How the Stars Aligned to Bring Dr. Zhivago to Broadway

Opening Night   How the Stars Aligned to Bring Dr. Zhivago to Broadway
Dr. Zhivago, the musical adaptation of the best-selling novel and film, opened at the Broadway Theatre April 21.

Some signs you just can't ignore. When producer Anita Waxman, being of Russian extraction, went to Moscow and adopted a two-year-old named Yuri Antipov, it was not lost on her that the musical she wanted to bring to Broadway had a hero named Yuri Zhivago and a villain named Pasha Antipov. A good omen, but was it a sign?

While in Moscow, she learned of the city's orphanage crisis and founded a place that exists to this day called Anita's Home. When she returned for the ribbon-cutting, she noticed a plaque on the wall in Russian and asked for a translation. It read: "This is where Boris Pasternak started the novel 'Doctor Zhivago.'" That did it! Bingo!

On April 21, Yuri and Antipov and a now-20-year-old Yuri Antipov all converged on the Broadway Theatre for the Main Stem arrival of the Waxman-led Doctor Zhivago.

Similar kismet brought Lucy Simon, the show's composer, to the same place. Fifty years ago, she and her now-husband, David Levine, caught the David Lean film version with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie, and the next day he proposed. Why? "Because that idiot, Zhivago, let Lara out of his life. I won't let that happen to me."

Then there was the show's director, Des McAnuff, who visited Russia as part of an early theatre-exchange delegation years ago, long before he needed it in his work. "I've made many friends in Russia back in the day when the political changes were taking place," he remembered, "and I think of all of them as we perform the show."

Decked out in his signature electric-blue blazer, McAnuff reached the official finish line — the press line in front of the theatre — a bit black and blue from 14 years of readings, revisions, rehearsals and productions that stretched from his former artistic home base, the La Jolla Playhouse, to Down Under to Korea: "I feel like I've been through World War I and the Russian Revoluton," which he has — repeatedly.

The task of whittling the original text (Pasternak's 592-page Nobel Prize winner) down to less than three hours of theatre fell to Michael Weller, who's "proudest of how the music and the story back each other up. In this show, every song has a dramatic purpose. It has drive. It has a drama and an intention."

Tam Mutu, the London lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies, expends his considerable lung power on the Broadway stage as the triangularly trapped poet-physician of the title. "Lucy writes great power ballads," he was happy to report, citing two soaring duets with Kelli Barrett's Lara, "Now" and "On the Edge of Time."

Simon didn't hesitate a musical beat when the question came up: "'On the Edge of Time' is my favorite because it's a poem Yuri creates to express his love of Lara and Russia. It's breaking through, being able to get past the censors to write his poetry." It took a while to write, but the equally affecting "Now" came to her in 20 minutes.

Barrett, who plays Yuri's mistress as a blonde onstage, is a brunette offstage, and Lora Lee Gayer is a natural blonde in reality playing Yuri's wife, Tonia, as a brunette. "In the novel, Lara is fair-haired and gray-eyed," Barrett pointed out, "and I think that Des wanted to stay very close to that" (and Julie Christie's iconic image).

It may come as a surprise that her favorite song is "It Comes as No Surprise," the duet between Lara and Tonia in the library. "That scene doesn't exist in the book," Barrett noted, "but, fascinatingly enough, Tonia actually helps Lara deliver Yuri's baby. They become very good friends in the novel — a testament to their times. If you find anybody who likes you, grab on to them like a buoy in a storm. And they did." Gayer is less keen on softening the story's central triangle. "Tonia is the epitome of strength and selflessness, which is not me," she said. "Her life is completely changed, and in that process she keeps her family together. She's selfless enough to know that, if her husband has found the love of his life, she needs to let him go. I, on the other hand, would not be like that. ‘Are you kidding me? Get back here.' The fact she's even friends with Lara — I hate to say it, but I'd probably be pulling her hair."

Like An American in Paris' Leanne Cope, Barrett copes with a trio of suitors: DZ (Mutu), a war-lost idealist (Paul Alexander Nolan, an ex-Jesus Christ Superstar) and an old boor (Tom Hewitt, managing to emerge from Rod Steiger's cinematic shadow).

The first-nighter most jazzed by the evening was the grandson of the movie's Yuri Zhivago and the son of its eight-year-old Yuri — a new actor named Omar Shariff Jr.

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