Q&A: ‘Anastasia’ spins Russian myth into Broadway gold at Kennedy Center

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Anastasia' at Kennedy Center (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It was a Russian legend that became a pair of films and a Broadway musical.

This month, the Kennedy Center hosts the national tour of “Anastasia” now through Nov. 25.

“‘Anastasia’ is great for all ages because there’s a character for everyone,” star Lila Coogan told WTOP. “You may relate to Anya, she’s your cup of tea, your girl, but then some people might relate to Vlad or the Dowager (or) our villain Gleb because he’s so complex. .. It opens the door to all ages. It’s an adventure! You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy an adventure.”

Featuring a book by Terrence McNally, the story follows an amnesiac orphan named Anya, who searches for her long-lost family. She encounters two con men, who are trying to take advantage of her likeness to Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, who was reportedly executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 but whose potential survival became legend.

“Unfortunately, all the Romanovs were murdered,” Coogan said. “They found the evidence that she’s not actually alive anymore. But some people think maybe her grandmother, who was alive at the time, released her from royalty so she could survive. It’s a nice sentiment.”

The plot is a loving composite of two 20th Century Fox movies: the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner and the 1997 animated film starring Meg Ryan and John Cusack.

“It’s a little bit of both,” Coogan said. “Our writer, Terrence McNally, actually saw both films and was like, ‘Okay, I know what I’m doing,’ then did a completely different story. If you liked the movies, you’ll like the (stage musical) because the character qualities are the same. I’ve seen the animated one and I loved it! I was obsessed with her, I thought she was spunky, I loved Bartok, I loved Rasputin, so that was my first introduction into the Anastasia world.”

The show features the animated film’s same songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), including such fan-favorite numbers as “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to the Past” and “Learn to Do It,” as well as 21 new showtunes written for Broadway.

“If you like the older songs from the movie, you’re gonna love the new songs,” Coogan said. “My favorite new song would be ‘In a Crowd of Thousands,’ my duet with Stephen Brower. … It’s a really pivotal moment where she learns two really important things about herself.”

The songs are married to lavish period visuals by costume designer Linda Cho.

“They are the most gorgeous costumes,” Coogan said. “It goes from Russia in this time where people didn’t have anything — my jacket in the first act is supposed to be a men’s coat that I found to keep me warm (and) not as glamorous — then we get to Paris and all of a sudden color comes in, there’s jewels and big poofy skirts. … It’s amazing to wear them every night.”

It all unfolds against a backdrop directed by Tony winner and D.C. native Darko Tresnjak.

“We actually are super blessed that we have this amazing projection behind us,” Coogan said. “It takes us all over the world. They move, so you feel like you’re actually in the outdoor setting. We have a moving train, palaces, the Paris Opera. … The set is something special.”

We also experience visual representations of her amnesia-tinged memories.

“Her flashbacks are actually as she’s experiencing them,” Coogan said. “You’re seeing what’s in her mind. That’s what’s really cool about it. You’re not going back and seeing someone else play Anastasia (in childhood memories). You’re seeing my character see what’s going on in her head. … So, I literally have to imagine that I’m in the moment that’s happening in my head.”

It’s the latest acting challenge for Coogan, who grew up in Westchester County, New York.

“Touring the country, it’s been wonderful seeing all of these cities that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. “I’ve dreamed since I was a kid of performing at the Kennedy Center.”

Find more details on the Kennedy Center website. Hear our full chat with Lila Coogan below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Lila Coogan (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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