Catherine the Great sings and dances in Russia's first musical

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The Independent Online

Murder, lust, palaces and power it seems the perfect concoction for a Hollywood blockbuster or a West End hit. And now, a Russian composer is about to fulfil his dream and stage as a musical the life story of Catherine the Great, one of Russia's best-known and most colourful historical figures.

Catherine the Great, the all-singing all-dancing version, covers Catherine's rise from "naive German princess to tough Russian empress", says Sergei Dreznin, who conceived the original idea for the show and composed the music. It will feature a full symphony orchestra, a singing cast of 45, a choir, ballet dancers and a rock band.

The show will open on 21 April in Ekaterinburg, the city in Russia's Ural Mountains where the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were executed in 1918. During the Soviet period, the city was known as Sverdlovsk, after the Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov, but in the 1990s, it was given back its tsarist-era name, Ekaterinburg, the city of Catherine.

"I feel a huge sense of responsibility in the role," said Maria Vinenkova, the 23-year-old singer and TV presenter from Ekaterinburg who plays the young Catherine. Last week, she premiered three arias from the musical at a private gathering in the Historical Museum on Red Square in Moscow, a 19th century building decked out in tsarist-era splendour. "At one point I was singing and I looked around me, and realised that this is all real, it all happened. I had so many feelings I can't express them."

The composer says he fully expects the show to transfer to Moscow after opening in Ekaterinburg. "There are no musical shows in Moscow based on Russian history," he said. "You either have the Bolshoi Theatre or you have to go to the normal theatre. This will be the first musical with Russian content." There have also been several offers to bring the musical to European cities after its initial Russian run, said Mr Dreznin.

Catherine the Great was born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a provincial Prussian princess, in 1729. She married the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne, and set about learning Russian and converting to the Orthodox faith. She was given the name Ekaterina.

In 1762, her husband acceded to the throne as Peter III but lasted just seven months before a coup landed him in prison and Catherine took over. Days later, he was murdered, though it has never been established whether or not his wife ordered the regicide.

Under Catherine, Russia's territory expanded to the west and south, with several victories over the Ottomans. The empire now stretched "from the Arctic Ocean to the Crimean shores," as one aria in the musical has it.

"Russia became so powerful under Catherine that no one could fire a cannon anywhere in Europe without consulting her first," said Mr Dreznin.

She was the archetypal "enlightened despot" not allowing political dissent or loosening of autocracy but, at the start of her reign she was immersed in Enlightenment ideas and corresponded with the French philosopher Voltaire.

It's possible that Vladimir Putin's chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, read a few biographies of Catherine before coining the term "sovereign democracy" to describe the Kremlin's idiosyncratic notion of democratic development.

Catherine was famous for sexual as well as territorial conquests, both during her loveless marriage to Peter and after his death. Her most famous affair was with Prince Grigory Potemkin, but she had a legion of "favourites" who shared the royal bed at various times through her life. Mr Dreznin said he was not sure that a Russian audience was prepared to see sex on stage but the musical will feature "unheard of scenes of erotic tension" and several duets in the bedroom.

"Some people criticise her for having so many lovers," said Ms Vinenkova. "But for me, it's not surprising. The stronger a woman is, the more difficult it is for her to find a man. She was such a brave, clever, important woman, and she needed to find a man who was stronger than her, who would tell her what to do." She believes that if Catherine had found such a man earlier in life, she would not have gone on to play the role that she did.

Russia has not had a female ruler since Catherine left the throne in 1796, and even today all but one of the country's 85 regional governors are male.