Romance, Mystery, and a Myth That Never Dies
DEC 13, 2016
Anastasia promises an unforgettable journey to the past.
In the new Broadway musical Anastasia written by the Tony Award–wining team that brought us Ragtime — playwright Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens — a young woman fearlessly sets out on a journey to unravel the mystery of her past.
The story is based on a persistent legend that the 17-year-old daughter of Tsar Nicholas II survived the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and lived through adulthood. One hundred years after the historical events, the romance and the adventure of her fate continue to spark excitement. The production, which begins previews at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on March 23, is directed by Darko Tresnjak, Tony Award winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
“There is something about this particular story that clearly captures the imagination,” says lyricist Ahrens. “We know that the real Anastasia did not live; our whole show is an imaginary version of what might have happened. It is much more interesting and exciting to think, What if she had lived?”
It is more than 20 years since Ahrens and Flaherty penned the songs for the Twentieth Century Fox animated musical based on the same legend. The duo received two Oscar nominations for their work on the movie — for the score as well as for the hit song “Journey to the Past.” Since then, the advent of a stage musical version of Anastasia has been long anticipated. “So many kids have been blogging and Facebooking for years about why this doesn’t come to the stage,” Ahrens reports.
The current project finally started to come together a few years ago when a producer approached the songwriting team to adapt their work for the stage. They had just one choice for bookwriter – their Ragtime collaborator McNally. “He has a sense of history, a sense of drama, and he has a great sense of fun,” says Ahrens. “I don’t think Terrence would have joined us if we just said, 'Let’s take the animated movie and put it on stage,'” says composer Flaherty. “We wanted to go back to the original fable-like quality of the story. And we wanted the story to be more historically accurate.”
For the Broadway musical score, Ahrens and Flaherty wrote some 15 new musical numbers, while also retaining the well-loved songs from the 1997 animated movie — including “Journey to the Past”, “Once Upon a December” and “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)” — which have been entirely rewritten and reconceived for the stage. “Even the way the songs function dramatically is very different,” notes composer Flaherty. The movie’s opening song, “Journey to the Past,” which is not only its best-known song, but also the cornerstone of the plot and themes in the musical, now provides a rousing, emotionally-charged close to the first act. “The stage musical sets a much longer journey for Anya —both physically and emotionally –so, now, by the time she sings “Journey” she has fully earned that moment,” Flaherty explains.
For Flaherty, returning to the same material two decades later gave him the opportunity to create a much richer musical experience than the movie allowed. “I was able to really explore Russian choral music and look at Russian ballet music,” he explains, adding that ever since he read the first version of the animated movie script he was struck by the story’s potential to be a great romantic mystery. “I actually thought it could be a Hitchcock film in a lot of ways.” He reports that Tresnjak’s production explores that psychological and mystery angle, and pays homage to the master of suspense’s Vertigo in one moment. “The music unlocks Anya’s identity and her memory,” Flaherty continues. “It is about mothers reuniting with daughters, lovers coming together again after being separated for years. The music becomes this current that just grabs the audience and pulls them through the story.”
The first act of McNally’s new libretto takes place in pre-and post-Revolutionary Russia, while the second act is set in Paris in 1927. “In Act One there are those deeper Russian colors and in Act Two, Paris is on the cusp of the Jazz Age so that’s when we bring the saxophones out,” says Flaherty. McNally himself has described the Paris of the second act as being “everything modern Soviet Russia was not: free, expressive, creative, no barriers.” Accordingly, the song “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)” is now transformed into a paean to the uninhibited City of Light. “It was a wild time of intellectual ferment,” notes Ahrens.
Anastasia arrives on Broadway following its world premiere this summer at Hartford Stage, with many in the principal cast repeating their roles: Christy Altomare plays the adult Anya; Derek Klena plays Dmitry, the young con man who falls in love with her; John Bolton and Caroline O’Connor, play the comic duo Vlad Popov and the Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch; and Mary Beth Peil the Dowager Empress Maria Deodorovna, Anastasia’s grandmother. Joining the company for the Broadway production, Ramin Karimloo (seen most recently in Les Misérables) will play the Chekist policeman Gleb.
When the musical began previews at Hartford, Ahrens says she wasn’t quite prepared for the convergence of avid fans of the animated movie — or fanastasias as she fondly calls them. She says she began to panic when she noticed on the very first day several young women in the audience dressed as Anastasia, wearing tiaras and yellow dresses with blue sashes. She wondered how they would take the changes that had been made to their beloved movie and songs. But when she talked to one of them, a twenty-something year-old, after the show, the young woman told her that she had been totally swept away by the musical. “I have to tell you,” she told Ahrens, “I grew up with the animated movie, and now the musical has grown up for me.”
“I think people who grew up with the film, enjoyed its lightness and the colorful quality, but now they are really gravitating towards the romance of the piece,” remarks Flaherty, assessing the responses from the Hartford run. “It sounds like a cliché, but there is something in it for everybody,” Ahrens concludes. “It is so palpable because you can see the older people crying at the right moments and others laughing hysterically at the right moments; you see the dates holding on to one another and you can see the little kids leaning forward with great delight. I think that is also why the myth or fairy tale, if you want to call it that, has existed for so many years. Because if you are a certain age, you want that girl to have lived; if you are older, you want that girl to have reconnected with her family and her grandmother again; and if you are a little kid, you want action and adventure. It’s all built into this story.”