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"Anastasia" actress makes her mark in first big touring role
Lila Coogan was very young when her parents took her to see a theatrical production of "The Sound of Music."
"My mom said that afterwards I looked at her and said, 'I can do that...,'" Coogan recalls.
From the mouths of babes.
Coogan is indeed doing that now. She plays Anya, the title character in the Tony Award-nominated "Anastasia" — and has since the production hit the road in October. It comes to Detroit's Fisher Theatre this week. That puts the now-twentysomething actress in the position of essentially creating the role outside Broadway, a daunting task for a figure that's become iconic in real-life history and on stage.
"Yeah, there's definitely pressure — I would be naive to say there isn't," Coogan says by phone from the "Anastasia" tour stop in Fort Worth, Texas. "But it's one of those things that comes with the territory of the job — especially nowadays with Instagram, Facebook, all of that. People know you as a person, so a lot of pressure comes from that stuff, as well. It's just part of the job. You kind of get used to it and learn how to deal with it, and after a while it doesn't feel like pressure.
"But when you first start, there was a lot of weight on my shoulders. I have to make sure I do this justice and treat this character with the love and respect people have treated her with for years."
Based on the 1997 animated film, "Anastasia" premiered on Broadway in 2016 depicting the legend the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, who escapes the revolution, and execution of her family, in 1917 but winds up with amnesia, sweeping streets in Leningrad under the name Anya. The new government is pursuing her, and two con men, noting her likeness to the Grand Duchess, recruit Anya in an attempt to get the proffered reward.
The story involves intrigue, adventure, duplicity and romance — it is a stage musical, after all — but Coogan promises "Anastasia" is more than just another cartoon princess tale.
"Our show is really rooted in history," Coogan explains. "We don't have a talking bat or an underworld villain. We have real people dealing with real problems. I definitely learned a lot about Romanov history and what it would have been like to live in that time period. Knowing that really does change your perspective on what your character is going through."
Coogan has "always been a fan of the movie," though she didn't rush to audition for the musical when she heard about it. As a teenager growing up just outside New York City, she had worked with composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens in workshopping one of their early productions. But it wasn't until she took a class at the Burns Studio in New York to prepare her for an "Anastasia" audition that it seemed like a possibility.
"It really happened organically, as theater usually works," recalls Coogan, who studied musical theater at Syracuse University. "I took the class for fun. I wasn't necessarily thinking I'd get the part. I honestly had a hard time auditioning when I graduated college, 'cause I'd get nervous. So I took classes to get myself confident. It wasn't necessarily that I took the class to get this part.
"A guy who saw me in class spoke well of me, which definitely helped me get my foot in the door."
Coogan was hardly shy of achievements up to that point. Her credits before "Anastasia" included a stint as Jane Banks in "Mary Poppins" on Broadway and a Syracuse production of "Hairspray." She also played the title role in "Pamela's First Musical" in a Broadway Cares/Actors Equity Fights Aids benefit concert.
Coogan envisions staying with "Anastasia" "for the foreseeable future," but she's also open for other opportunities likely to follow.
"I just love doing (theater)," she says. "When I was young I figured if I wanted to be happy I needed to do something I loved doing. I'm not the kind of person who can throw myself into something I'm not personally invested in. I was debating between science and theater for a little bit, but every time I'd get into a school for science I was bummed I didn't get in for theater. That was my sign for what I really wanted to do."
• "Anastasia" runs Tuesday, June 11, through June 23 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $39 and up. A limited number of $25 tickets for each show are available via lottery at anastasiathemusical.com. 313-872-1000 or broadwayindetroit.com.
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