‘Anastasia’ on Broadway Faces Copyright Squabble

MANHATTAN (CN) – The French heir to a 1952 play about the Romanov princess Anastasia is fighting in federal court to squeeze the brakes on a Broadway adaptation by Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally.

A renowned work in France, Marcelle Maurette’s “Anastasia” made its way to American audiences via two licensed films: the first, in 1956, starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, and the second, a 1997 animated feature film starring Meg Ryan.

Describing himself as the sole owner of the copyright interests in Maurette’s play, Jean-Etienne de Becdelievre filed suit last week in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to stop an unlicensed production.

As laid out in the Dec. 8 complaint, Anastasia Musical LLC purports to have been granted the rights to the tale from Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Becdelievre notes, however, that the Rupert Murdoch-owned entertainment conglomerate “possessed only certain limited motion picture-related rights in the play and never possessed the right to produce presentations of the play on the spoken stage.”

The only parties named as defendants to Becdelievre’s action are Anastasia Musical LLC and playright McNally.

Becdelievre notes that Murdoch’s company, which styles itself as 20th Century Fox, adapted the cartoon version of “Anastasia” into live ice-skating show.

Produced by Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, the ice show ran in more than 30 venues from 1998 through 1999, but Becdelievre says a dispute about the license arose in 2002.

McNally’s planned musical, according to the complaint, “ostensibly is a Broadway stage adaptation of both the 1956 motion picture and the 1997 animated film – and, upon information and belief, has been promoted as such – the musical includes multiple characters, plots line and other creative elements that are original to the play.”

Maurette’s original play is set in Europe in the 1920s when there was a phenomenon of people purporting to be surviving children of Czar Alexander Romanov, who was murdered along with his entire family by communist revolutionaries in 1918.

The protagonist of the play, Anya, is a poor, orphaned woman suffering from amnesia. She falls in with a band of conmen hoping to deceive the mother of Czar Alexander into thinking that they have found the czar’s eldest daughter, Anastasia, still alive.

From here, the play takes artistic liberties. Though the characters discover that their imposter really is the princess Anastasia, Anya opts to run away with her love interest rather than resume her position in the Romanov line.

McNally’s play is strikingly similar, according to the complaint, and includes six songs from the 1997 animated film, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past.”

Both play and the musical, the complaint says, “conclude on a wistful, nostalgic note.”

Anastasia Broadway has called Becdelievre’s complaint “wholly without merit.”

“While the works may start with the basic idea of the historical story of the real-life Anastasia Romanov, copyright law does not protect ideas or historical facts,” the production company said in a statement.

Disputing that the two works are similar, the producers note that their “production has a different plot, different characters, and different settings, not to mention the numerous songs that appear in the Broadway musical that do not appear in plaintiff’s straight play.”

McNally’s musical ran at The Hartford Stage in Connecticut from May to June, and the Broadway show begins with previews at the Broadhurst Theater on March 23 with opening night on April 24.

Becdelievre seeks damages and an injunction, alleging three counts of copyright infringement.

He is represented by Matthew Giger with Rosenberg & Giger.