Friday, June 6, 2014

“Schoolhouse Rock” interview: songwriter/singer Lynn Ahrens

Introduction to the Schoolhouse Rock interview series (including the list of interviewees).

Among Lynn’s greatest Schoolhouse Rock hits:

M = wrote music
L = wrote lyrics
S = sang song

  • “Interjections!” – ML
  • “A Noun Is a Person, Place, or Thing” – MLS
  • “Interplanet Janet” – MLS
  • “The Great American Melting Pot” – ML
  • “No More Kings” – MLS (co-sung with Bob Dorough)
  • “The Preamble” – MLS

How old were you when you began writing for
Schoolhouse Rock?

About 22.

What else were you doing professionally at the time?

I had just been hired as a secretary, working in the copy department of an advertising agency called McCaffrey and McCall. It was my first job out of college and I hoped to become a copywriter. That opportunity led to a career as a copywriter, followed by freelance careers as a TV writer (
Schoolhouse Rock and many others), a jingle writer, a television producer of many network shows for young people, and ultimately a musical theatre writer. It all started there.

Where were you living at the time?

My ex-husband and I were sleeping on the floor of his sister’s apartment in Flushing, Queens. We had just arrived in NYC and were looking for jobs. (Flushing was not the New York City I had envisioned—it took me awhile to figure out where Manhattan was.) I answered two ads in the Times—one for an insurance company, one for an advertising agency. We were broke, and I would have taken the first job offered. Luckily, it was McCaffrey and McCall who offered first.

Were you already aware of
Schoolhouse Rock when you were hired?

No, not at all.

How were you hired?

I took an old-fashioned typing test to get my secretarial position. Since I’ve never learned to type, I passed with my own four-finger method. I had to be shown how to use the huge Remington Selectric typewriter, complete with a self-correcting wheel. I used to bring my guitar to work and play and write songs on my lunch hour because I was bored silly as a secretary. One day one of the producers of
Schoolhouse Rock, George Newall, passed by and casually asked me if I’d like to try writing a song for Schoolhouse Rock. I wrote “The Preamble,” it went on the air with me singing, and that was the beginning. It was dumb luck—being in the right place at the right time with the right person passing by.

Were you originally hired to write multiple songs, or just one?

Just one. Then they started asking for more.

Did you have any say in which topics you got to write about?

We were told the general category (American history, grammar, etc.) but we chose our own topics for the most part.

Did you propose any songs/topics that were rejected?

Don’t think so.

How long would it take you, on average, to write a
Schoolhouse Rock song?

I’m a pretty fast writer. I’d guess to research and write a song would take me anywhere from a few days to a week.

Did you do your own research or were you presented with which facts to include?

Did my own.

Schoolhouse Rock song you wrote was your favorite and why?

I’m fond of “Interplanet Janet” because she’s an adventurous female character. (And I like the way I sound singing it.) Many years later I was asked to do a rewrite for schools because Pluto had been downgraded to a non-planet. I revised the lyrics as follows:

original: And Pluto, little Pluto, is the farthest planet Janet’s been. [in aired version, “ from our sun” replaced “Janet’s been”]
revision: And Pluto’s not a planet, but Janet thinks it should have been.

What is your favorite
Schoolhouse Rock song you did not write?

I think maybe “Three Is a Magic Number.” Or maybe “Figure Eight.” They’re both beautiful.

What song you wrote (whether or not
Schoolhouse Rock) is your favorite?

This is an impossible one to answer. Between television, film, theater, and concert work, my body of work is pretty big at this point.

Schoolhouse Rock song was your favorite to sing?

Probably “The Preamble.” It was the first one I wrote and sang and there was an incredible sense of glee standing at a microphone and learning how to use my voice.

Any funny stories from the recordings?

I once had to perform live with Bobby Dorough for an ABC-TV event called Funshine Saturday, on board a ship. I was supposed to play the guitar to accompany myself (something I had never done in performance before) and I expected there would be a stool or a chair onstage for me. There was nothing to sit on, and I had not brought a guitar strap. You try playing a guitar without a strap while standing. It is, very simply, impossible. That was my first and last public performance with a musical instrument.

Lynn and Bob recording 
“A Noun Is a Person, Place, or Thing”; 
photo courtesy of George Newall

What did you think of the finished animated musical shorts?

I thought they were brilliant—so simple and so witty, even with very limited animation.

What are your most cherished/funniest
Schoolhouse Rock stories since (a reaction when someone you meet discovers you had a role in it, seeing its influence in an unexpected way, hearing a celeb you admire sing its praises, etc.)?

When I speak to theater students at colleges—people who want to become serious musical theater writers or performers—the biggest response to my bio usually comes for
Schoolhouse Rock, followed closely by “What Would You Do For a Klondike Bar.” These seem to be cultural touchstones.

What are you working on these days?

[Recently] opened the musical Rocky on Broadway, now running at the Winter Garden Theatre. Will be premiering an original musical called Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center this coming fall, directed by Susan Stroman. And following that I’ll be premiering another new musical, based on the animated film Anastasia. (I wrote the original songs for the movie in 1998.)

What do you consider your career highlight to date?

Going to the Oscars for
Anastasia was pretty amazing. Getting Rocky to Broadway via Hamburg, Germany has been life-changing. Ragtime, Once on This Island, and Seussical were all extraordinary experiences, for very different reasons. And of course Schoolhouse Rock, which made me a professional songwriter.

Where do you live?

New York.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

That you were confused about my having a son! [MTN: I read that here.]

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

Many times, and honestly I don’t recall where or when.

Do you still have any ongoing connection (professionally or personally) to
Schoolhouse Rock?

I have both. Just had lunch with Bobby Dorough, George Newall, and Rad Stone to celebrate Bobby’s 90th birthday (!). And a couple of years ago, I provided four new songs, one of which was a sequel to “Interplanet Janet.”

Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs? If not, would you? 

No, and probably wouldn’t.

Anyone else connected with
Schoolhouse Rock you suggest I interview?

I’m sure you know the key—George Newall, Rad Stone, Bobby Dorough and myself. Tom Yohe and Jack Sidebotham are sadly both gone, but Tom’s son (Tom Jr.) designed some of the most recent ones, and draws in a style very similar to his dad’s. Interestingly, when he was a little boy, Tom Jr. did one of the kid’s voices on my song “Interjections!” and his young son, Tommy III, sang on one of those recent ones I mentioned. So there are three generations of Tom Yohes associated with the show.

What is your perspective on the longevity and legacy of
Schoolhouse Rock

It’s a beautiful show that has withstood the test of time and will continue to do so because it’s completely unaffected and innocent at heart. It amazes me how many different generations have been touched by the show.

How do you look back on the experience?

Schoolhouse Rock taught me how to write songs on assignment, work with actors, work in a studio, record music, mix tracks, work with film and sound effects. It gave me the courage to go freelance as a young songwriter. Basically, it set me on the road to here.

Next: Dave Frishberg.

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