Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens are on a journey to the past—their own. The musical writing duo, known for such tuners as Seussical, Ragtime, and Rocky, have penned the music and lyrics for the new musical Anastasia, opening on Broadway March 23. Flaherty and Ahrens also wrote the music for the beloved 1997 film, 20th Century Fox’s first animated feature, and are bringing the story to the stage.
The musical follows an amnesiac orphan named Anya who at 18 ventures from Russia to France in search of her family, falling in with con men who believe she may be the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, missing since the start of the Russian Revolution. American Theatre caught up with Flaherty and Ahrens to learn about the long-gestating project’s road to the Great White Way.
What songs from the film have survived to the stage version?
Stephen Flaherty: When we did the film for Fox it was intended to be a family-audience animated film, and we were only allowed at that point to go so deep into the subject matter. We feel really fortunate that now that we’re adapting and actually creating what is essentially a brand-new musical for the stage, we can go much deeper in terms of the history and the music while keeping some of the songs from the film. We are keeping five tunes, including “Journey to the Past,” which was nominated for an Oscar. We are creating more than 20 new musical cues, songs, and sequences. It really is a new musical.
Lynn Ahrens: Some of the songs we did retain from the movie have been completely rewritten, and others are in different places in our show. Essentially we felt that we needed to take the songs that had been written for an animated movie and recreate them in one way or another for the stage.
In addition to the animated movie, did the 1956 film Anastasia inspire the musical?
Flaherty: The stage piece is inspired by the Ingrid Bergman film, which is a much darker and psychologically nuanced take. Since we are using that material as well, the song “Journey to the Past,” which is the first song that the character of Anya sings in the animated film, is now the song we use to close Act One. Her journey is much greater. In the front of the musical, much more happens psychologically with her. She has to go through a whole act before she earns her right to that song!
I just rewatched the animated film, and was surprised how early on that big number happens.
Ahrens: I guess it was right for the animated movie, and it set her off on her journey. The way this show is structured, the whole first act takes place in Russia and she arrives in Paris in Act Two. Her journey is to get to Paris and find out if she is in fact Anastasia or not. It felt right to us to take that song and put it at the end of Act One instead of using it as her first song. Now her first song is about her lack of memory, and her dreams, visions, and flashes of people. She doesn’t know what it all means; she just knows that somewhere in there she will find the truth of herself.
Flaherty: We should also mention that this is our third collaboration with Terrence McNally. He is one of our greatest playwrights, and he certainly knows his way around a musical. He has given us a wonderful structure.
What source materials inspired the new musical additions?
Flaherty: For me musically, Anastasia has always been something that has combined classical elements and popular elements. That is the sound and texture, and so I took that as the lead for how the score would work. I went into a lot of Russian choral music that you hear throughout, and I created many new Russian-sounding themes. At the same time, at the heart of it, it wants to be a love story. For the characters of Anastasia and Dimitri, their songs are much more pop, and orchestrated in a way that keeps it firmly embedded in the world of Russia. In Act Two, when we get to Paris, that is where it opens up musically. It is Paris in the ’20s, which is such an amazing period. Being able to celebrate that musically is great.
Ahrens: There are influences lyrically as well. Somebody sent me a Russian folk tune called “Coachmen Hold the Horses.” I loved that phrase so much, and we ended up writing this gorgeous song in Act One as everyone is congregating on the train station about to leave Russia and head for other places. It is a song about leaving home and seeing your motherland for the last time. It is called “Stay, I Pray You,” and a lyric involves “coachman hold the horses.” I wanted to honor the lyrical quality of the original folk tune.
Flaherty: Part of the fun for me was taking the themes that we created in 1997 and weaving those in with the new themes. It is really a fully integrated score that combines the newer work that we have done so that it seamlessly interfaces with the themes from the film. We just started having our orchestra rehearsals this week. We are seeing the musicians experience the music without knowing what the text is or the dramatic impulse, and they are all totally getting how it all holds together as a score. And they are enjoying playing it, which is great.
You’ve both been with this story for more than two decades. Did you think it would ever land on Broadway?
Ahrens: When we did the movie way back when, we thought, Boy, this would be great onstage. Over the years we inquired a few times about whether or not we could do that. We felt that five songs was not a musical.
Flaherty: It is so theatrical and emotional—a real romantic thriller.
Ahrens: There was a lot more we felt we could explore with it. Fox didn’t have the department set up at the time to really focus on stage musicals. Over the years, as other movie companies began to exploit their movie titles for stage musicals, Fox decided, “Oh, we have all these great movies, we should do that to.” First and foremost was Anastasia. By a confluence of events—a Russian producer who had the idea and an international company, Stage Entertainment—all of the things came together with 20th Century Fox. They came to us to write this new score and it was happy timing. At last, we get to do this! We’ve been hoping and wanting to do it for many years.
This season on Broadway seems to be a record year for new musicals.
Ahrens: It is fantastic. There are so many new musicals, and we pretty much know everybody involved. It feels like we are in this giant theatrical community all putting up a show in the same season. Some people might be daunted by it, but I think we are just overjoyed to be part of it. It is so much fun to run into everybody on the street and in the rehearsal studios and people coming out of their stage doors just as we are.
Flaherty: I don’t think we have had this amount of new musicals since the ’60s. I can’t remember a season like this since I’ve been living in New York. And everybody’s show is so different and individual. To have this many new musicals celebrated and produced, it is an exciting time.
You did this out of town at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. How did fans of the animated film like the stage adaptation?
Ahrens: When we were in Hartford there were these twentysomething girls who would show up to the show dressed as Anastasia—some of them had tiaras, red wigs, blue dresses, and big bows in their hair. I got nervous because there are certain expectations that I had not thought about. Here were these fans expecting to see that beloved movie. One girl summed it up for me and said, “I realized that I grew up with the movie, but the musical grew up for me.” I hold that to my heart, because I feel that we are giving everybody who did grown up on the movie what they need now—which is finding yourself, romance, a sense of developing into a full human being, and taking your place in the world, particularly as a woman.
What developments were made since the show’s run at Hartford Stage?
Ahrens: Aside from the specific changes, we did have some cast changes. Once you are headed to Broadway you suddenly come face to face with the reality of understudies and swings. You realize that there are people onstage who are going to have to cover for some of the leads. So while you might have had a fantastic singer, dancer, or actor onstage doing an ensemble track, if they’re not able to cover one of the principals, they might not be able to get into the show. We did have a few of those heartbreakers along the way. Then you have to get used to new people and sometimes tailor things for their capabilities. Everything affects what happens as the show moves toward Broadway.
Flaherty: Also when the recasting happens, you begin to think there is not only a character but a specific actor playing the character. When Ramin Karimloo expressed great interest in the character of Gleb, the song was written for his voice. Lynn wrote an absolutely stunning lyric and then when creating the melody and what the vibe would be, I listened to Ramin singing—the song was really written for that voice. When we began to tailor it, he was living in London and we are based in New York, so we would send tapes and notes back and forth. It’s a joy now to be working with him in a room and really developing the song further.
Ahrens: What has been some of the most fun for me personally is to write songs and conceive dance numbers for two of the women in the company, Caroline O’Connor and Mary Beth Peil. Caroline is the most extraordinary comedian I have ever seen. She not only sings fantastically, but dances up a storm. To write material to wrap around this woman has just been amazing. Mary Beth Peil is this illustrious stage and television actress; she is beautiful and a wonderful actress with a beautiful voice. I got to write a song for the Dowager Empress, which never happened in the movie. It was such an honor to write it for her, and the way she does it is so magnificent. In a show that has to do with female empowerment, it’s a woman marching across the tundra of Russia to find herself.
You have both adapted books and other films for the stage. Is adapting an animated movie different?
Ahrens: It does vary. When you write for the theatre, you own what you are writing. You own the copyright and you are the final say in terms of what stays in the show, what gets cut from the show, and how things are revised and honed. For stage musicals, the writer is really one of the prime movers and shakers in the artistic process. When you are writing for a movie company, you are a writer for hire. Which means they pay you. You don’t really get paid in the theatre as a writer unless the show is successful!
Flaherty: And there is a producer’s mandate, if they want a sing-a-long song, you have to write a sing-a-long…
Ahrens: Yes, it is a very different creative process in that sense. That being said, the artistic impulse is always there to do what you do best. So if they don’t like the song, you write another song and another song. We do the same thing in theatre, only we are the ones saying it’s not good enough. It’s not an executive, it is us. There is always that impulse to continue to work, change, restructure, and refine your words and the music until you find exactly the right thing.
Flaherty: I was actually tweaking a piece of music this morning.
Ahrens: I am sitting here with four lines of lyrics on my desk that are driving me crazy. I’ve been working on it for three days, it is driving me insane!
With two weeks until previews, what does the homestretch look like for the music team?
Flaherty: We have the sitzprobe tomorrow, and that is the most exciting day for the music department. It is the first day where the musicians are playing the orchestration and the actors are singing. It’s the day that music becomes Technicolor.
Ahrens: It’s also the first and only time that the musicians and the actors get to see each other face to face. If you think about it, then the musicians are down in the pit and the actors are up on the stage, and they can’t see one another ever again! It is a very emotional day. We are also in tech rehearsals, which for the writers involve sitting in a darkened theatre and watching lights go on and off and sets revolve and things happen onstage with spacing. It is very laborious, very slow, and for most people, very boring except for the technical people. I am one of those writers who loves to sit there and just watch the magic start to happen on the stage.
Flaherty: It is fascinating. We will be putting on our snow boots in about an hour and a half and trudge across town towards the theatre for tech rehearsal.
This weather is crazy. I read that you wrote the song “Once Upon a December” for the animated film during a heat wave.
Flaherty: When you are writing, some people think, Oh, you must have gone to Russia to be able to create the Russian winter imagery. No, in fact it was Manhattan, and there was a heat wave and the air conditioner was not working. Even with that, you have to put yourself in the mind that you can create what a winter must be like in Russia.
Who would have thought with a Broadway opening date in March that you’d had a blizzard to inspire you.
Ahrens: “Horses dance through winter storms”! That is a lyric from the show.
Flaherty: It really is perfect for this show; there is a lot of textured animated snow. It really is appropriate that there snow is outside now.