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Monarchy Monday: Definitely Not a Review of Anastasia on Broadway (Act I)

So, this week’s Monarchy Monday has been abruptly changed by the fan-release of the musical Anastasia on YouTube (complete with a funny video title declaring that it definitely WASN’T a video of the Broadway show).   It seems to have been taken down now, and what was posted wasn’t the Broadway version but the pre-Broadway version performed in Hartford, Connecticut.  Some changes, including costuming, have occurred since, but I can only comment on what I am able to compare online to what I saw last night, before the video was taken down. Other versions may pop up, now that it is “out there” on the internet.

A few thoughts before we begin. First of all, the 1997 film of Anastasia was what got me interested in the Romanovs (and Russia) in the first place. Of course, as an adult — and even as a child, truthfully, because my mom had a lot of ranting to do when the film came out — I know that the film has a LOT of issues with historical accuracy.  I view it — and the musical it inspired — with both a critical eye and a heaping dose of nostalgia.  However, ultimately, telling the stories of real historical people — human beings who lived and breathed — needs to be done with an eye toward accuracy and respect, especially when those people are considered canonized saints by millions of people.

This week will cover the general premise of the musical, focusing mainly on Act I.  I took quite a few notes  as I watched, and I have notes for Act II, but I plan to cover Act II next week, in order to prevent this from being a VERY long post.

Please note that I have not seen the 1997 animated film in a very long time.

Please also note that this review will be filled with spoilers and the like.  This is your final SPOILER WARNING!  I will be spoiling more than just Act I here, as I will be referencing the fact that “Anya” is the real Grand Duchess Anastasia from the very beginning.

Dancing ghosts…pretty sets…history that doesn’t pass muster…

The show opens with six-year-old Anastasia (and only Anastasia) saying goodbye to her paternal Grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria, who is moving to Paris.  Right there is the first big helping of historical inaccuracy.  While the Dowager Empress didn’t have a big role in the real Grand Duchess Anastasia’s life, it had more to do with the court rivalry between the Dowager Empress and Anastasia’s mother, Empress Alexandra, than it did with this fictional move to Paris.  In Russia, the Dowager Empress retained a higher “precedence” in the Russia court, much to the dismay of the current Empress, who was accustomed to the British order of precedence, as used in the court of her grandmother, Queen Victoria.  Aside from this, Alexandra and her mother-in-law had very different outlooks on life, as well as personal and religious values.  The Dowager Empress was much younger than she appears here, and enjoyed parties and the rest of the Petersburg social scene, which the devout Alexandra decidedly did NOT.

Even so, the Dowager Empress remained in Petersburg — after all, she had many friends, almost to the point of having a rival court. During the Revolution, she was able to escape to the Crimea, still part of the Russian Empire and not yet controlled by the revolutionaries. Until 1919, she would refuse to leave Russia and indeed did not leave until practically begged to do so by her sister,  Alexandra, herself the Dowager Queen of England.  (Yes, there are a lot of Marias and Alexandras.  Sorry about that.)  She would go, along with her daughter, Olga, to Malta and later the UK, to spend time with her sister, before returning to her native Denmark, where she would live out the rest of her life before passing away at the age of 80 in 1928.  However, that is all in the future at this point in the play.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Anastasia was ever her grandmother’s favorite grandchild, as this play constantly hints (to an even greater degree than the movie did. Also, if Anastasia is in her bedroom, where is her sister, Maria, her closest friend in the family, with whom she shared a room?

The story takes an awkward transition to 1917, when Anastasia is now 17 and there is a ball, seemingly, based on hints later in the play, at the Yusupov Palace.  There were no Imperial Balls held during the war, as Petersburg society maintained at least the appearance of wartime austerity.  In fact, due to the war,  Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia never made their “debuts.”  Therefore, even if there HAD been a ball that night, they would not have been allowed to come (nor would their brother, Alexei,.  Also, in 1917, the Yusupov family was not in the good graces of the Tsar and his family, having been influential in killing their dear friend, the holy man Rasputin.

As the family dances at the ball, they are lined up for a photo, which is reminiscent of several of the theatrical and film reconstructions of their death, where (false) legend states that they were told that they were being taken to the basement where they were eventually shot using the excuse of taking photos before leaving on a journey.  There is no evidence that the photography excuse was ever used, and the first reference of it comes from an author known to embellish his work.  However, this is one of the interesting things about this musical — they really play with reality.  Here they have little hints that come close to what actually happened, and later, the Ipatiev house, where they were killed, is mentioned by name, but then they also show the palace being stormed by revolutionaries with the Imperial family still there.  In reality, the Tsar was away from his family, on his way home from the war front to the capital, when his train was stopped and he was essentially bullied into signing abdication papers.  They were kept under house arrest in their home, the Alexander Palace, before being moved to Tobolsk and later Yekaterinburg, where they were shot in the basement of the Ipatiev house the night of 17/18 July, 1918.

And a song, the cast sings…now with more Communism…

The musical skips ahead in time again, this time to 1928.  St. Petersburg is now Leningrad, and the musical is much more clear about that then the original film was.  Even so, they didn’t clear up falsely calling Anastasia a “princess.”  Two men, a con-man named Dimitri and a former member of the Imperial court named Vlad, have found the Grand Duchess’ music box and are looking for an actress to play her, so they can claim reward money for finding her and bringing her to her grandmother, in Paris.  They are about to give up, when a street sweeper named Anya arrives, asking to go to Paris.  She remembers being in the Yusopov palace, where Dimitri and Vlad have set up shop, and they are convinced that she is the girl for the job.

Meanwhile, Gleb Vaganov, the son of a high up Communist who embraces his father’s ideology and is now in a position of power himself, warns Dimitri, Vlad, and Anya not to continue with their plan of impersonating the Grand Duchess.  Gleb is one of the best changes from the film, I think.  Rasputin is no longer the villain here, and is, in fact, not mentioned at all.  Instead, the musical shows the changes in Russia, and the difficulties that people experience under Communist rule.  Even though Gleb is a fictional character, there are aspects of his personality that call to mind real Soviet leaders of the period without having to bend the history of a real character too much.

In general, the sets and costumes feel very realistic, although “Anya” often has hair that doesn’t feel right for the time period.  While Soviet women in the 1920’s did not wear the glamorous styles seen in the West, they didn’t wear long, straight hair, either.  Anya often looks like a modern woman dressed in old clothes.  A more realistic style for Anya would be with her hair styled up, or covered with a scarf, as seen with the women in scene where Gleb sings “A Simple Thing.”  They could have covered her hair with a scarf, which could have been easily removed for the later scenes, where Anya is being trained by Dimitri and Vlad and is wearing better clothes.

Anya’s name — a nickname for “Anna,” rather than Anastasia (would be “Nastya”) — calls to mind the famous Anna Anderson case, which is the whole reason that people typically think of Anastasia as having survived, more than any other member of the family.  Of course, DNA evidence has now proven that they all died that night, but that was considered an open question by many for decades.  Various people made claims to be various members of the Romanov family, but the claim of a woman known as Anna Anderson was the most widely covered in the press and the most widely believed.  She insisted that she was the Grand Duchess for over 60 years, but DNA later proved her to be a Polish factory worker.  For more about her story and the effect it had on the media, etc, I recommend Resurection of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson.  They really break down the case and discuss WHY people believed her and the effects of that belief.

In some ways, this production is VERY accurate, with beautiful sets and many details that are spot on.  For example, the real Anastasia was a prankster, and was indeed born at Peterhof, a “palace by the sea.”   The count who is persecuted for his noble status during the traveling scene is also a very accurate, if sad, occurrence. The feel of the settings and people is much more realistic than the film, I think.  However, a few things would have helped with that.  Personally, the American accent, especially on Anya/Anastasia, felt out of place.  Anastasia’s English was, in real life, much more British, due to her mother’s influence, and hearing her sound like not only an American but a very MODERN American, makes me struggle with suspension of disbelief more than I would like to.  Other nitpicky things include Gleb calling Anya not just by her first name alone (which is reserved for friends in Russia) but by a nickname.

The train and traveling scenes are particularly well executed, however.  The train itself is very simple, so that the audience can easily see inside, but it still has an old fashioned feel to it, and allows for much more interesting dance numbers (which is good — 3-4 songs are performed on and around the train).  These scenes really do feel like Anya et al are moving, and the backdrop with projected moving images, while a well known Hollywood trick, is effective here.  The map with Cyrillic writing is also a nice touch of authenticity as the first act comes to a close.

Over all, I think the musical is an improvement over the film, especially when it comes to issues of accuracy.  The new songs fit well with the over all feel of the production, and the sets, props, and costumes are all VERY well done, for the most part. Join me next week, when I discuss the second act.  Will the improvements continue into Act II?

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