“It’s a wonderful mystery, fairy tale, romance,” playwright Terrence McNally says. “It’s the most modern story I could think of. It’s the search for identity, roots, family connection. What mysteries lie in our lineage? That’s why it continues to speak to people.”
McNally is talking about Anastasia, the new musical opening in one month at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, for which he has written the libretto and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Rocky) have written the score. Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s artistic director, heads the production. A Tony winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (which began at Hartford Stage), Tresnjak brings his vision to the show inspired by the 1997 animated movie of the same name—originally scored by Ahrens and Flaherty.
The true story of Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, inspired that movie. Anastasia’s fate remained uncertain for many years after the Russian Revolution—was she or was she not killed by the Bolsheviks along with the rest of her family in 1918? And if she wasn’t, where could she be?
McNally (The Visit, Ragtime) is quick to point out that the new musical is very different from the movie, in both book and music. “This is a stage version for a modern theatre audience,” the four-time Tony winner says. The project is also the first reunion of the Ragtime creative team.
Nominated for two Oscars for their work on the film, Ahrens and Flaherty’s new score includes the Oscar-nominated tune “Journey to the Past,” as well as five revised songs from the movie, plus 16 new songs.
And the new libretto? “Once you have a live character onstage,” McNally says, “it’s such a totally different expression than a cartoon figure. I never felt as if I was adapting a cartoon. I think the story was too real. This story happened less than 100 years ago and has entered the collective consciousness as a fairy tale. Most fairy tales are buried further back in time. This is a contemporary one.”
He also had access to the 1956 movie Anastasia, with Ingrid Bergman, “and of course the story’s in the public domain.” The libretto’s “a blend” of old and new, according to McNally. “There are characters in the musical that appear in neither the cartoon nor the Ingrid Bergman version.”
While the animated film starred Meg Ryan as Anastasia’s speaking voice with Liz Callaway singing, Hartford’s musical features Christy Altomare (Mamma Mia) in the title role and Derek Klena (The Bridges of Madison County, Wicked) as Dmitry, the male lead, with a supporting cast of Broadway veterans, including Manoel Felciano, John Bolton and Mary Beth Peil.
Felciano plays a new character, Gleb, “basically a police officer assigned to the case,” McNally says. He’s tasked with determining if this girl is or is not the Czar’s daughter. After all, “the Bolshevik government doesn’t want a legitimate heir to the Russian throne to be alive.”
McNally says he’s not concerned that DNA tests proved Anastasia did not survive the Bolshevik Revolution. “This story is bigger than that. I think that’s what a fairy tale does. I don’t think we worry, ‘Was there really a Cinderella, was there really a Snow White and the seven dwarfs?’ They’re a part of all of us. Anastasia is a real person who has made that leap into the mind bank, the emotional memory bank.”
McNally is hopeful that Anastasia has a life beyond Hartford. “It’s a dream of every show to end up in New York. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know: Let’s get it right in Hartford. And, if you get it right in Hartford, it will end up in the right place.”