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NUNN ON ONE THEATER Stephen Flaherty translates 'Anastasia' to the stage
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times

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Anastasia is a musical based on the 1997 animated film that adapted the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, who escapes the execution of her family and becomes an amnesiac orphan named Anya.

The music and lyrics are by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, with a book by Terrence McNally. Composer Flaherty wrote Tony-winning musicals Ragtime and Once on This Island before Anastasia, which was nominated for two Academy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards. Other musical credits include Lucky Stiff, My Favorite Year, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, The Glorious Ones, Seussical and Rocky.

Windy City Times: Where in the world are you?

Stephen Flaherty: I am in Seattle and tonight is the first preview of my new musical Marie. It is a whole new idea and choreographed by Susan Stroman. We did an earlier version of the show at the Kennedy Center four years ago under the title Little Dancer. This is a reimagining and reworking of that particular show. We have our first real audience tonight!

WCT: Were you always involved in music?

SF: Yes. I went to Catholic school and my parents were trying to find ways to slow me down. The nuns were ready to skip me ahead to the next grade. They randomly picked music.

My mom had me take piano lessons when I was 7. I deeply connected to it at an early age. I began writing and wrote my first musical when I was 14. I can't say it was good, but it was fun!

WCT: You studied musicals in college?

SF: Yes. I went to CCM, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. At the time that was one of the few schools that had a musical theater performance program. I knew I would study composition, but also hang out with the theater kids.

WCT: Growing up gay in the South, I definitely felt I found a tribe with the theater folks.

SF: I felt the same way. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I felt like the alien on my block.

WCT: Do you have a favorite moment from Ragtime?

SF: Every day working on that show is elevated. It was the kind of show I had always wanted to write. I wanted to write a sweeping musical drama even as a kid. My favorite shows are West Side Story and Porgy and Bess. I like a large canvas!

One memorable moment was working on the song "Wheels of a Dream." I had been connected with Brian Stokes Mitchell and invited him to my home to work on it. My husband had come home early and Brian sang the song in our teeny apartment. When I asked my husband Trevor what he thought he said, "He certainly sings it better than you do!"

After that, I decided to build the show on that actor. It really changed my thoughts about the character. Originally it was a tenor range, but Stokes had a deep, authoritarian baritone voice.

WCT: You have worked with lyricist Lynn Ahrens for a long time?

SF: Talk about finding your tribe! After moving to the big city in New York, I was taking a workshop and the assignment was to collaborate with someone. She was in my class and I asked her. We came up for the idea of our first show.

Our way of working is very different, but our synergy was amazing. I used to sequester myself away like a mad monk in a cell and grow a beard, but she was much more of an improv kind of gal. She would throw an idea around the writers room.

We would write song after song and now we are 35 years on!

WCT: You have written new songs together for Anastasia?

SF: Yes. We were asked to write the film score for Anastasia in 1997. It was our first movie. We were suddenly in Hollywood and Madonna read our names on the telecast. It was unbelievable!

Later, we had the opportunity to revisit the characters in a more deep place.

WCT: The stage version has characters not in the film?

SF: Yes. We used five songs that were in the film, but in different dramaturgical ways. The audience will get to hear the songs that they know and love, but we still want to surprise them.

One of the first songs that Anya sings in the movie "Journey to the Past" closes the act in the musical, so the character has a much longer arc.

We wrote 15 new songs for the stage. I think the new songs are of the same caliber as the songs from the film, which is always the challenge. People go in knowing the old songs, but I had to create songs that are equally as stimulating and pleasing.

WCT: Is there possibly a new gay character?

SF: Well, this is Russia of a certain period, but maybe Count Leopold. He appears in act two and I will just leave it at that…

WCT: How do you bring an albino bat from the film onto the stage?

SF: He bit the dust—sorry: spoiler alert! The film is very beloved; however, there were certain elements that were aimed at a young audience.

We also played fast and loose with Russian history. We knew that if we wanted to revisit this piece that we had to deal with the truth of that period. We brought in our friend Terrence McNally to reimagine it. Luckily, he saw it the same way that we did. He was not interested in taking the animated film and slapping it onstage.

We really looked at the characters, cut some and created new ones. This was our third musical writing with Terrence.

WCT: Is the dog cut, too?

SF: There is no dog, but there is a child.

WCT: Are you coming to opening night in Chicago?

SF: I can't because I will be in Russia. Oddly, when I have written my shows I have never been to the place where they are set until after the show opens. I had never been to the Caribbean until Once on This Island opened or Monte Carlo until Lucky Stiff opened.

I have an opportunity to do a master class with the educational group Broadway Dreams. I was invited to teach in Russia and there will be a series of concerts based on our work. Maybe I will see Anya running around the streets. We will see!

WCT: What are you working on after Marie?

SF: We are working on a new piece with Frank Galati, who was our director from Ragtime. It's a chamber musical called Knoxville. We are doing it at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. It's a passion project from Frank, who is also adapting it. It's based on James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Death in the Family. It's very American and tight focused. It's about how family face hard times and still go forward. It's a very personal show.

Anastasia travels into the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., through April 7. Tickets are at or by calling 800-775-2000.

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