To pigeonhole Lynn Ahrens as a lyricist or librettist overlooks her distinguished career as a producer of children's television. Yet it is in the former capacity that she has achieved her greatest success. The daughter of bohemian parents, Ahrens was born and raised in Manhattan. After earning a degree in journalism from Syracuse University, Ahrens embarked on a career in advertising as a copywriter and composer of jingles. When a co-worker overheard Ahrens singing, she was invited to audition to work on a children's television show. Soon thereafter, she became a contributing songwriter to "Schoolhouse Rock!" (ABC). In the late 1970s, Ahrens founded her own production company and went on to create a number of successful children's informational programs, earning an Emmy for "H.E.L.P.! (Dr. Henry's Emergency Lessons for People)", about the Heimlich maneuver, as well as nominations for "Kids Are People Too", "The Doughnuts" and "Willie Survives".
In 1982, Ahrens enrolled at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop where she was introduced to composer Stephen Flaherty. The pair joined together for a project and a working partnership was born. Ahrens and Flaherty adapted the 1967 film "Bedazzled" as a musical. Despite earning attention for a workshop production, they were unable to secure the stage rights to the material. Their professional debut came with the children's musical "The Emperor's New Clothes" staged at TheaterworksUSA. Ahrens had proposed a musical based on "Antler", a modern tale of homesteading in South Dakota, for their first "adult" show, but the material defied musicalization. Instead, the pair turned to the novel "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" which they transformed into "Lucky Stiff" (1988). A spoof of Victorian music hall shows, the musical won the Richard Rodgers Award and premiered at Playwrights Horizons, but despite a favorable review in THE NEW YORK TIMES, it only played for six weeks. (A studio recording was released in 1994.)
The second Ahrens and Flaherty musical was also based on a novel, Rosa Guy's "My Love, My Love", which in turn was loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Little Mermaid". Perhaps coincidentally, when their version "Once on This Island" premiered, the animated Disney film of "The Little Mermaid" had become a blockbuster. With its infectious Afro-Caribbean score, "Once on This Island" became an instant hit at Playwrights Horizons and soon transferred to Broadway where it earned eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Score. With "My Favorite Year" (1992), an adaptation of the 1982 feature, Ahrens concentrated solely on lyric writing. Despite a long process of staged readings and workshops, the finished musical failed to impress audiences or critics.
By this time, the songwriting pair had begun to consider following Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to Hollywood to craft songs for animated films. During the same period, Ahrens and Flaherty were one of ten songwriting teams who were asked to submit material for a proposed musical based on E L Doctorow's novel "Ragtime". Because of other commitments, Ahrens and Flaherty had less than two weeks to complete four numbers. After just meeting the deadline for submission, they were awarded the job and produced what some critics feel is one of the best theater scores of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. "Ragtime" premiered in Toronto in 1996 to generally favorable notices and later played Los Angeles in 1997 before its 1998 Broadway opening. Just weeks before "Ragtime" began its NYC previews, the animated film "Anastasia" (1997) opened, featuring a song score by Ahrens and Flaherty. Their efforts again were generally praised and two of the songs earned Golden Globe Award nominations and were short-listed for Oscar consideration.