The harrowing and powerful documentary Nasrin tells the story of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer. She served as a driving force behind the country’s women’s rights movement in addition to representing political activists and women arrested in Iran for not wearing a hijab. Now, she, herself, is a political prisoner, serving a total of 38 years over multiple sentences in addition to 148 lashes.
While Nasrin gives an immersive and detailed look at Sotoudeh’s life, the filmmaking team of Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross felt the material provided the opportunity to share her message through song. They immediately approached the Tony-winning songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime) whose songs and score for Anastasia received Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe nominations. Ahrens and Flaherty appeal to political material made them the perfect team to deliver the work.
“We saw an early rough cut of the film and read some of Nasrin’s letters, written from prison to her children. We were deeply moved by Nasrin’s courageous life story and her love for her family. This immediately inspired our song, ‘How Can I Tell You?’,” said Ahrens and Flaherty.
“How Can I Tell You?,” sung by 4-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo, is a deeply moving dedication to the message and enduring hope offered by Sotoudeh. It offers its message not only from a mother to a daughter but also from a political prisoner to a world of women struggling daily for basic rights. Here, Ahrens and Flaherty talks with Awards Daily about the process of creating the song together and what it meant to the politically motivated team.
Awards Daily: Let’s start with your remarkably successful collaboration as a theatrical writing team. What do you think it is about this partnership that makes you such a natural fit?
Lynn Ahrens: It’s so hard to say because there’s an alchemy that happens. I’ve said this before, but the literally the very first minute that Steven sat down at a piano to set our very first song attempt, I had given him a lyric. I had worked with several different collaborators before that, but the way he put his fingers on the keys and understood the nuances of the lyric just blew me away. I thought, ‘Okay, this is what I’ve been looking for.’ The bell went off at that moment for me. Since then, we’re just two silly people. We love to get together and just gossip and laugh. We have similar senses of humor, and we’re both happily married. It just feels like an old soul relationship that has existed over all these years.
Stephen Flaherty: Lynn’s able to take really complex ideas and distill them into a very few words – to perfect lyrics. When we first met, we were actually both writing music and lyrics. I would find that it would take me 40 words to say something that she could distill into a very few words. Also, she has incredible empathy and understanding of the human soul and spirit. I think that’s something that just comes out in almost everything that we do, and it’s something that’s very important to both of us.
LA: Thank you, Stephen! You’ve never said that before.
SF: But it is a true thing. Even if you look at the lighter pieces that we’ve done, the more comedic pieces, there is that sense of community and the individual person’s contribution and value within society. Even in Seussical, which you would think is a kids show, but actually, it’s not. It’s about more than that.
AD: Given your history with socially conscious or social justice projects like Ragtime or even the subtext of Seussical, do you think it’s a common theme for both of you. Is that something that you both respond to?
LA: I think so, yes. But you know, it’s funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. I don’t think we ever set out to change the world or make a political point. I think we set out to tell a great story. If in the course of telling that story something bubbles up that happens to have a message in it, then we’re thrilled about it. First and foremost, we’re storytellers. If you tell stories about the human spirit, then something of justice and hope will resonate in there.
AD: When you are writing for the stage versus, in this case, a song that is featured in Nasrin, is there a difference in the way that you approach the material?
SF: In the case of Nasrin, we were asked by the filmmakers, Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross, to create a song that basically would encapsulate her spirit. It’s a very challenging thing when you’re writing and your character happens to be a real life person. You really have to do honor and have to lift it up, to make sure that you are celebrating this person’s entire life and work in four minutes. So, it is a challenge more than just actually writing for a character in the story. It was very important to us to celebrate her individual life as much as the larger arc of the work that she’s doing.
LA: When we write for theater, of course, we’re always writing for different characters. To me, they are as real as Nasrin in a weird way. They feel like I have to embody them. I have to channel what they might feel in any given moment and really try to create fully fledged human beings on a stage even though they’re fictional. In the case of Nasrin, certainly we knew her story. We had seen a rough cut of the film, which we loved and were so moved by. Jeff Kaufman sent us a few of her letters to her children. To read between the lines of her letters was, for me, the most inspiring thing because there was a real mother locked up in prison for 38 years, writing to her children and trying to teach them not to hate, to pray for the prisoners, and to explain to them why her freedom was less important than justice. To me that just soared into words about a woman who is a witness to history, a witness to injustice and also a mother. That made the songwriting really, really easy.
AD: I think you’ve already answered my next question, but I’ll ask it anyway. With “How Can I Tell You?,” it feels like the perspective of the song is her speaking not only to her children but also to women of the world.
LA: Correct. That was what I was trying to do. The inspiration, I think more than anything, came from her very intimate letters to her kids. When you amplify that, she’s absolutely speaking to the world.
AD: So, Stephen, how did you settle on the sound of the song? I often think that composers have melodies sort of floating around in their heads, and it’s almost as if you just grab one from the cloud. But how did you settle on the sound of “How Can I Tell You?”
SF: As I mentioned, I tend to work from character, and I always work from emotion. The song was music first, surprisingly. I had a photograph of Nasrin, and I put it on the top of my piano. I was trying to emotionally get to what her feelings might be. As we know, she’s currently in prison serving a sentence, so I thought that the song had to begin with a sense of being isolated, being separated from your family and from the people that you love from your community. So, I tried to create that mood but yet with her trying to, across time and place, send this message out to those who love her.
I found that, as they got closer to what would become the choruses, the music swelled, and it seemed to include other people. It seemed to be a larger message. It seemed to be external where the beginning of the song felt very internal to me. That’s sort of what I was playing the idea of – that the work and the thought can actually spark a revolution of sorts. I think that’s what the chorus became about. Then, it ends on a very small coda, which is getting back to the idea of the letters to her to her family…
LA: …and signing the letter, which I thought was a lovely touch. I’m one of those lyricist who loves to get the music first because it always informs the emotion of the moment. They say that the lyrics are the intellect and music is the emotion. For me, it’s true because I just feel the music so deeply. When Stephen sent me this melody, all I could see were stars, sparkling behind prison bars. Looking out of a barred window and seeing stars in the sky. It just felt as if it needed to start in such an intimate way. I love the melody so much.
AD: So at the end of the day, when people see the film and hear the song, what do you hope they walk away from the project with?
LA: Well, the most concrete thing is to try and help Nasrin. If there are ways to contribute, if there are ways to write, if there are congressmen to lobby for her release, then I think that would be the immediate thing. Beyond that, I hope that the song helps many realize that there are small, small people in the world. It’s like Seussical — a person’s a person, no matter how small or ridiculous. It’s such an important message that we all have a voice. We all have to raise our voice. The last words of the music video are just beautiful to me. We must not let our children inherit silence. I think that’s the most important message of all.
Narrated by Academy Award® Winning actress Olivia Colman, Nasrin will launch on VOD on January 26 on all platforms including Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.