When the musical “Anastasia” premiered at Hartford Stage in 2016, the show’s Tony Award-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens recalls spying audience members at the first preview performance wearing blue princess gowns and wigs with bows or tiaras on their heads. She watched as they listened to the Oscar-nominated earworm “Journey to the Past,” which had become an anthem for a generation of young women. That scene crystallized for Ahrens the elevated expectations and pressures she and the show’s creative team faced in adapting the 1997 animated film, and their songs from it, into a stage musical.
“It was terrifying because you realize that there’s this humongous fanbase for the animated movie,” Ahrens says in a recent Zoom interview with her longtime songwriting collaborator Stephen Flaherty.
She swallowed hard and approached one of the audience members afterwards to ask what she’d thought of the show. The woman revealed she was initially skeptical that the film’s villainous sorcerer Rasputin and albino bat sidekick Bartok had been jettisoned in favor of a less cartoonish plot involving former revolutionaries trying to stamp out the last of the Romanov dynasty.
“I was really nervous going in, but I loved it. And I realized I grew up on the movie, but the musical grew up for me,” Ahrens recalls the woman saying. “She said that she really felt that the stage musical version was more meaningful to her as an adult now.”
Inspired by the story of the grand duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, the youngest Romanov daughter, “Anastasia” eventually landed on Broadway, where it played for nearly two years. Now a touring production, presented by Broadway in Boston, is arriving at the Citizens Bank Opera House Aug. 17-28.
The legend of Anastasia has long held a powerful sway over in the public imagination. Much of the Romanov family, including her father Tsar Nicholas II, were killed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. But rumors swirled that Anastasia had escaped her family’s fate and was still alive and in hiding. Impostors popped up claiming to be the lost duchess. The 1956 film “Anastasia” starred Ingrid Bergman as an amnesia-stricken young woman who bears a striking resemblance to the duchess.
For the stage musical, which transports audiences from the bloody end of the Russian Empire to the bustle of Paris in the 1920s, amnesiac orphan Anya (Kyla Stone) falls in with two con men, Dmitry (Sam McLellan) and Vlad (Bryan Seastrom), who hope to pass her off as the grand duchess in order to collect reward money. They attempt to convince the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Gerri Weagraff), Anastasia’s surviving grandmother now living in Paris, that she’s the real deal. Meanwhile, Soviet officer Gleb (Ben Edquist) relentlessly pursues Anya and is torn between his duty and his heart.
“For me, it’s a classic mystery,” Flaherty says. “You’re not sure what the level of truth is, and she’s not sure either. It’s about identity and finding your place in the world and who you are.”
To adapt the show, Ahrens and Flaherty had to take their own journey into the past — back to the mid-’90s — when they were first-time writers-for-hire in Hollywood acclimating to a strange and sometimes challenging new world. They wrote the songs for the film before any animation was created. “The animators were counting on the music to inspire the film visually,” Flaherty says.
Ahrens says she and Flaherty talked almost every year afterward about embarking on a stage adaptation of “Anastasia.” When they finally did, they wondered if they’d be able to connect to the characters and material after so much time. But returning to songs they’d written nearly 20 years earlier “was like meeting friends we hadn’t seen for a very long time,” Flaherty says. “They grew up and became more mature. So it was about creating a new score out of some old cloth.”
They approached playwright Terrence McNally, whom they collaborated with on the musicals “Ragtime” and “A Man of No Importance,” because they felt he’d infuse the musical with his love of history and “take what was essentially an animated show for kids and give it more gravitas,” Ahrens says. And they drew on the 1956 film for its darker sensibility and focus on the tragic history.
“Journey to the Past” — it lost the Oscar for best original song to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic” — opens the animated film. For the stage musical, the creative team decided to close the first act with the ballad. Otherwise, Flaherty explains, “it feels like [Anya’s] overcome all odds in her first number.”
The show features revised versions of five songs from the original movie, plus 16 new ones. Flaherty says the first act’s score features “a lot of Russian colors, harmonies, instrumentation.” In the second act, the score moves to the thrilling, romantic sounds of Paris in the Jazz Age. “I usually work from an emotional place, and this always wanted to be a show that had big melodies and big tunes.”
The show’s director, Darko Tresnjak, praises Ahrens for “the insightful way she writes about the hopes, dreams, aspirations and insecurities of young women,” citing “Anastasia,” “Once on This Island,” and “Ragtime.”
Instead of Rasputin as the villain, McNally wrote Gleb as a more complex baddie. “He realizes that he’s falling for this person of interest, this young girl who he thinks is masquerading as the princess,” Ahrens says. “So he wants her to not pretend that anymore, because it’s a very dangerous game if there were a Romanov still alive.”
As for Anya, Flaherty describes her as the strongest character in the show, despite starting out as vulnerable and fragile. “She has no idea why she was found in the snow or where she came from, but she has these recurring dreams and nightmares of dancers and people, and she keeps getting flashes of the past. She’s sort of a tortured soul.”
The production design makes extensive use of animated projections, a homage to the film. “We decided early on that we never wanted to go to blackout in the show,” Flaherty says. “We wanted it to be this continuous, cinematic style of storytelling.”
Tresnjak says he was inspired by Shakespeare plays, including “Pericles,” which he directed to acclaim at San Diego’s Old Globe. “I thought about all of those displaced families, lost daughters, families that are torn asunder. Then there’s this hope of an improbable but beautiful reunion with what you’ve lost.”
So why does the Anastasia legend continue to captivate audiences a century later? “It’s a classic fairytale about a lost princess who’s trying to find out whether or not she’s really a princess,” Ahrens replies. “[She’s] a young woman on a journey of self-discovery from not knowing who the heck you are at all to finding your strength, finding your voice, and in the end finding who you’re related to, what your roots actually are, and your place in the world.”
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Aug. 17-28. Tickets from $44.50. www.broadwayinboston.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.