Battle over Anastasia Continues in SDNY

On April 3, United States District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York denied summary judgment moved for by the creators of the Broadway musical Anastasia. This is the most recent step toward trial in this copyright dispute over the musical, which is based on the rumored life of Anastasia, daughter of Russian Tsar Nicholas II.

In December 2016, Jean-Etienne de Becdelievre, the heir of playwright Marcelle Maurette, claimed that the new Broadway musical Anastasia written by Terrence McNally infringed on Maurette’s play about Anastasia, which was written in the 1940s and adapted to English in 1952. In January 2017, the defendants, Anastasia Musical, LLC and Terrence McNally, filed a motion to dismiss, which was denied. In November 2017, they filed for summary judgment and were again denied last week.

The issue of infringement arises out of the aspects of both the play and musical that are not based on history. While parts of both works are based on the historical record, de Becdelievre argues that much of the dialogue, characters, and plot are fictional and therefore protectable elements. Further, he claims that although the play was licensed to 20th Century Fox for the creation of films based on the play, the playwright retained all rights in live performance, so Fox did not have live stage rights to transfer to Anastasia Musical, LLC. Librettist Terrence McNally argues that this doesn’t matter because the play and musical are not substantially similar.

Both the play and musical incorporate the story of Tsar Nicholas II and his family being killed in the communist revolution and the rumors that Anastasia, the Tsar’s youngest daughter, had survived. A woman named Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia and tried to convince other members of the exiled royal family that she was in fact Anastasia, and it was her story that inspired Maurette to write his play. Both works incorporate conspirators who “tutor” the Anna character to be more convincingly like Anastasia so the royal family, specifically her grandmother, will believe it is her. The surrounding story differs in the play and musical, and Judge Hellerstein lays out the plot of each in the early part of his decision.

Both parties agree that the historical underpinnings of the play and musical are not eligible for copyright protection, so the issue comes down to whether or not the fictionalized elements added by Maurette are substantially similar in the musical. Judge Hellerstein denied summary judgment because the works share “significant commonalities not traced to any documented historical record.” Because there were material facts as related to plot and character development in dispute, summary judgment was found to be inappropriate. The parties are scheduled to appear for a status conference on April 13 to discuss remaining discovery, and if none remains, they will set a trial date.

Anastasia Lawsuit Continues as Judge Questions Copyright Infringement, BroadwayWorld (Apr. 3, 2018),

Ashley Cullins, ‘Anastasia’ Musical Lawsuit Steps Toward Trial as Judge Evaluates Similarities in Historical Fiction, The Hollywood Reporter (Apr. 3, 2018, 12:37 PM),

Jean-Etienne de Becdelievre v. Anastasia Musical, LLC, No. 1:16-cv-09471-AKH, 2018 WL 1633769 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).