Anastasia, the new musical from Tony-winning Ragtime, Once On This Island and Rocky songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty completes its journey from screen to stage this spring in a production that will premiere May 12 at Hartford Stage under the direction of Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder).
Their heartfelt 1997 animated musical used the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia as its inspiration, earning the duo Oscar nominations for Best Original Song (“Journey to the Past”) and for Best Music: Original Musical or Comedy Score. They’ve aligned themselves with their Tony-winning Ragtime collaborator, playwright Terrence McNally, to bring what the writers see as an all-new musical to the stage. When it bows in Hartford this spring, the writers state that audiences will encounter much of what they loved from the film with a more human and historic take.
In addition to revealing what’s in store for Anastasia onstage, the writers speak candidly about the challenges they faced with Seussical and Rocky on Broadway, as well as other projects in the pipeline—including a whispers of a revival of a favorite.
How did you begin adapting and expanding the animated version of Anastasia for the stage?
LA: The first thing we wanted to do was write a whole original score, and we wanted to take some of the songs that we love that we wrote back then and put them onstage, but in a new way—re-position them, or rewrite them in some way. We really wanted to approach the show from a different musical vantage point: a little more sophisticated, more far-reaching, more political.
SF: I remember the day clearly where we were in an Au Bon Pain in New York City as we were working on the film, and somebody just throws out this notion, “What if Rasputin just rises from the dead and is accompanied by an albino bat!?” And at that moment in time you realize, “Oh, it’s gonna be that. It’s going to move over that way,” and it’s out of the blue. But you’re a hired gun working in Hollywood, doing the best you can to write a beautiful score, but not having control over your destiny. So we wanted to use the film and the legend of Anastasia as the jumping off point, but it’s really an original musical dealing with more of the history. Terrence McNally came on board, which is thrilling because I don’t think he was interested in just doing the film and putting it right up on a stage.
So the word from workshops is that Rasputin and Bartok the bat are gone and that the show has a historic and human focus now hold true?
LA: He’s gone. And the bat is gone. They’re gonna be in our cabaret act, though. We’re gonna bring ‘em back. They may have a little homage here or there, maybe. But basically, there’s a new character who represents the Communist Regime. He’s a contemporary, more of a contemporary figure. He’s in post-revolutionary Russia, he’s a Czechist as they called them. And the score’s really interesting. For example, there’s an opening number in the movie called “Rumor in St. Petersburg” and we kept that, but it’s completely re-written, opened up, all the main characters are introduced. It’s a theatrical number now, as opposed to a fun song for an animated movie. And “Journey to the Past,” which is one of the famous songs, and the song that got [Oscar] nominated, has been moved to an entirely different place in the score, where I think it’s going to be even more effective, actually, and in between there’s all kinds of new stuff.
SF: That was the real excitement: going back in and seeing things that you loved, but also thinking, “How can this function onstage? How can we even make this?” The character of Anya, her trajectory in the stage version is huge. And with the exception, I think, of two scenes, she is on the stage all the time—I mean, it’s like the Olympics.
LA: Anya, of course, is a character who has to go from the old world of the Tsars and so on, born to that, into a new world and discover herself in that new world. And she’s a lost character who’s going to find out who she is and what she actually wants in the new world.
How many new songs have you written for Anastasia?
LA: Something like 15 or 16?
SF: We’re writing one now.
LA: We’re writing one now, literally.
SF: We were doing it this morning.
LA: There are lots of good songs; we’re very excited. We haven’t written such a song-heavy score for a while where there are a lot of, not so much solos, but real character songs where they step out and have a great number. There are a lot of them in this.
SF: But there are also a lot of sequences, as well. Musically, Act One is Russia; Act Two is 1920s Paris, and just creating those two musical worlds and watching the characters go through the old world and then the new—it’s really exciting.
What was the first song you wrote for the project back in the 90s?
SF: “Once Upon a December” was the first song we wrote for the project. I was really excited about that. We wrote it in a heat wave. It was 98 degrees in New York, you know, so you’re sweating and writing winter imagery.
This story has captivated people for over a century. Why do you think that is?
SF: It’s a mystery.
LA: And you know, even though the mystery’s been solved, the story persists, the myth persists, and it’s a very romantic story that just has lasted for a hundred years now. I think it’s coming up on the 400th anniversary if it hasn’t already happened, of the Romanov Dynasty, so there’s all this culture and history that sort of imbues itself into the show in a wonderful way.
There’s been huge response from fans of the film since it was revealed that Anastasia was coming to the stage.
SF: You know, a friend of mine sent me this thing and it was a Facebook group saying “Make Anastasia a Broadway musical.”
LA: It’s been happening since the movie came out in ‘97.
You could have fast-tracked Anastasia and made it a literal translation of the film onto the stage. What prompted you to take your time on this and reconsider how it might work?
LA: I think the biggest change was at 20th Century Fox, because movie companies move slowly, one by one became interested in taking their films and making them into stage musicals. I think that Fox slowly came to realize that they had some very great movies that might translate to stage. And they got people on board: Kevin McCollum is now working for Fox developing some of their movies. I think it was a coming together of movie company and theatre company wanting to do it.
SF: But there’s a new structure, and we felt really excited about it, and then we had to present it to 20th Century Fox. They can either say yes or no, and we just felt this is a very exciting way to go. Luckily, they agreed. There was a conscious need to tell the story in a different way that was maybe more respectful or more based on the real history.
LA: Well, more realistic to Russia, to the history. I think that’s a wonderful thing that has come into the show.
You’re working with Tony-winning A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder director Darko Tresnjak on Anastasia. What’s his way into this world and how the show lives onstage?
LA: It’s pretty big. It’s feeling like it’s going to be romantic and sweeping, and it’s going to have an epic quality, I think, visually.
SF: It’s so funny, I’m feeling it the other way. A lot of the moments are focused on a smaller group of people against a larger backdrop.
LA: Visually, I think it’s going to be extraordinary and, at least from the designs we’ve seen, they look spectacular. Darko’s way into it—his family history—is of an aristocratic family who lost their fortune and were basically evicted from their country, so he has a sort of an emotional bond to the tale. When we first talked to him about the project, he brought in these big sheets of visuals: everything from the bustles, and the trains ,and the jewels and pictures of the royal family to pictures of Paris in the ‘20s.
Hartford Stage is also where Gent’s Guide was born prior to Broadway. Is there hope that Anastasia will have the same trajectory?
LA: We’re hoping! We’re all hoping together!
Beyond Anastasia, you have several other projects going, including Little Dancer that was previously announced for a run at the Mark Taper Forum last summer but never materialized. Are you still moving forward with the project?
LA: It could have been at the Ahmanson, it could have been at La Jolla. But we’re taking a slightly different track. We felt that because we have rewrites to do, the money that would have taken to scale the show a different way would be better spent to develop it. We have commercial producers.
SF: We are doing another reading. It’s a beautiful score, and it’s really the first project that we’ve done that has dance at the center of it.
LA: Oh, it’s an extraordinary show, and Tiler Peck, oh my gosh, she’s just a star. It was like a rock concert every night with that girl in the show. And Stro’s [Susan Stroman] work is spectacular.
There was also talk that Rocky would launch a U.S. tour after it’s Broadway run was cut short. Have you continued work on it?
LA: We’ll see what happens. It’s opening in Czechoslovakia soon. It’s going to be somewhat re-imagined from what it has been, because that gesture of the boxing ring, which was so spectacular, can’t be done everywhere. They’re going to try and re-think that. That’s one of those shows that in a weird way, I will just say it—I feel like it’s a Seussical.
SF: With boxing gloves.
LA: With boxing gloves. We need to get that show back into our hands, and make it what it should have been, in a way. And that will happen.
SF: We had the luxury, and the wonderful opportunity of re-visiting it this past fall. It had run three years in Hamburg, and then there was an opening of a new Stuttgart production, and they said, “Would you to take another crack at certain aspects of the show?” And absolutely we would. So after the drive-by that was Broadway, to get Alex Timbers, Kelly Devine, our team, my musical staff, all of us together as collaborators, working on the show again, it was wonderful—it was a happy reunion.
LA: We added some music back for Stuttgart. The girls now sing again. We pulled all that stuff out for Broadway, and I think we made a mistake to do that. Stuttgart was fabulous, and the show is great. It was a very exciting new version of it. I think Czechoslovakia will be yet another look at it. It will be Alex Timbers’ work, but modified for a different theatre by his associate director, who I think is going to do a great job.
You compared Rocky to Seussical, which you’ve said wasn’t an ideal experience for you the first time around, but it has since become one of your most-produced titles.
SF: The Broadway experience was crazy. The only way I can digest that experience is by thinking of it as the world’s most expensive workshop because there was kind of nothing right about that production, and it got away. We did have an opportunity to revisit it—a national tour that Christopher Ashley directed.
LA: And he was great about, just saying it should be more about the boy. He helped develop the show.
SF: That one-act version that was in Kansas City at the Coterie Theatre... That was sort of the prototype that led to the TheatreWorks version [at the Lortel Off-Broadway].
LA: It had a series of lucky things happen to it. It gave us a chance to keep at it, and now we have a version that I think is a about an hour-and-fifteen-minutes, and it’s great.
SF: I just saw a lovely production a couple of weeks ago at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn. It had that sense of play that we always had in that first reading and in the workshop.
LA: It was great in the workshop. It was just ladders and feathers stuck in somebody’s belt. It was so imaginative.
SF: But we got it back, and that’s what you always have in your fantasy life, to shake your small fist at the sky and say, “Everybody was wrong, they didn’t see the show that I did, and here’s why!” You usually don’t get a chance to prove that. We were able to do that, which was very sweet.
Your first Broadway collaboration, Once On This Island, is overdue for a revival. I’ve heard whispers that it may resurface.
LA: Maybe… There’s some bubbling and simmering.