BWW Interview: Choreographer Peggy Hickey on Designing the Dances for Broadway's ANASTASIA
Peggy Hickey's versatile career includes work in opera, television, film, music videos, and theatre. An award-winning choreographer, she won the MTV Video Music Award for Beck's The New Pollution. Her dances were also featured in The Brady Bunch Movie and Christina Applegate's television series, Samantha Who.
Featuring an original score from Tony Award winners Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), the show also includes several of the most beloved songs from the 1997 animated film. Celebrated playwright Terrence McNally is responsible for the book. Now in previews, Anastasia is slated to open April 24th at the Broadhurst Theatre.
During a break from tech rehearsals, I spoke with the effervescent Hickey about her journey with this brand new musical.
How did you become involved with this production?
I've been associated with Darko for many years. He was introduced to Lynn, Stephen and Terrence about three or four years ago. The show had gone through many readings and workshops so it was a long time in getting the team together. I joined them about a year ago when we cast the show for Hartford Stage. I've been with them ever since and it's been a joy. I love this team!
Had you been familiar with either the animated version or the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film?
Both! I have two daughters who were very young when the animated film came out. So at that time it was playing on a loop in our house. I mean it was a princess tale after all. My girls are now in their early twenties but they're still obsessed with the Anastasia story. And they are not alone. Millennials who grew up with this film are a big demographic for this show, though the tale works on many different levels for all ages.
So the films were helpful in preparation for this production?
We looked at everything. Aside from the films, we really studied the historical and very colorful Romanoff family and what happened to them. I'm a big history buff anyway so I found it to be a fascinating story. It's hard to believe that it happened less than one hundred years ago.
Your work with director Tresnjak on Gentleman's Guide was very inspired. How do you two collaborate?
I think we share a lot of the same sensibilities. After fifteen years of working together we're like an old married couple. I can speak with certainty that we're both fans of beautiful symmetry. Our staging is very symmetric, balanced, and visual. We also both come from the story first.
Sometimes he leads and I follow, sometimes I lead and he follows. He will always give me a storyboard or road map and I'll make a first pass. Then I take his feedback and adjust it accordingly. There are also times when he'll stage something and then ask me to come in and musicalize or dance it a little more. Like in any marriage you learn what's important to each other. Having an open communication is key in our relationship.
Does some of the new music allow you to strut your stuff as a choreographer?
Absolutely. We have some really terrific new songs. "Land of Yesterday" is a beautiful song that lends itself to a big Russian dance. There's also "Quartet at the Ballet" where four principles are singing in the boxes of the opera house while there's a full-length Swan Lake ballet happening on stage. It's an amazing musical blending of Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Tchaikovsky.
That sounds like you were able to showcase a variety of dance styles. Can you describe some of your dances?
Oh, yes. We start with an old fashioned Russian troika, which is a very traditional court dance. Then we move to more European ballroom styles where we have waltzing. We then do a more fantastical stylized version of that during a flashback when an old music box is opened and the memories of the court swirl out. By the time we get to Paris we're in the jazz age and I'm able to do the Charleston and all kinds of fun jazz. It's really wonderful to have a bunch of dance styles that are happening throughout the show.
It must have been really important for you to find versatile dancers.
I have some really incredible dancers in this show. They also sing well enough for Flaherty and Ahrens. We call them our "unicorns" as they're like unicorns in the forest. That's how rare their talent pool is. They have to sing like principal singers, hold harmonies, and dance on pointe in tutus. It's a tall order.
We have a ballerina in the chorus who is also covering Anastasia. So to be able to dance efficiently on pointe and to sing the songs of the leading lady is pretty remarkable. One of our male dancers also covers the role of Dmitry. So in essence we had to find performers who are star material. Those who can perform a lead role yet also be able to dance at a very high level.
How about your work with dance arranger David Chase?
Oh man, I love that guy so much. I think he adds huge amounts of value to anything he touches because he is himself a kind of a dramaturg. He understands dance and he understands music. So he understands in a way that is truly remarkable as to the needs of the choreographer. It's a thrill to work with David-he makes me way smarter and a better artist.
What's the most rewarding part of being attached to this production?
It is working with Darko, Lynn, Steve, and Terrence McNally. It's a lifelong dream to work with this team and I'm so thrilled. Flaherty and Ahrens changed my life many years ago when I saw Ragtime. To now be a part of something they're creating is beyond incredible. There's nothing better in the world.
How do you feel Anastasia will resonate with audiences of today?
Amazingly well. It's the story about a regime that takes over a country. It's about controlling how people think and act, work, and live. Which is what the communist regime did when they came in. And the difference between that and say Paris, where freedom of expression is running rampant in the 1920's. So it's this incredible jump between two societies. One, a completely totalitarian society that shuts down artists and free thinkers. And another society that encourages it.
There are a lot of political statements. There is an entire number about the press getting facts and getting an interview. So I think the show is extremely timely. Ironically timely.