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'Rocky' start for 'Anastasia'

CCM grad Stephen Flaherty scores two movies
already slated to be Broadway musicals

by Deborah Rieselman

Sneers and snickers, chuckles and chortles, moans and groans. When such sights and sounds come from an audience, an observant director or creative team can use the signs to tweak and tighten a stage production during previews. Listening for comments in the lobby, however, only works if one can understand the language.

That can be tough when previews take place in Europe, for instance. Renowned composer Steven Flaherty, CCM '82, knows that only too well, having scored a movie for a theatrical production that opened in Germany and now scoring a second movie adaptation that might open in Moscow — all before landing on Broadway.

'Rocky' scheduled for February

When Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in "Rocky," he probably never anticipated getting one of the film's 10 Oscar nominations, starring in five sequels and one day meeting one of Broadway's most sought-after composers to discuss scoring a Rocky musical. But 36 years later, Stallone had conceived a musical adaptation of the 1976 Oscar-winning Best Picture, and alumnus Flaherty and his lyricist writing partner Lynn Ahrens were selected to score it.

"Rocky: Das Musical" opened in Hamburg, Germany, in November 2012. After receiving knockout reviews from German critics, the show is now going the distance — to Broadway. Previews are scheduled for February 2014 at the Winter Garden.

Although some people scoffed at the idea of turning a boxing saga into a song-and-dance show, reviewers have raved over realistically choreographed fights and training scenes, as well as music that embraces the grittiness of the setting and the intimacy of Rocky and Adrian's romance.

Variety magazine said the show "bowled over critics in Germany." The front page of Hamburg's daily newspaper declared, "Big emotions, big theater." And the city's biggest tabloid announced, "'Rocky' knocks Hamburg out!"

Flaherty and Ahrens wrote 20 new songs for the show and retained three popular oldies: "Eye of the Tiger," "Gonna Fly Now" and "Take You Back." Because the story is set in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1975, "the score combines a lot of sounds of the period — funk, soul, pop, rock and folk," Flaherty says. "We look back to that time, but it is really a contemporary score."

Lyrics and the book were originally written in English, then translated into German, which created a challenge because translations in the two languages do not contain the same number of syllables."We had to find an equivalent in German so the German words could sit on the beautiful melody and have the right rhyme," Ahrens explains.

Next year, the English version will come back to life.

"It has been an amazing adventure," Flaherty says. "Our international cast comes from 12 different countries, our band features some of the best players I've ever worked with, including three amazing guitarists playing 17 different guitars. I'm having the time of my life. Thank God for the 'Basic German For Dummies' app!"

Flaherty and Ahrens have worked together since their first Broadway show, "Once on This Island," grabbed a Tony nomination in 1991. For their first German show, they reported to Hamburg in August 2012 to begin rehearsals and previews.

The German production cost about $20 million, according to Stage Entertainment, who is co-producing the show with Stallone. The cost to open on Broadway is anticipated to be $15 million.

'Anastasia' up next

In the meantime, the writing partners are working to bring the 1997 animated feature film "Anastasia" to a Broadway stage. The pair had originally scored the animated film, which was nominated for two Oscars — Best Original Musical or Comedy Score and Best Song ("Journey to the Past"). For the stage version, reports that they will write 15 new songs for this show and retain five of the movie pieces.

Other details remain sketchy. "Rocky" producer Stage Entertainment acquired the rights to produce a stage adaptation of "Anastasia" in 2012. As of late May 2013, the company maintained that the show, with its "beautiful score by Stephen Flaherty," will make its "debut in Moscow in 2013." But no dates or cast have been announced, leaving much up to speculation.

Initially, 2013 was chosen because the year marks the Romanov dynasty's 400th anniversary. Yet some sources have voiced unverified opinions that a delay has been encountered.

News of the musical's development came in July 2012 when a 29-hour private industry reading took place with Angela Lansbury reprising her Dowager Empress role from the animated film. Alumnus Aaron Lazar, M (CCM) '00, had a part in the reading, which excited those familiar with his portrayal of Enjolras in the '06-07 "Les Miserables" revival, for which he earned a Drama Desk nomination.

The Anastasia story is about a Russian princess — the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the daughter of Russian Czar Nicholas II. The Fox Animated Studios film was based upon the legend that Anastasia escaped the 1918 assassination of the royal Romanov family, including her parents and five siblings. As a young woman with no memory, Anastasia took a "Journey to the Past" on screen to discover her true identity.

Expanding the score for stage, Flaherty and Ahrens are working with four-time Tony Award-winner Terrence McNally, who wrote the book. This is not a new collaboration for the three since McNally also wrote the book for "Ragtime," which Flaherty and Ahrens scored.

Hopes are high for the upcoming "Anastasia," considering that "Ragtime" was a mammoth success — 14 Tony nominations and four wins (including Best Score and Best Book), plus 16 Drama Desk nominations and six wins (including Outstanding New Musical, Outstanding Music, Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Book).

After 834 Broadway performances, "Ragtime" closed in January 2000, only to launch a national tour (which won two 2001 Touring Broadway Awards for Best Song in a Musical and Best New Musical). In 2003, the musical was produced in London's West End, and in 2009, it come back as a revival (which received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for best musical revival). The track record is impressive.

The "Rocky" and "Anastasia" projects add to Stephen Flaherty's constantly growing list of diverse credits, which also features scores for a Dr. Seuss book ("Seussical," '01 Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Music) and a TV documentary ("After the Storm," '91).


Trailer for the German production of "Rocky"