Two weeks ago, the musical Ragtime came under fire at a high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey for its deployment of racial slurs in telling a anti-racism story that is intended to evoke the evolving nature of what it means to be American, blending the stories of white, black, and Jewish characters according to the template set by E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel from 1975. Following efforts to censor its language, which would have resulted in the rights to the show being withdrawn due to unauthorized edits, Ragtime will go in Cherry Hill, serving not only as entertainment but education about the prejudices of the past which, sadly, remain with us today.
With a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime was hardly the first musical to address American history, politics or identity – that had been the basis for shows ranging from The Gershwins’s Of Thee I Sing and Strike Up The Band to Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776. Was it more frank than many of the prior works? No doubt, as standards of what is considered progressive and acceptable on stage evolved, and has continued to change, right up through Hamilton.
For Ahrens, the historical elements of Ragtime, which are woven through the fictional saga of slowly blending families, were not exactly new territory for musicalization. In fact, more than a decade before she gained attention as the lyricist of such shows as Lucky Stiff, Once On This Island and My Favorite Year, Ahrens was part of the core group that created the much beloved Schoolhouse Rock, seen on ABC TV during its Saturday morning cartoon block. It wasn’t just Ahrens’s lyrics that helped to make up this series of short cartoons – her music and her voice were heard as well.
For those who managed to entirely miss the 44 year legacy of Schoolhouse Rock, or came to it only in its endless reruns, compilations or stage version, Rock was a series of short, musical cartoons that sought to educate the kids glued to TV sets for such intellectually stimulating fare as Jabberjaw, Scooby-Doo and Dynomutt, Superfriends, and The Krofft Super Show. Arranged around the subjects one might find in elementary school or middle school, the original curriculum was multiplication, grammar, American history and science. Money was tackled in a new set of shorts in the mid 90s, and the environment was given the Schoolhouse Rock treatment in 2009. Rather than being part of an ABC effort to add educational programming, Schoolhouse Rock was created by an ad agency, McCaffrey and McCall, which used it as a vehicle to flog breakfast cereals for one of its clients, General Mills.
Ahrens was working as a secretary at the agency and often played her guitar on lunch breaks, leading one of the execs to invite her to try her hand at a Schoolhouse Rock song during the second round of cartoons, grammar. The original 1973 series, on multiplication, had been written solely by Bob Dorough. While some reports have that initial entry as being “The Preamble” (to the U.S. Constitution), other sources say it was “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing,” which is more consistent with schedules of original airdates. Whatever their birthdates, Ahrens sang on both.
Given the themes of Ragtime, another Ahrens composition (sung by Lori Lieberman), seems to have somewhat prefigured that show. It is as timely as it ever was, if not more so given recent executive orders, although some of its cartooned racial caricatures are rather unfortunate.
All told, Ahrens wrote three “Grammar Rock,” five “America Rock,” six of the nine “Science Rock,” one “Money Rock” (the patter song “Tax Man Max” with her theatrical songwriting partner Stephen Flaherty), and four contributions to “Earth Rock.”
Leaving aside the Ragtime link, yet another Ahrens contribution seems especially vital these days, given the degree to which the separation of powers and constitutional rights are part of the 24-hour news cycle.
While Ahrens is currently at work with her Ragtime collaborators McNally and Flaherty on Anastasia, a mixture of Russian history and conjecture,a special screening of some of her Schoolhouse Rock work might be worth setting up in Washington right now. It seems there are people in that town who could still learn a lot from Lynn, especially people with short attention spans who are given to flipping through TV channels on a whim.