Before hitting the Olympic ice, figure skaters usually aren’t the subject of national attention. But in January 1994, the world was focused on two Olympic-bound athletes, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, in perhaps one of biggest scandals to ever rock the ice. And now, the drama is replaying on a New York City stage.
For those of you who are foggy on the details (or are too young to remember), the saga goes something like this: Just seven weeks before the Lillehammer games in 1994, figure skating frontrunner Kerrigan was clubbed in the right knee by a man who was hired by the ex-husband and bodyguard of another Olympic hopeful (and Kerrigan rival), Harding.
Kerrigan didn’t suffer any serious injuries from the attack, although she was forced to pull out of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The story has a relatively happy ending for her, however: She was still granted a spot on the Olympic team for the 1994 games in Lillehammer, and after skating two of the most-lauded programs of her career, she earned the silver medal.
Harding, on the other hand, finished eighth in Lillehammer, got three years probation, 500 hours of community service and a $160,000 fine.
It’s been more than 20 years since this all unfolded, but the emotional aspect of the skaters’ story – from the “Why, why, why?” in the immediate aftermath to the charged skate-off at the Olympics – still manages to captivate people. The proof? Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera, a new musical inspired by these events.
Elizabeth Searle, the writer of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera, was always fascinated by Harding and Kerrigan’s battle for dominance. So when her niece, Abigail Cross, asked her for help in finding a topic for a one-act chamber opera she had to create for a class at Tufts, Searle could think of no real-life story with more natural drama – and operatic potential – than that of Tonya and Nancy.
The skaters’ scandal had emotional depth, drama and dark comedy with a dash of poignancy and sadness. With the added dynamic of the competition between the two – the “anything to win” attitude – “We felt all the elements were there,” Searle says.
Soon after the show premiered as a chamber opera, Searle and Cross wanted to expand it, so they connected with Los Angeles-based composer Michael Teoli, who transitioned the show from a chamber opera to a rock opera. Later on, they revamped the show’s script to allow for greater character development.
The show sold out in Boston, Portland and Los Angeles, and now, it’s on at the New York Musical Theater Festival. The rock opera has even captured the attention of one of its subjects: Harding attended a Portland performance.
But while the show has seen a lot of success so far, Searle admits that setting a story on ice on stage comes with a unique set of challenges. And it was in the Olympic skate-off scene that these hurdles were most prevalent.
To capture the look of figure skating, she’s done everything from having the cast stand on platforms with wheels to having dancers “lift” the actress portraying Harding in order to capture the look of the ever-tricky triple axel.
And the skate-off scene wasn’t only difficult because of the logistics, but also because of the intense highs and lows it presented: From Harding and Kerrigan skating against each other to Oksana Baiul ultimately snagging the gold, “It’s the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, all in one scene,” Searle says.
Searle crafted the script from newspaper clippings and the notes she took while listening to the commentary on the Lillehammer Olympics back in 1994. She freely admits she has no insider information, and that Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera is a work of fiction based on facts. However, she didn’t have to stray too far from reality.
“We don’t have to say or do anything crazier than what they actually did,” Searle says. “It’s all right there. This is a story you can’t make up.”