When the stage adaptation of the 1997 animated movie musical Anastasia begins Broadway previews March 23 at the Broadhurst Theatre, it will arrive with 16 new songs, a brand-new principal character, and a new script imbued with historic realism.
The mystery and myth surrounding the life (and death) of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia has fascinated and inspired writers for a century, including Tony Award-winning songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who musicalized the story on screen for 20th Century Fox in 1997.
While the family-friendly film was positioned as a heartfelt, quasi-fairytale about a young woman on a quest to reunite with her long-lost family, Broadway’s Anastasia is more deeply rooted in the Russian history that sets her story into motion.
Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally—who completes the trifecta of creators—frames this stage adaptation of Anya’s story within the turmoil of the revolution that forced many to leave their homeland. Beginning in 1907—during the twilight of the still-powerful Romanov Dynasty—through the 1917 Russian Revolution that brutally ended their reign, McNally reconnects with the adult Anya in 1927 post-revolution Bolshevik Russia.
“I think it’s very important to show that, and that we respect that,” McNally says of the Russian history. “The Russian Revolution is one of the greatest political upheavals of the 20th century, and to pretend it didn’t happen, or just happened a long time ago didn’t seem enough.”
“The Soviets really could not allow a Romanov to be alive,” McNally explains. “A legitimate heir to the Russian throne? They had to make sure they were all dead.”
Gone from the 1997 cartoon are the devilishly evil villain Rasputin and his sidekick, an albino bat named Bartok. Animated sorcery has been replaced with political might, and Anastasia’s new antagonist, Gleb, represents Russia’s new political regime.
Ramin Karimloo, who plays Gleb, describes him as a “complicated, Communist military general that’s rising through the ranks. He’s torn between uniform, father, and his heart.”
“He brings reality, but he also he brings passion,” explains Lynn Ahrens, the show’s lyricist. “He brings a sense of history. We were so intrigued by the history of the Romanovs and the Bolsheviks.”
Gleb’s heart pulls him toward Anya, the young woman believed to be the last surviving Romanov, yet his duty to her enemies thwarts his feelings, and it is captured in one of the show’s new songs, the sweeping ballad “Still.”
Ahrens says she finds that the musical has taken on an unexpected current political relevance since the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
“She is walking across a country to find out who she is and what’s she made of,” Ahrens says of Anya. “And I thought, ‘We are all doing that this year, and next year, and for however long it takes.’ So it put a new spin on the show to me.
“There’s something about the show that speaks to women,” Ahrens adds. “It speaks to all of us. We’re in a very, very difficult time right now and as writers, all we can do is write from our hearts and write what we feel and what we think. Maybe it will go out into the world and make people stronger, and joyous and more ready to take changes and perhaps it might lead to a revolution, just like the Russian revolution.”