Interview – composer Stephen Flaherty on bringing Anastasia to Broadway – and other adventures

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 13.05.50American composer STEPHEN FLAHERTY’s latest Broadway musical, written in collaboration with Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally (the same team that gave us Ragtime) is the musical retelling of Anastasia.

The Tony-nominated show follows the oft-told Anastasia story about the woman who may have been – but probably wasn’t – the surviving daughter of the massacred family of Czar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra.

Flaherty and lyricist Ahrens, who have been writing together for 30 years, wrote songs for the 1997 Disney movie version and have greatly expanded the score for Broadway. Esteemed playwright McNally has written the book (although Ahrens has penned the librettos on a number of the songwriters’ other projects).

For Broadway’s Ragtime, Flaherty and lyricist Ahrens won Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards. They were nominated for two Academy Awards and two Golden Globes for the score of Twentieth Century Fox’s animated feature Anastasia. They are three-time Grammy nominees.

Other credits include Broadway’s Once On This Island; Seussical; RockyMy Favorite Year; Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life; and the 2009 revival of Ragtime; Lincoln Center Theater’s A Man of No Importance, Dessa Roseand The Glorious Ones; Lucky Stiff; and the Kennedy Center’s world premiere of Little Dancer. Anastasia is their third show with Terrence McNally.

Individually Flaherty composed the score for the recent dance musical In Your Arms (Old Globe), the musical Loving Repeating (Jefferson Award, Best New Musical), incidental music for Neil Simon’s Proposals (Broadway), and has many film and concert credits.

Ahrens and Flaherty received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement and were recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. Council, Dramatists Guild of America.

Anastasia - McNally, Ahrens, Flaherty Credit Jeremy Daniel Dec 2016_IMG_1018

Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the writers of Anastasia on Broadway. Picture: Jeremy Daniel

Stephen Flaherty is in conversation with Musical Theatre Review’s Patrick Honoré.

Why did it take more than 20 years for Anastasia to reach the Broadway stage, as the animated film was already very much a musical?

This is a story that we had wanted to adapt for Broadway for a very long time. But the theatrical rights for the animated film, and the Ingrid Bergman film that inspired it, were both held by the film company 20th Century Fox. And until very recently Fox did’t have a theatrical arm that was interested in exploring stage musicals.

However, in 2011 I got a call from a Russian producer who led Stage Entertainment there. His name was Dmitry [Bogachev] and his wife’s name was Anastasia. He asked if we would be interested in developing the title for the stage if he could obtain the film rights from Fox. We said absolutely. He did, and we began work on writing the stage adaptation in 2011.

Even if it was worth the wait, was it hard to get back to it, writing new material after such a long time?

No, it was actually easy and fluid. This was a musical world we knew so well. With the stage musical we wanted to delve more deeply into the history, politics, culture and the emotional life of the characters. We were ready!

Anastasia the Musical was due to premiere in Moscow a few years ago. Why was the premiere moved to New York?

Yes, Dmitry originally wanted to premiere the musical in Moscow.  We did a first reading of the show in 2001 [with Angela Lansbury reprising her film role as the Dowager Empress] and it so impressed everyone at Stage Entertainment that they decided to groom and prepare the musical for its Broadway debut instead. We will look forward to our Russian debut at some point in the future.

How hard was it find the perfect Anastasia, as you did in Christy Altomare?

We searched high and low! We developed the show through a series of readings and workshops. We found Christy just before our out-of-town production in Hartford. She was perfect: vulnerable, yet strong, and could sing absolutely everything. And she and Derek Klena, our Dmitry, had unbelievable chemistry together.

Christy Altomare and Derek Klena

Christy Altomare and Derek Klena in Anastasia. Pictures: Matthew Murphy

Was the part of Countess Lily extended for the show, with Caroline O’Connor in mind? The songs showcase her talent so well.

Caroline O’Connor had been on my radar for quite some time. We wrote the ‘rough draft’ of Lily’s songs before Caroline came officially onboard, but we certainly shaped all of her material around her very unique gifts.

For instance, Lily didn’t dance in any other draft. But of course when Caroline joined us we had to roll up the carpet and make room for her to dance – and dance she did!

From early on, you chose not to follow the Disney path and instead decided to create a musical aimed at a more adult audience? Why was that?

We were all in agreement that we wanted the musical to be more grown-up in nature. To keep the fun of the film, but to deal honestly with the politics and history of the story. We also wanted it to be emotionally rich and three-dimensional. We were never interested in just putting the animated film up on the stage. We always thought of this as a ‘new’ Anastasia. And to do that we needed a great playwright. Enter our friend, Terrence McNally.

The audience reception at the Broadhurst has been tremendous. How do you explain the cult following and all the young people flocking to see the play as if it were a rock concert?

Yes, our audiences have been tremendous. From the very first preview they’ve had the energy of rock concert audiences. They love the characters and the romance of it. And, as they’ve grown up, the musical has grown up with them.

One of your shows, Rocky, did premiere in Europe. How different is it from having a show mature directly on Broadway?

Well firstly Rocky premiered in a language I didn’t speak (German), so that was certainly new!

But both Rocky and Anastasia had pre-Broadway productions, Rocky in Hamburg, Anastasia in Hartford, Connecticut. In both of those premiere productions we were able to shape the show in front of our audiences and ‘do the good work’.

Caroline O’Connor

John Bolton, Caroline O’Connor and the cast of Anastasia

Out of all of your shows that have been produced in London, Ragtime has been one of the most popular: firstly as a concert that moved to the West End; then at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park; and last winter at the Charing Cross Theatre on a smaller scale. What did you think of those productions?

Actually, when Ragtime premiered at the Piccadilly Theatre in 2003, it was indeed a full-scale West End production with sets, costumes, choreography, full orchestra, full-size cast. It was based on a concert that had happened earlier that year in Cardiff. And Once On This Island also played the West End in 1994-1995 at the renamed Island Theatre. It won the Olivier Award as Best Musical in 1995.

I loved the London productions of Ragtime for different reasons. The production at the Piccadilly brought the music to the forefront and pared back the physical production, allowing for this. The recent production at Charing Cross was the first one of mine to ever use actor-musicians. I found that this approach really worked. And it really brought the humanity to the forefront. Thom Southerland did a wonderful job.

Lucky Stiff, A Man of No Importance and The Glorious Ones have been done on the Fringe, and Seussical was staged at the Arts Theatre. Has a similar process taken place in New York?

Lucky Stiff started Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, A Man of No Importance and The Glorious Ones (along with Dessa Rose) started their lives Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E Newhouse Theatre, and Seussical – which originally began its life on Broadway – returned to the Lucille Lortel Theatre Off-Broadway where it was nominated as Best Musical Revival of the season by the Drama League and Lortel Awards.

So we’ve developed many shows Off-Broadway and regionally, much more than those developed in the commercial arena with Broadway being the intent.

Are there already plans for a West End production of Anastasia and other stagings elsewhere in the world?

There are plans for Anastasia in many new places. She is going to be a busy girl! [Plans have been announced for international productions across Europe, Asia, the UK, Australia and South America. The list of international markets with plans underway include Germany, Holland Spain, Russia, Korea, Japan, Mexico and China and more to be announced. Plans for a North American tour are also on the cards.]

Your many collaborations with Lynn Ahrens, and also Terrence McNally, have brought you much success. What other projects are on the boil?

I’ve written 12 stage musicals with Lynn and there stage musicals with Terrence. That’s a lot of adventure and time in the theatre. Of course I’d like to write more with them – we always have a good time.

In fact Lynn and I have actually been writing for more than 30 years and our latest, Little Dancer, is an original musical with a book by Lynn that premiered at the Kennedy Center and is now Broadway bound, hopefully for next season.

And our show Once On This Island, which was our Broadway debut, is scheduled for a first-class Broadway revival this coming fall.

So there’s lots of adventure ahead.

Readers may also be interested in:

Anastasia – Broadhurst Theatre, New York – Review

www.anastasiabroadway.com

www.ahrensandflaherty.com

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