In the mid-1990s, 20th Century Fox set out to produce an animated film musical based on the mystery surrounding the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II.
Along the lines of Disney’s animated musicals, Anastasia was conceived as a family-friendly picture, punctuated with fantastical elements, animal sidekicks, conspiring villains, romance, and above all, song.
Enlisted to write the score for the film were theatre songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who had recently made their Broadway debuts with the Tony-nominated musical Once on This Island.
Their work for the 1997 animated film Anastasia and the standout song “Journey to the Past”—consider it a precursor to Frozen’s “Let It Go”—garnered the songwriters an Oscar nomination.
Ahrens and Flaherty offer a never-before-seen look inside the process of writing “Journey to the Past” and how it evolved into a dramatic new moment for the Broadway adaptation.
HOW THE SONG WAS BORN
Stephen Flaherty: “Journey to the Past” is the first song that Anya sings in the motion picture and actually, it was the second song, I believe, that we had written for the slot. This is a song I wrote very quickly. We had different versions of songs for this moment.
Lynn Ahrens: We knew that she had to get from point A to point Z, which was, in the movie anyway, leaving her orphanage where she’s been brought up for a number of years and going to go find her destiny in St. Petersburg. It was meant to be a traveling song that took her from that point all the way to this point. It worked beautifully with the animation, and really told the story of a young woman starting out on a journey.
Flaherty: That vamp figure that starts at the top of the song, we wanted it to be really exciting like her heart is racing, but at the same time give the feeling of the fear and self-doubt that always goes with when you’re on the cusp of the next thing, but finding the strength within you to continue.
The idea of the character searching that was very much in that. We started working on an idea for the new song and the original title was “Forward to the Past.”
Flaherty: The original title was “Forward to the Past,” and then the second title was “Journey Through the Past.” Then we had this metaphysical discussion with the Fox executives about how you can’t go through the past, you have to go to it as a destination. We had these crazy conversations, and it became “Journey to the Past.”
FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS
Ahrens: What I like a lot about it is the lyric progression. I think part of the success of the song is that it starts tentative, “Heart, don’t fail me now, courage, don’t desert me, don’t turn back now that we’re here. People always say, life is full of choices, no one ever mentions fear. Or how the world can seem so vast….”
She’s very tentative and she’s “one step down this road, I know someone’s waiting, years of dreams just can’t be wrong… Arms will open wide...” It progresses to what she wants, what she’s going to find, the home, love, and family, and by the end of it, she is determined. The music and the lyrics reflect that, so there’s an emotional progression of a young woman standing on the brink of life and waiting to take it.
CRAFTING THE MELODY
Flaherty: The original version didn’t have the bridge as we know it, and this melody is different where the title [of the song] would be. At the time we were writing Anastasia, we were also writing Ragtime and about to land that production in Toronto, so we would have these big conference calls about Anastasia when we couldn’t be in Hollywood. We had this conference call to hear everybody’s concerns and thoughts about the song, and the head of the music department at Fox—a wonderful composer and songwriter, named Robert Kraft—he thought that the title had to be more high-profile, musically, have a higher or larger more sweeping musical gesture. Of course, all I can think about is, “I want to go back to writing for Coalhouse and Sarah.” I was like, “OK, how about this?” And sort of like petulant child, I smacked out three notes on the piano for “to the past,” and he goes, “Oh that’s really good!” And that become the melody. It changed everything.
We owe Robert gratitude because he loved the shape of the melody. He loved the way it searches and goes to these various keys, but he felt the center needed to be more direct, more simple. So, he suggested something like, “Boom! Boom! Boom!,”—essentially he meant whole notes. Lynn freaked out and she goes, “You only want whole notes?”
Ahrens: When you use whole notes, those words have to be huge words, huge ideas! I thought, “What am I going to do?” I came up with “home, love, family.”
Flaherty: We cheated on the last one, using two notes for family. “Home, love, faaaa-mily”—that became the central musical motif that actually illuminated what Anya’s entire search was for. In adapting it for the stage we were able to take that theme, in the very first scene with Mary Beth Peil and the Dowager and younger Anastasia, it’s seeded all through. It was sort of a lucky break; that larger thematic idea was something we could really build and use in the stage production.
RECORDING AN INSTANT HIT
Flaherty: We were at the Hit Factory recording studio, and we were laying down the first two songs: “Rumor in St. Petersburg” and “Once Upon a December.” They had heard that we finished this other song for Anya, and they were like, “Can you teach Liz Callaway [who provided Anya’s singing voice] this song?” It was about 1 AM.
Ahrens: And she just sang it. And they were like, “There it is! There it is!”
Flaherty: It was a song that everyone loved instantly. So they said, “Alright, let’s go. That’s going to be in our next recording session.” I didn’t have time to notate it properly, I just had a little lead sheet that was enough to teach Liz. It was Bill Brohn actually, the wonderful orchestrator, who did the orchestrations for that song in the movie. I didn’t even have time to notate it out for him. He turned on a tape recorder, and I just played it note for note and he transcribed it. We really went on a fast track; it was the total opposite of something that was labored over.
Ahrens: That session was at one o’clock in the morning or something, and everybody was exhausted, including Liz. She sang the song beautifully once through, and at the end she just held the note and held the note and held the note and at the end, she said, “I didn’t know where to cut off!”
Flaherty: She sounded so sorry! She said, “I couldn’t remember what number I was supposed to cut off,” and asked if she should do it again. I said, “I didn’t know you could do that!” It was thrilling! So that became part of the song all because of a long day of work and fatigue. That’s how the final note was born.
Ahrens: Honestly, I didn’t know the impact the song had on people, or would have on people. I knew it got nominated for an Oscar—we walked the red carpet—we knew that it was liked, but we never… I didn't know the impact the song had until we got to Broadway, where you can see a live audience. The first preview, the little sparkly notes of the intro happen, and the whole audience started going, “Ooooh!” and hugging.
Ahrens: Honestly, the word is humbling. You don’t realize where your work is going to end up, or how it’s going to affect people. The first out-of-town preview in Hartford, young women came in dressed up in costumes as Anastasia, wearing tiarras, red wigs, and blue dresses with yellow sashes. I thought it was just beautiful. I was thrilled by it because they loved it so much. I actually got up the courage to ask a few of them how they liked the show because you are taking something that is beloved—we started to realize—and we made it something else. It's different. It's not what they expected.
EVOLVING FOR BROADWAY
Ahrens: With its new placement in the musical, “Journey to the Past” became more of an “I want” song because the whole first act is her desperation to find out who she is, and at this moment it's like, “Now I’m on the brink of it. Now, it’s beginning. What I wanted is coming true, and I’m almost there.” It’s changed function a little bit from the movie to the stage show. We were really excited about the new placement of the song in the Broadway show because we felt that was a moment that needed to be earned. In the film, Anya is singing that song right out of the gate.
Ahrens: It’s a perfect end to the first act, and we knew that we wanted to put “Journey To The Past” there.
Flaherty: There is a bit of fun trivia about that scene [in the movie]. They [initially] brought in a different screenwriter to do a polish on that scene that would hopefully give us ideas for the song. That writer is the great Carrie Fisher; uncredited.
Ahrens: She punched up the emotional, romantic moments. They had a number of different writers. One would write comedy, one would write the action sequences, one would punch it up for spoken scenes, and another one, Carrie, just sort of wrote the stream of consciousness of this romantic stuff. It was very interesting. We never got to meet her.