There are reportedly plans to bring this moderately successful animated musical to the stage, and while there are certainly some serious problems with it that will have to be ironed out as revisions, the idea is not quite as foolhardy as some might believe.
The main problem with the film is that its Disney-style Princess fantasy is overlaid onto a historical reality that is not really compatible with it. Certainly, the film presents a ridiculously sanitized and oversimplified version of the history of the Russian revolution, designed largely to keep their Princess heroine’s family from looking like greedy, spoiled autocrats who more or less deserved what happened to them (which, let’s face it, they pretty much were in real life). And the story the movie tells, with the ghost of a heavily demonized Rasputin brought in as the fantasy villain, is just far less interesting than that of the famous play on which is it extremely loosely based.
In the play, Anya’s true identity is left slightly in doubt at the very end (“If it should not be you, don’t ever tell me!”, as the Dowager Empress says). Making it the straightforward story of a Princess rediscovering her identity rendered it much simpler and removed a lot of the more adult elements, which, while perhaps useful for a children’s film, removed the sense of mystery that made the original play so fascinating.
But all that said, the movie does have a lot to recommend it, and provides some real potential for a revised adaptation. Much of the animation is gorgeous, in that elaborate hand-drawn style that Disney was actually in the process of abandoning at the time.
And apart from its dishonest treatment of history, the screenplay is actually quite well-written. The central romance may have been based on the model established in the Disney films of the time, but it took the sniping and bickering of the eventual love interests to a much sharper and more fiery level, and the two have excellent chemistry that renders the love story portion of the film extremely satisfying and successful.
Rasputin is admittedly a bit of a cardboard villain, very much fitting the Disney-Renaissance villain model pioneered by Jafar in Aladdin, but one interesting touch regarding his character is his relationship with his villainous sidekick, an albino bat named Bartok. Given an extremely distinctive characterization by Hank Azaria, Bartok showed no signs of actually being evil and acted less like a henchman and more like a sympathetic best friend who hangs around with Rasputin largely because he feels sorry for him (he turned out to be an extremely popular character, and even went on to star in his own direct-to-video prequel/spinoff, Bartok the Magnificent). Apart from Azaria, the voice cast includes such luminaries as Meg Ryan, Liz Callaway, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Lansbury, and Bernadette Peters, all of whom do fine, classy work here.
Above all else, the movie’s songs are by the greatest composing team of the modern Broadway era, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and like all of their work, they feature soaring melodies and richly emotional lyrics. Granted, “A Rumor In St. Petersburg” and “Paris Holds the Key” are a bit weak: while Ahrens can occasionally be hilarious (as in the underrated off-Broadway gem Lucky Stiff), she often runs into trouble when writing comedy lyrics (as with her work on My Favorite Year and The Glorious Ones), and this unfortunately also holds true here. But the breathless ballad “Journey To the Past”, the ravishing “Once Upon a December”, and the spine-tingling villain song “In the Dark of the Night” could easily hold their own with the best songs to come out of the Disney Renaissance.
And the credits theme, “At the Beginning”, which became a huge pop hit for Donna Lewis and Richard Marx, was actually written by Flaherty and Ahrens themselves, despite sounding exactly like a piece of Nineties radio pop (albeit an unusually good one). Apparently Flaherty and Ahrens, in addition to their staggering body of work in their chosen field, were able to blow the pop songwriters out of water at their own game as well.
The music, above all else, seems to justify at least trying regarding the stage version, especially since Flaherty and Ahrens have been contracted to expand their score, and given the nearly miraculous rehabilitation undergone by the Disney The Hunchback of Notre Dame film in its stage version, it actually seems like, with a few judicious rewrites, this property could actually be Broadway-worthy. And even if the stage adaptation ultimately ends up failing, a new score by Flaherty and Ahrens is never a bad thing, even if it winds up living out its life on one of those cult cast albums instead of in performance. So either way, I’ll be watching this project closely for further developments, and I suggest you do the same.