Movie turned musical about Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia lands in Toronto

Movie turned musical about Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia lands in Toronto
Fresh off a two-year run on Broadway, the musical “Anastasia” arrives at the Ed Mirvish Theatre this week, bringing with it a story that spans both European history and the beloved animated film it is based on.

The main unifying factor between movie and stage production are Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a Tony Award-winning duo who wrote the music and lyrics for several shows, including “Suessical,” “Ragtime,” “Once on This Island” and many more. They were also nominated for two Academy Awards for their work on the “Anastasia” film and relished the opportunity to turn it into a stage musical, but they had to wait almost 20 years to do it.

“For all of that time, Stephen and I kept looking at each other pretty regularly, maybe every six months, and thinking, ‘“Anastasia” would make such an amazing musical, wouldn’t it?’” says Ahrens. “We reached out to 20th Century Fox, to the people we still knew there at the time to say, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ But they didn’t have a department to do stage adaptations of their films.”

After all that time, the prevailing winds have changed as musical theatre producers look to adapt works from all kinds of source material, so Ahrens and Flaherty finally got the chance to revisit their older work and really flesh it out — some things work in the animated world but don’t translate to the stage.

“It was a real luxury and very exciting, getting a chance to go back into this world,” says Flaherty. “Because in the world of animated films, you know, there’s only usually maybe five or six songs that make it. So there was a lot of material where we could only go so deep and also, the original was skewed to a younger audience, so this was great because it just allowed us to revisit this story, revisit these characters and go further with the ideas.”

“We all just jumped right in and it was as if time had not moved on,” adds Ahrens. “We were right back there with our characters and there was a really great feeling, a great reconciliation with our characters whom we had not seen for a while.”

Even familiar songs got reworked.

“I think we have five songs from the original movie, but every one is used in a different way,” says Flaherty. “It’s either in a different position so it serves a different dramatic function or it’s been completely rewritten for the stage to the point where the only thing to recognize it is maybe the melody and the hook.

One interesting thing about the theatre show is how many people come to it with background knowledge. Some are history buffs who know all about the czars, the Russian royal family. Some are huge fans of the 1997 animated film.

Both the musical and movie are loosely based on the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, who was executed by Bolsheviks along with his family in 1918. There have long been claims that Anastasia survived and turned up in Paris with amnesia.

“The super fans, we call them ‘Fanastasias.’ They come dressed in tiaras and things,” says Ahrens.

“Another thing that kept happening was that we would have Russians in the audience and they were unbelievably moved because they felt that we were actually touching on their true history and that we had dealt with it very honestly.”

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As for Ahrens and Flaherty, they have been following “their girl” Anastasia as the musical opens around the world, but the pair say Toronto holds special memories for them. They worked on the songs for the movie here, just as they were getting “Ragtime” ready to launch back in 1996.

“Well, I love Toronto. We had such a good time there where we were there, you know, basically living there for three and a half months and it was in the winter, I might add,” says Flaherty. “We are definitely hoping to come back now.”
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