Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty interview: ‘Nasrin’ songwriters
“Her story is so compelling… there’s no way that you couldn’t do it,” says composer Stephen Flaherty of crafting a song for the documentary “Nasrin,” about Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Filmmaker Jeff Kaufman showed Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens a rough cut of his film, and the Tony winning songwriting team was so moved they didn’t even need to discuss whether they would write a tune or not. “The movie is so emotional,” recounts Ahrens, “it just seemed to call for something that was human and intimate, yet stirring.” The pair quickly came up with a song that lives up to those requirements: “How Can I Tell You?” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
The lyrics appear to conjure Sotoudeh herself, referencing the activist lawyer’s time in jail. That’s no accident. “As theatre writers, we tend to channel characters… you try to become the character you’re writing,” explains Ahrens. The pair have a Tony Award for “Ragtime” and two Oscar nominations for “Anastasia,” so it comes as no surprise they bring the same level of musical storytelling to “How Can I Tell You?”
Sotoudeh was jailed for her efforts to combat mandatory hijab laws in Iran. Ahrens and Flaherty were provided several of the letters that she wrote to her children during that time, which served as inspiration for the song. “I didn’t steal her words,” notes Ahrens, “but the idea that a mother feels its more important to stand up for her principals than to be with her family…how do you explain that to a child?” So, the story of the song became one of a mother expressing her feelings.
Flaherty agrees, saying “we wanted to make sure it was a personal story…when you think of your heroes, they’re actually real people walking the earth.” His music aimed to capture the sense of separation felt by the Sotoudeh family in the documentary. “I almost exclusively start anything just from an emotional place,” explains Flaherty, “you want to get to the human quality.”
Helping to further humanize the number are the vocals of Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo. The Beninese singer was a perfect fit to perform the song, given her powerhouse voice and advocacy work for young women. “It’s a real activating performance,” says Flaherty of Kidjo. “It’s like a call to arms. There’s no way, hearing her sing the song, that you can possibly sit back.”
Sitting back is certainly the last thing Sotoudeh would want anyone to do after watching her story. In the documentary, she extols her love of the arts, claiming: “art is the best way to take on tyranny.” How fitting then, that Ahrens and Flaherty have turned her tale into an emotional, relatable work of art. As Ahrens notes when summing up the tune: “it seems like such a simple song to a child…and yet it takes on this huge universal quality.”