First paired in 1983, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty made their motion picture debut writing the songs for ANASTASIA. Their work accompanies the orchestral score composed by David Newman. Best known for the Broadway musicals "Once On This Island" and the current hit "Ragtime," Ahrens and Flaherty have gained a reputation as leaders in the American musical.
Ahrens and Flaherty were drawn to the creative possibilities offered by ANASTASIA. To them, its unique storyline prompted a wide spectrum of emotions, from intense drama to comedic relief. Even their first look at the script produced strong reactions. "We could see what would sing on the screen," Flaherty says, "from the first musical impression that came from reading the first rough treatment of the script."
The first musical "image" that emerged was a lullaby played by Anastasia's music box, a tune that would become the powerful Dream Waltz sequence, "Once Upon a December." The first piece of music the songwriters created, it not only established the emotional center of their score, but unleashed its guiding force. "I think a lot of the movie came out of the impulse of that song," Ahrens says. Flaherty adds, "'Once Upon a December' was written in a way that dictated ANASTASIA's emotional core."
The songwriters' main goal was to allow the characters to segue naturally from spoken dialogue into sung dialogue through careful placement of the musical numbers. An even greater task was ensuring that the songs and dialogue matched, not only in voice, but with the story's tone. Finally, they had to be conscious of the flow between the comedy and drama. "We tried not putting two ballads in a row to maintain the proper balance," explains Ahrens.
Working in film provided special challenges to the songwriting duo. Says Flaherty, "We strove for more than a great tune people would want to sing. We choreographed and directed the scene in our own minds. We had to create something that we knew was visual and had action."
Ahrens and Flaherty found a direct parallel between their creative efforts and Anya's journey to find her identity. Much like the royal orphan, the duo found themselves at crossroads throughout the songwriting process. Their ability to navigate through such choices was the cornerstone of their collaboration. "When we write a song," says Flaherty, "we don't necessarily know where it's going to go, where it's going to end. And that, for me, is part of the fun of songwriting."
By understanding the emotions of the characters, the songwriters could also chart their motivations. To this end, they acted out the individual roles. These sessions ("Thank goodness they're not available!," Ahrens says with a laugh.) were invaluable in helping them find the "voices" of the cast. "We had to inhabit the characters a bit," she says. "We had to become Rasputin or Anya."
Ahrens and Flaherty's close collaboration with the filmmakers and writers was critical to the process, and they found the teamwork a wonderful surprise. "Part of the joy of collaboration," Flaherty says, "is that a really emotional moment on film often came from not one person's idea, but from the group. The songs were the beginning of this process. They represented the emotional lives of the characters - when they're joyful, frightened or searching. The songs came from these big emotional moments. It was interesting to see and hear what the filmmakers did with the material."
As the songs began to evolve, attention turned to the singers. In keeping with the score's Broadway pedigree, some of the musical theater's brightest luminaries, Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters, grace the film's soundtrack.
"I felt like I had just entered musical theater heaven," Flaherty says. "Angela Lansbury has been a great Broadway star since the sixties, and I'm one of those kids who grew up listening to show albums on the family stereo. And Bernadette Peters has done so many wonderful musicals."
The songwriters were pleasantly surprised with the abilities of Emmy Award-winning actor Kelsey Grammer as Vladimir. Not only did he provide the character's speaking voice, Grammer also displayed his own singing abilities with considerable resonance and style. "It seemed to me that if I was going to be in a film that required my character to sing, then I should do the singing," Grammer explains. "I should sing it, not someone else. The song would then sound more like it came out of my character."
Explains Flaherty, "We wrote the most difficult piece of material, the song 'Learn to Do It,' for Vladimir." Adds Ahrens, "The song goes back and forth between three characters. It's very fast and comic, and Kelsey was really terrific."
The performers who harmonized for Ryan, Cusack and Lloyd used their considerable musical talents to enable a seamless flow between speaking and singing voices. Rising stage star Jonathan Dokuchitz ("The Who's Tommy," "Company") takes on Dimitri's singing, while veteran voice artist Jim Cummings, whose talents have been featured in a diverse range of animated television series and motion pictures, warbles for Rasputin. At the center of this multi-talented cast is Liz Callaway's singing performance as Anastasia.
Since making her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along," Callaway's stirring performances in "Cats" and the original U.S. cast of "Miss Saigon" have brought her acclaim as a leading lady of the contemporary musical stage. The Tony-nominated singer-actress (for the Richard Maltby-David Shire musical "Baby") is also one of the cabaret's most dynamic artists, performing throughout the U.S. and around the world. Not a stranger to the world of animated film, Callaway's voice has graced such films as "Beauty and the Beast" and the video sequels to "Aladdin."
Callaway entered the world of ANASTASIA after Ahrens and Flaherty called her to ask if she would complete some demo recordings of their latest song. A longtime friend of the duo, Callaway agreed and she recorded "Once Upon a December" -- and Anya found her singing voice. "Everyone seemed pleased, so I started doing all the song demos for Anya and I guess the producers got used to hearing my voice," Callaway says with a smile.
Summing up the duo's experience on ANASTASIA, Ahrens says she and Flaherty enjoyed the element of surprise that came with seeing how the images were ultimately integrated with their music. "It was amazing," Ahrens says. "We were there at the beginning, creating the songs around which the movie was built. Then, of course, it all snowballed. Now the film has taken on this extraordinary life of its own, which is terrific."
In addition to the music from the film, the ANASTASIA soundtrack album features alternative versions by some of today's hottest artists. Aaliyah, inspired by her own real-life reunion with a long-lost relative, performs "Journey to the Past"; 1997 Country Music Association Award winner Deana Carter (singing the film's centerpiece song, "Once Upon A December"); and Latina superstar Thalia (who sings a Spanish-language rendition of "Journey to the Past"). The soundtrack's first single, "At the Beginning," was performed by Richard Marx and Donna Lewis and produced by Grammy winner Trevor Horn.
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