Track-by-Track Breakdown: Ahrens and Flaherty Dissect Their Score for Broadway's Anastasia

Cast Recordings & Albums   Track-by-Track Breakdown: Ahrens and Flaherty Dissect Their Score for Broadway's Anastasia
The Tony-winning songwriters explain what changed, what didn't change, and why they wrote some brand-new songs for their adaptation of their animated musical.
Anastasia_Broadway_Production_Photos_2017_[6090]_Christy Altomare in ANASTASIA on Broadway, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017_HR.jpg
Christy Altomare Matthew Murphy

Ever since 1997 when we wrote the original score for the animated movie Anastasia, we often wished that one day someone would make it into a stage musical and take us along for the ride. All these years later, we got our wish.

What we discovered was that writing the score for the stage version was freeing but also challenging. We knew we wanted to include some of the most high-profile songs from the movie, but that meant we had to re-approach material we’d written more than 20 years before and find ways of updating it, re-purposing it, and making it stage-worthy and fresh. Most of all, since none of us were interested in doing a page-to-stage recreation of the movie, we had to rewrite the original material so it steered clear of anything that was too childish, and that it worked with a new concept and a new book by our dear friend and collaborator Terrence McNally.

The freeing part was writing new songs. Animated movies usually don’t have room in them for more than five or six songs. But for Broadway, we got to write for characters who’d never gotten to sing much in the movie, like the embittered Dowager Empress and the young, cocky Dmitry; we also created new songs for new characters, like Gleb and the mature romantic couple, Lily and Vlad. And of course there’s a train-traveling trio, an anthem for people leaving their homeland, a new romantic duet for Anya and Dmitry, a jazzy Russian club number, and much, much more.

READ: How Anastasia’s Costume Designer Honored What Fans Loved on Screen in a Fresh Way

Anastasia has been our own “journey to the past,” and with a number of European productions now happening, “who knows where this road may go”—into the future, for sure, and maybe even to further recordings in new languages.

The Broadway cast CD was recorded December 20–21, 2017, at Powerstation in New York City, co-produced by Frank Filipetti, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens, and released on Broadway Records by Van Dean. (t’s also now become available on beautiful purple vinyl!)

“Prologue: Once Upon a December”
SF: This first track invites us into the regal world of the Romanovs with a Russian chorus (which will become a signature of the score) and introduces us to the gentle lullaby “Once Upon a December,” sung by the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) to her granddaughter, the young Anastasia (Nicole Scimeca.) This music box lullaby will become a recurring motif about memory and identity throughout the show.
LA: I love this delicate, crystalline accompaniment—like snowflakes falling—and the lyric, evoking wintry Russian images and the sense of a distant past. (Stephen says he wrote this melody on a sweltering summer day in NYC.)

“A Rumor in St. Petersburg”
SF: Featured in the animated film score (and one of the first two songs written for the film), it is here restructured to carry much more of the drama. It introduces our principal characters and also introduces the new stage character of Gleb.
LA: For me, this was probably the hardest lyric in the show to adapt, and I must have rewritten it 15 or 20 times. I had to set up the world of the new Russia, introduce the main characters, weave in and out of scenes, establish plot—all while retaining something recognizable from the original lyric (the main chorus). Well, it kept me up for many nights.

“In My Dreams”
SF: The first new song written for the stage version. It features a more “haunted” Anya (Christy Altomare), who only remembers her past in fragments. The verses are harmonically built upon thirds (as is Anya’s “Journey to the Past” from the film), but here the song uses more somber, “minor” colors, reaching the “major” tonalities only during the choruses (“In my dreams”). This provides our leading character a more vulnerable starting point and a more dramatic and bold arc throughout the evening.
LA: It occurred to me that we needed to somehow communicate what had happened to Anya in the ten intervening years between the revolution and now. Where had she been? What had happened to her? The lyrics of the verse and the minor key sections use fragmented images to convey brief flashes of memory. But the major chords of the chorus convey her certainty that one day, these bits and pieces will add up to more.

“Learn to Do It”
SF: This song, also featured in the motion picture, has here been expanded for our central trio: Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad (Christy Altomare, Derek Klena and John Bolton).
LA: This was a lot of fun to rewrite and expand. The wild Russian family tree got longer, and the song covers mood swings, bickering, dancing, and Anya’s ultimate triumph in memorizing everything. (I had Danny Kaye in my head while writing.) It bonds our trio of characters with humor and efficiency and cements the plot.

“The Neva Flows”
SF: The first solo for our new character Gleb (played by Ramin Karimloo), it is a chilling personal history, which plays a larger part in the climax of the musical.
LA: This was one of the first new songs we wrote for the stage musical. Terrence happened to write the scene first, and as always, his words led to a song. Both the melody and the lyric convey Gleb’s tortured psyche.

“My Petersburg”
SF: We wanted to dig deeper into the backstory of Dmitry, which was not fleshed out in the film. The song, which was written for our original Dmitry, Derek Klena, was first performed during the show’s out-of-town engagement at Hartford Stage and then expanded more fully for the Broadway production. It is always a highlight in the theatre.
LA: I love getting “music first,” but it was hard to set these jittery rhythms and broken phrases, with their many implied rhymes. I wanted to paint a picture of the city Dmitry loves but has to leave, and I was pleased to find such images as: “palaces above and alleyways below” and “from the spires to the piers of Petersburg.” I also like: “Funny when a city tells you that it’s time to go.” Who hasn’t felt that?

“Once Upon a December”
SF: The first song we wrote for the feature film, it is a centerpiece of Act 1 and its musical motif is woven throughout the score, as the mystery of Anastasia is gradually revealed.
LA: As Anya opens the music box, memories literally burst forth and surround her. It takes the sweet little music box theme heard in the opening moments of the show and transforms it into a major production number that is both a fantasy and a memory. The ghostly chorus showcases a stellar soprano line by Molly Rushing.

“Stay, I Pray You”
SF: The idea of a song being sung at the train station by our Russian ensemble as they prepare to leave their motherland, perhaps for the last time, came from our book writer Terrence McNally. Sung largely a cappella, it contains the first “humming chorus” I’d ever written and features a section of a cut theme from the film (the ending of Rasputin’s “In The Dark Of The Night,” which works surprisingly well in this new setting and story.) Constantine Germanacos leads the song.
LA: The simple choral treatment sets this song apart for me, and breaks my heart every time I hear it. It’s so human and emotional, and conjures up my grandparents coming to America, leaving everything behind, a simple, hummed folk tune that swells to become an anthem of departure and loss.

“We’ll Go From There”
SF: What could be more fun than three-part vocal counterpoint on a speeding train?! We are happy to preserve the joy of this number and only wish the brilliant projections by Aaron Rhyne could be replicated on this audio recording as well.
LA: Darko Tresnjak’s staging, complete with a train that turns on the beat, is the perfect physical counterpoint to the counterpoint of the song. It’s incredible when you write something and then watch it realized so brilliantly. But even if you haven’t seen the show, you can feel the movement of the train in the rhythm and orchestration, and visualize our protagonists bouncing along.

SF: The final song of the score to be written. It was written for Ramin Karimloo just before our Broadway previews began.
LA: The character of Gleb is a conflicted character. He believes in the new order, and yet is attracted to Anya, a girl who may be the lost Romanov princess. That one word, “still,” allowed me to write a lyric that vacillates between belief and disbelief, romanticism and anger. Whenever he thinks one thing, he immediately thinks the opposite. It’s a really hard song to sing because it keeps turning on a dime.

“Journey to the Past”
SF: Originally the first song Anya sings in the film, we knew it had to be her last song in Act 1 to make her new dramatic arc work. We are thrilled to include Christy Altomare’s dynamic performance of the song on this recording.
LA: Not a word of this song has been changed from the original movie, and I love the little shiver of recognition that ripples through the audience when the vamp begins. This song was originally nominated for an Oscar and was performed by Aaliyah on the Oscar broadcast, and the great Liz Callaway voiced Anya in the original movie. When the song was first written, we did a demo late one night in the studio, and Liz was so tired that she forgot to cut off the last note. She apologized and said she could do it again, and we said no way! Hence, that impossibly long last note that Christy Altomare nails eight times a week!

“Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)”
SF: Act 2 is set in Paris during the roaring ’20s and this song, expanded from the motion picture, needed to express this new energy and color.
LA: This song went through several radical rewrites. Earlier versions featured famous characters in Paris at that time—Josephine Baker, Django Reinhardt, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, etc.—but it soon became clear that the focus should be simply on our three main characters enjoying a new world of freedom and energy.

“Crossing a Bridge”
SF: A pensive moment for Anya, beautifully orchestrated by Doug Besterman, who also did many of the original film’s orchestrations. So thrilled to be able to continue our musical journey with Doug on this recording.
LA: To me, the music sounds like water ebbing and flowing. It’s so delicate, filled with yearning and hope, and I was happy to find the image of a bridge and someone crossing it from her past to her future.

“Close the Door”
SF: A new song for the Dowager Empress, beautifully performed by Mary Beth Peil, who was Tony nominated in this role.
LA: We wrote this song to explore the Dowager’s bitter sadness, something we never had a chance to do in the movie. Mary Beth Peil’s expressive voice lets us feel the pain and longing of the Dowager, as well as her resolve to close the door on her own hopes once and for all.

“Land of Yesterday”
SF: If Cole Porter had written a musical about expat Russians in Paris in the ’20s, I’d like to think it might have sounded something like this! The inimitable Caroline O’Connor (as Countess Lily) leads the company.
LA: We had a vision of all these exiled Russian aristocrats trying to learn a new dance for a new world, so this song combines the Charleston rhythms of Paris with riotous Russian dance music. The regretful aristocrats are trying to drink and dance their problems away—problems like too few diamonds, no caviar, and a flat instead of a palace. Poor them!

“The Countess and the Common Man”
SF: When you allow two comic geniuses like Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton alone onstage, hijinks ensue. I cannot tell you what a joy it was to watch these two gifted comic actors rehearse and refine this number daily, and then watch them make our audiences on Broadway convulse with laughter night after night.
LA: Usually, the length of a song is consistent every night. But this one got longer and longer as John and Caroline perfected their “schtick.” The bigger the laughs, the more time they took. (The recording is the length we wrote.) The music is intentionally “refined,” but the stage action is anything but!

“In a Crowd of Thousands
SF: One of our favorite moments in the show where the book, the dramatic arc, the song, and the performances come magically together. (And believe it or not, this song was originally placed in Act 1 during our first reading!)
LA: This is a deceptively simple, storytelling song, which hides a major plot point within a casual reminiscence. I like it a lot because it sneaks up and surprises you with the turn at the end.

“Meant to Be
SF: Off an opulent costume parade featuring the sumptuous designs of Linda Cho, this quiet, intimate observation by Vlad leads us into our fateful evening at the ballet.
LA: The melody is actually a balladic reprise ofLearn To Do It” but it becomes a heartfelt solo moment for a comic character. It not only shows a different side of Vlad, but also serves as a pivot from one scene to the next.

“Quartet at the Ballet”
SF: The first time in the show all of our principals converge in the same space and time (The Paris Opera Ballet during a performance of “Swan Lake”), all of them singing their thoughts, their themes in the show, in counterpoint to the music of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet. One of our favorite sequences, it features onstage ballet choreography by Peggy Hickey.
LA: Not only do the characters sing in counterpoint in this carefully-constructed sequence, but their ideas are in counterpoint as well: Anya believes this may be the moment her hopes come true—“Everything I’ve wanted, suddenly so near…”—the Dowager sings the opposite—“I refuse to dream”—while both Dmitry and Gleb steel themselves to do what they’ve come to do. All of this wraps around a dance, which also mirrors a woman with two suitors.

“Everything to Win”
SF: Sung by Dmitry as he nervously waits for the outcome of Anya’s meeting with the Dowager at the Paris Opera Ballet, this song was “lyrics first.”
LA: By the end of this song, Dmitry realizes that there will be an unforeseen consequence to his success, an emotional moment for a character who prides himself on his tough exterior.

“Once Upon a December (Reprise)
SF: The heart of the climactic meeting between Anya and the Dowager, which musically mirrors our first scene in Act 1.
LA: The song comes full circle, from a little lullaby to a major production number to this reprise. Some songs prove so useful!

“The Press Conference
SF: The press eagerly awaits details! Musically we use elements of “Learn To Do It” and “The Rumors Never End” (not heard on this recording) sung in operetta fashion Lily, Vlad, and the ensemble.
LA: This is one of those numbers that was created to cover big costume changes—a utility. It started small, and then grew, not by necessity but because we loved the silly Gilbert and Sullivan quality of it.

“Everything to Win (Reprise)”
SF: A reprise of Dmitry’s song, Anya realizes what she will be losing by “winning.”
LA: You usually can’t plan ahead of time for reprises—they suddenly reveal themselves. This one seemed perfect in its symmetry.

“Still/The Neva Flows (Reprise)
SF: This sequence is the final confrontation between Anya and Gleb, reprising Gleb’s two main themes, which builds to a choral finish with the Romanovs, leaving the mystery unanswered for the recording.
LA: The text fits perfectly within this musical sequence so it functions as an almost operatic musical scene, heightened by the sudden, dreamlike entrance of the Romanovs at gunpoint. It’s chilling.

SF: “There will be no more Anastasias.” “There never was an Anastasia.” Still…
The rumor, the legend, the mystery continues.
LA: And here’s that extremely useful “Once Upon A December” again! It seemed the right way to end the show, reminding us that this is, after all, a romantic legend.

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