldn’t be more thrilled to be doing a new show here. And of course The 5th Avenue is legendary—a wonderful theater, a great organization and a notably engaged and interested audience. I’m really looking forward to the experience!

Was it always the intention that this story should be about Marie and not Degas? And why did you decide to focus your story on the little-known Marie, rather than the famed Degas?        

So much is known about Degas, but not too much about Marie, and no one knows what happened to her after she left the ballet. I found this very intriguing and I was fascinated by the rigorous and cruel world of the ballet. Most women had few choices in that time, and we can only imagine the spirit and determination that must have motivated such a poor girl to strive within that system. Degas was a fascinating and complex man, but it was Marie who touched my heart and made me want to write this show.

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