"Anastasia" lives! The irresistible 20th-century legend of a young princess is resurrected in a world premiere
The irresistible 20th-century legend of a young princess who escapes execution at the hands of Russian revolutionaries, then finds adventure and romance in Paris, has been the basis of two films — a 1956 live-action drama starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner and a 1997 animated musical featuring the voices of Meg Ryan and John Cusack.
"Anastasia" is now a stage show, having its world premiere May 12 through June 19 at Hartford Stage; it\'s already slated to move to Broadway.
The script, loosely based on both the earlier screenplays, is by Terrence McNally ("Love! Valour! Compassion!," "It\'s Only a Play" and dozens of others), with music and lyrics by the well-established songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Once on This Island," "Seussical," "Rocky the Musical" and many more). Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the songs for the animated "Anastasia" nearly 20 years ago.
"The idea to bring it to the stage has been kicking around for years," said Ahrens, the team\'s lyricist, in a recent phone interview. "We had such a wonderful time doing the movie. Bringing it to the stage is a whole new challenge. We\'ve created a different take from either movie." Four or five songs have been retained from the animated "Anastasia" ("the ones that were nominated," as Ahrens puts it), and 15 brand-new songs have been added.
Christy Altomare, right, as "Anastasia" and Mary Beth Peil as "Dowager Empress."
Christy Altomare, right, as "Anastasia" and Mary Beth Peil as "Dowager Empress." (Peter Casolino / Special to The Courant)
Reworking "Anastasia" has also allowed the creative team to rein in some of the excesses of the film versions. "Rasputin didn\'t really start the Russian Revolution. In the animated movie, he came back from the dead to do so." The new musical version does take some liberties with Russian history itself, but it\'s because "we\'re writing about the myth of Anastasia," Ahrens says. "The fact that the myth came to be is extraordinary."
To revise the show\'s book, Flaherty and Ahrens reached out to McNally, who collaborated with the songwriting team on the musical "Ragtime."
"We suggested Terrence for this," Ahrens says. "For \'Ragtime,\' he suggested us. This time, we suggested him. His writing has such an historical weight, an emotional weight." Ahrens says McNally has created metaphors and subtexts that will draw audiences further into the story. "You\'re rooting for these lovers, but really you\'re rooting for this idea of finding one\'s family."
The other key member of the team is director (and Hartford Stage artistic director) Darko Tresnjak, who chose "Anastasia" as the first musical he\'s doing at Hartford Stage since his Tony-winning success with "A Gentleman\'s Guide to Love and Murder." That show premiered at the theater in 2012 and went on to run for more than two years on Broadway. The national tour of "A Gentleman\'s Guide" will visit The Bushnell this October.
"Darko came in when we had a very solid third draft," Ahrens recalls. "He was the clear and obvious choice."
Ahrens describes Tresnjak as "brilliant, kind, energized," and goes on to praise the entire staff of Hartford Stage. Working with a director who\'s the artistic director of a theater, she suggests, gives the project a different sort of dedication and a different level of resources than it might have gotten elsewhere. "The physical production," Ahrens gushes, "is going to be spectacular. There are 136 costumes. Magnificent sets. It\'s bigger than a normal out-of-town try-out."
A key supporting role in both "Anastasia" films and now the stage musical is the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Emperor NIcholas II. In the 1956 film, the character — Anastasia\'s grandmother, who helps determine the true identity of the young heroine — is portrayed by Helen Hayes. In the 1997 cartoon, she\'s voiced by Angela Lansbury. At Hartford Stage, the Dowager Empress is Mary Beth Piel, the last woman to play Anna opposite Yul Brynner in "The King and I" and has been an imposing matriarch on two separate TV series, as "Grams" Ryan on "Dawson\'s Creek" and Jackie Florrick on "The Good Wife."
Piel has also had a previous experience with a musical that had a pre-New York production at a regional theater in Connecticut. In 1997, she was in "Triumph of Love" at the Yale Repertory Theatre, but could not stay with the show when it moved to New York because by the time the producers found an available theater there Piel has gotten the "Dawson\'s Creek" gig. This time\'s different: it\'s already been announced that "Anastasia" will be booked into one of the Broadway theaters owned by the Shubert Organization during the 2016-17 theater season, though details beyond that are vague.
"Connecticut\'s been very nice. I love the fact that it still remains an ideal pre-New York destination," Piel said in a phone interview last month. "Hartford Stage is one of the most inviting, comfortable, welcoming regional theaters I\'ve ever worked in. It\'s a lovely, lovely family. There\'s not the same thumbs-up, thumbs-down attitude that you get in New York. As a result, you get more work done. I\'ve come to love this piece so much. The music is so beautiful, and the production is just extraordinary. Having come from the world of opera, I appreciate Darko\'s ability to work on the micro and macro levels at the same time."
Piel says the company arrived in Hartford in the midst of last month\'s unexpected snowstorm. She jokes that the weather was appropriate for a show set in the chilly aftermath of the Russian Revolution. It\'s a feeling she cherishes. "I\'ve been a Russophile for 40 years," Piel says. "I have bookshelves covered with Russian history and Russian literature, especially from the late 19th century."
Piel doesn\'t mind that the real-life story of Anastasia has been roundly debunked. (There is strong evidence that the princess met the same fate as the rest of her family and that the several women who claimed to be her were frauds.)
"What we\'re doing here is giving an overview of the end of the Romanovs, all of which is true," she said. "We know everyone loves princesses. We\'re living in an era of princesses.
"This it\'s a love story, so it\'s a fairy tale — the best kind of fairy tale, one that\'s steeped in history."
runs May 12 through June 19 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Tickets are $25 to $95, $20 for students. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., with added 2 p.m. matinees on May 21 and 25 and June 1, 4. The Friday, May 27, performance is at 6:30 p.m., not 8 p.m. There are no 7:30 p.m. shows on June 5 or 19. Information: 860-527-5151,
Editor\'s Note: This story has been changed to correct the last date for "Anastasia\'\' production.
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