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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Once Upon a Time, on the Old Arbat

It all began with a sexy manageress and a thug with no neck.

"I was working at the embassy, writing short stories, bad novels," Winston Shaw recalls of his days in the early '90s as a Western diplomat and amateur writer in Moscow. "I'd go to lunch every day at a stolovaya on the Old Arbat and saw it was slowly changing on me, becoming an Italian-style pizzeria.

"There was a very pretty manageress and a big guy with no neck. He used to come in, take money from the cashier. I couldn't figure it out. He could have been the owner or krysha."

That fascination became the basis of the play that became the story that became the musical "Tomorrowland." In its wake, it drew the interests of composer and fellow amateur Andrew J.Wight, and independent director Brian de Salvo, who brushed up the script. The manageress became Katya (after Shaw's daughter), the thug - Tolya.

The final version of the storyline is, Shaw says, retained "nearly 70 percent." The themes, though, are there "100 percent," especially as regards Shaw's bewilderment at the mysterious character of Tolya, money-launderer or honest trader.

Also retained is the American "basic loser" Merc, modeled, Shaw says, on his younger self and transposed to the land of opportunity of Moscow '93. "There were a lot of Americans showing up wondering what to do. Some starting companies, some students. I could have been one of those people, but I was too old by then."

Shaw, who is still based in Russia, sees his story as an exploration of "the misunderstandings between two cultures."

"What got me interested was that in the States people would have such bizarre concepts of Russia."

It wasn't all Yeltsin and Chechnya, he says.

The story "dramatizes how attitudes changed slowly, two steps forward, three steps back."

As for how Russians will greet a Moscow seen from the easy chairs of a Stary Arbat pizzeria, Shaw has few illusions.

"Many will think it's true; some will get offended."

- Oliver Ready