Once Upon a December (or May): Countdown to Anastasia on Stage!

8:31 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s, in an era of childhood culture largely dominated by the Disney Renaissance- and another movie, so closely tied to the Disney-princess-musical style that it was often mistaken for a Disney film, one that has retained its popularity and has the unique situation of being based on history, rather than a classical fairy tale. I'm talking, of course, about Anastasia, the 1997 animated classic that got an entire generation interested in Russian history (and stopped any of us from being afraid of bats). And, to the delight of fans everywhere, the beloved musical is finally coming to the stage- destined for Broadway next season, but beginning with a run at Hartford Stage this spring.

In honor of the show's May 12 opening performance, here's a week-long countdown, with something every day to take you on a journey to the past (and present, and future):

Day 1: The Movie

By the mid 90s, Disney pretty much had a stranglehold on the animated-fairy-tale-musical genre. With a string of critical and popular successes, the company was in the midst of what came to be known as its Renaissance period. Copycats from other studios just didn't measure up. But 1997's Anastasia, from 20th Century Fox, took an unlikely source- a real-life lost princess from a particularly fraught and violent period in history- and turned it into a tale full of magic and music, in which a fiery, intelligent young woman named Anya chafes at the idea of a dull life of menial labor, instead embarking on a journey to discover the truth of her past with the help of charming con man Dmitri, his paternal partner-in-crime Vlad, and an adorable dog named Pooka.

What is there to say about this movie that hasn't already been said by its legion of fans over the past two decades? Despite its glossing over of the real issues surrounding the Russian Revolution- instead assigning blame to a ghoulified mystic figure and some evil underworld green mist- it succeeds by presenting itself first and foremost as a fairy tale. But it is definitely a modern one, in which the heroine can long for adventure at the same time as longing for a family; in which it is the hero who is saved and redeemed by love; in which the princess chooses a commoner's life over a life in the lap of luxury. Relive the magic with the original trailer for the film:

Day 2: The History

No one is under any illusions that the story told in Anastasia is historically accurate in anything but extremely broad strokes. But the real historical context of the Romanov family and its eventual downfall is one that involves some of the most complicated and contentious politics in European history, as well as one of the most sprawling royal family trees in the world.

Despite what your high school teachers might have told you, Wikipedia is not a terrible place to find an overview of a topic. The page on the Romanov dynasty, of which Anastasia was a part through her father, Tsar Nicholas II, contains a history of the royal house which ruled imperial Russia for three centuries. Among the ancestral relations of the historical Anastasia were strong, intelligent women such as the much-beloved Empress Elizabeth, who was of the Romanov bloodline but gained her throne through a military coup- then refused to sign a single execution order in her entire reign. One of the most famous and ferocious female rulers in history, Catherine the Great, was Anastasia's great-great-great-great grandmother. Anastasia herself lived among dynamic young women: her sisters, who famously referred to themselves with the signature OTMA (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia). A collection of family portraits shows the young grand duchesses in varying degrees of elegance and playfulness; indeed, it is Anastasia's reputation for spirit and laughter that has endeared her to a century of storytellers.

Of course, as anyone familiar with the film or with history knows, the Romanov family met a violent end during the many turnovers in power following the February Revolution of 1917. Contrary to popular belief, the Russian Revolution was not a single coup, but rather a series of overthrows that eventually led to the infamous "Red" reign. The Provisional Government set up by the first set of revolutionaries merely exiled the Romanovs; it was not until the Bolsheviks overthrew that government in October 1917 that the imperial family was moved to house arrest and, under the pretense of being assembled for photographs to prove they were still alive, were killed in summer 1918. The presence of the White Movement, an anti-Bolshevik group, was not enough to rescue the royal family.

Anastasia has lived on in particular because of a long-standing historical conspiracy theory that she alone among her family had survived the hail of bullets in that basement that night in 1918. Several pretenders, most famously Anna Anderson, claimed throughout the 20th century to be the lost princess, and the possibility of Anastasia's survival captivated millions. This theory seemed to gain traction when, in 1991, the grave containing the remains of Anastasia's parents and three sisters (Olga and Tatiana for certain, though the third daughter could have been Maria or Anastasia) was found- without her or her brother Alexei in it. A 2007 discovery, however, found the two remaining graves and disproved the theory conclusively. 

After this rather depressing end to the tale of the real Anastasia Romanov, let's end on a more uplifting note. Anastasia, along with many, many royals of the twentieth century, could trace her lineage to Queen Victoria of Great Britain, whose granddaughter Alix became Empress Alexandra, last Tsarina of Russia and Anastasia's mother. For a lighter tone to finish this day, check out The Young Victoria, a lighter historical drama about the early days of Anastasia's royal ancestor:

Day 3: The Legacy

With its epic sweep, fairy-tale feeling, and memorable music and characters, Anastasia quickly became one of the most beloved modern animated movies and migrated into mainstream pop culture with ease. Not a Halloween goes by without little girls running around in Anya's "Once Upon a December" gown. An entire generation can quote the film without a second thought. And of course, there's one of the Internet's favorite memes:

The story and music of Anastasia even permeated parts of the sports world, becoming a favorite for many a figure skater from the 1990s onward. With its sweeping sound and emotional content, the music leaves plenty of room for interpretation and the sort of rise and fall skaters dream of. Watch two programs from two very different disciplines below: the first, Italian ice dancers Sofia Sforza and Francesco Fioretti's waltz from the 2010-2011 season; the second, Tara Lipinski's short program from her gold-medal winning performance at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Even before the stage version of Anastasia was Broadway-bound, Anastasia held a place in the pantheon of beloved musical princesses, as evidenced by Alison Luff's gorgeous rendition of "Journey to the Past" from the inaugural Broadway Princess Party:

Day 4: The Musical

Rumors of an Anastasia musical have been floating around for years, with the earliest confirmation of development coming with 2012's announcement of a 29-hour-reading featuring the original Dowager Empress, Angela Lansbury, alongside Broadway favorites Aaron Tveit and Aaron Lazar. Fans eagerly followed news of later readings and reworkings, finally getting the news in 2015 that we had all been waiting for: Anastasia was definitely coming to the stage in a full-fledged production.

Since then, there has been more and more information released, delighting fans with each new nugget. A Playbill interview with original/continuing songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens reassured fans that, while the stage adaptation would be more historical in nature (goodbye, wimpy Bartok and undead Rasputin!), it would retain the core of the story, and, more importantly, the gorgeous songs known by heart by a generation of young fans.

The official Twitter of the production, @AnastasiaStage, has been doling out teases for a few months now, along with intelligent answers to fan queries and some occasional dry, delightful humor. Check out their feed for sneak peeks at the production, such as this gorgeous costume sketch by designer Linda Cho:

Image (c) @AnastasiaStage on Twitter

Day 5: The Cast

Long before the stage adaptation was confirmed, fans of Anastasia were dream-casting their favorite characters, giving the eventual actors a great deal to live up to. Earlier this year, the lead actors to play Anastasia and Dmitri were announced to be Christy Altomare (Spring Awakening, Camelot) and Derek Klena (Dogfight, Wicked).
Image courtesy #1 Anastasia Fan Page on Instagram
Both actors are theater veterans but without a full-fledged breakout role yet, giving them the freedom to truly put a stamp on these iconic roles. Watch a clip of Christy performing as part of "Broadway Loves Katy Perry", showing off her princess-worthy vocals:

Earlier this spring, Derek proved his fairy-tale-leading-man chops in a guest spot at the Broadway Princess Party, here singing as another raffish, lovable criminal alongside Taylor Louderman as a different unaware princess:

And for those wondering if this duo will mesh well together, never fear! The two co-starred in 2012's revival of Carrie, and sang the duet "You Shine":

Day 6: The Music

There is no question that the most enduring aspect of Anastasia is its spectacular Ahrens/Flaherty score. Structured along the same lines as a classic Broadway musical, the music contributes to the fairytale tone and allow access to the deeper parts of these characters that even they might not know exist- which is what the musical genre does at its best.

"A Rumor In St. Petersburg" is a typical opening number, following the prologue with a relatively upbeat number that sets up the world of the story and the majority of the characters. Within this number, we are quickly introduced to all the elements not found in the prologue: the dreariness of post-Bolshevik Russia, Dmitri and Vlad and their con, and the captivating rumor that Anastasia might be alive. It's also possibly the only number in an animated musical that involves communism.

One of the two most iconic songs to come out of the film- which received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song- is "Journey to the Past." Covered by Aaliyah as a single, the song functions within the story as the classic "I Want" song: the moment in which Anya tells us and herself what she will be seeking for the remainder of the story. It's deceptively simple and all the more powerful for it:

Other songs followed a fairly typical structure, from Rasputin's villain song "In the Dark of the Night" featuring a chorus of dancing underworld insects, to "Learn To Do It", a comic trio for Vlad, Dmitri, and Anya. Late in the film, "Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart" provides both plot movement and a hint of poignancy as Dmitri's character arc develops:

With only one day left until the stage adaptation debuts, treat yourself to a full listen-through of the film soundtrack, full of gems like these that will no doubt be a nostalgic delight.

Day 7: Opening Night

It's the night fans have been waiting for for nearly twenty years: Anastasia's debut as a live stage musical. If you're lucky enough to be attending the show tonight, then you're luckier than most of us! And if not, then just enjoy one more clip, an iconic anthem of longing and hope and loss:

Sending the very best of wishes to the cast, crew, and creative team of Anastasia at Hartford Stage tonight! Yes Princess, we've found you at last....