It’s the rumor, the legend, the mystery. It’s based on a true story that Don Bluth animated. It’s a rumor that’s part of Broadway history! The writers got together and they wrote new songs for stage, while reviving classics and polishing story. Now it’s more historically accurate without Rasputin nightmare-fuel! It makes us wish the princess had come back!
Kudos to you if you read that to the tune of Rumor In St. Petersburg. My work here is done. Actually, it’s only just begun. Now, shoulders back, and sit up tall, and strap yourself in for my Anastasia animated movie and Broadway musical comparison. But, first, a little journey to the past.
On July 16, 1918, the last Czar of Russia was executed by communist revolutionaries (Bolsheviks). Through his own negligence of his role as monarch, Nicholas II had been seen by the Russian people as a despotic ruler, so they were surprised when his palace was turned into a museum and they saw that he had been a simple family man. Unfortunately for him, his refusal to live up to his calling as Czar ended up costing him his family and his life. His wife Alexandra, their son Alexei, and their daughters Maria, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia were all shot beside him. Anastasia and one of her sisters survived the initial barrage because they had diamonds sewn into their clothes for safekeeping, but they were quickly bludgeoned to death. The family’s bodies were abandoned in an unmarked grave, later to be unearthed for concrete proof of their deaths. Communism swept over Russia.
Years later, however, a woman surfaced claiming to be Anastasia Romanov. She was proven not to be, but the rumor captured the hopes and imaginations of the Russian people and, soon, the world. That rumor was later turned into a jaunty animated musical in 1997 about a lost Russian princess with amnesia who has to rediscover who she is. It featured Meg Ryan as Anastasia’s speaking voice and Liz Callaway as her singing voice. In 2017, the movie was transformed into a musical and brought to life on stage at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theater, where it ran until 2019 and was followed by a national tour. It also played in Spain, Germany, and The Netherlands.
In the animated movie-musical, the creators didn’t want to scare children with the Russian revolution/shootings/true deaths of the Romanovs, so, instead, they opted to portray the Romanov’s real-life holy man/advisor (and a canonical part of their downfall) Rasputin (speaking voice by Christopher Lloyd from Back To The Future) as an evil sorcerer beyond the grave. The real Rasputin did dabble in some shady spiritual stuff, but it wasn’t exactly shoot-green-goop-from-your-hands levels of shady. And it’s not like seeing a villain’s body literally fall apart in hell while the voice of Tigger sings his song ISN’T traumatizing! I showed my 60+ yr old dad who watches war movies before bed with no problems Anastasia a few years back and Rasputin gave him nightmares! But, you know, for kids!
In the Broadway musical, they portrayed the villain more realistically: Communism. (Communism also requires fewer stage effects!) The song Rumor in St. Petersburg was rewritten to take a jab at Communism while setting the scene. Being of Russian descent and at the receiving end of many “Commie” jokes, I truly appreciated the updated version (although there was nothing wrong with the original).
“We stand behind our leaders
And stand in line for bread
We’re good and loyal comrades
And our fav’rite color’s red!”
– Rumor In St. Petersburg
In this new ensemble opening, we’re introduced to General Gleb Vaganov (played on Broadway by Ramin Karimloo) – our villain – as he represents the communist viewpoint and authority. Unbeknownst to him, he becomes smitten with the lost Romanov princess, street urchin Anya. She’s unnerved by him, but, in her amnesia, she is not sure why and politely excuses herself to go to work.
Before Rumor in St. Petersburg, we see young Anastasia bonding with her nonna (grandmother Maria Federovna, Empress of Russia) over a music box playing Once Upon A December. Then a dancing royal timeskip ensues that ends with a symbolic representation of the family’s death. This scene brings in some historical aspects of the family – little Alexei’s hemophilia and Alexandra’s religious piety.
After Rumor in St. Petersburg, Anya finds con-men duo Dimitri and Vladamir Popov (“Vlad” played by John Bolton on stage) after hearing they could get her tickets to Paris. She has an entirely new song as she shares her backstory about what she barely remembers with her amnesia. Christy Altomare’s crystal-clear voice fits Anya perfectly. In My Dreams begins somber, but grows hopeful and does an excellent job of capturing her character’s drive. Journey to the Past already did that in the movie, but I genuinely enjoyed this addition. New songs often fail to fit the feel of the originals, but this one and all the new additions truly felt like they belonged. Having the same composers definitely helped!
As Anya learns to be Anastasia, Learn To Do It gets a slight revamp. Anya and Dimitri’s passive-aggressive flirting and Vlad’s peacekeeping is hilarious to watch unfold on stage. It takes place in the abandoned Yusupov Theater instead of on the road to Paris like in the animated movie. Also, Learn To Do It is at a slightly slower tempo, possibly to give the actors a chance to breathe while prancing across the stage. It takes a little of getting used to for diehard fans, but it’s not bad. Once Upon a December also feels slightly slowed, but the way they execute it on stage is stunning with ghostly-lit royal dancers. Anya doesn’t get her dress transformation, but she wears other exquisite gowns later, so I didn’t miss it too much.
Gleb gets a couple of his own songs (The Neva Flows and Still) as he hears rumors of the Anastasia charade and tries to put a stop to it. He was the son of one of the soldiers who killed Anastasia’s family and ended up killing himself over the guilt. Gleb wants to carry his father’s torch while also wrestling with his crush on Anya whom he has an eerie feeling about. I found his songs to be the least interesting musically. Their sad tone doesn’t capture my interest, but the backstory in the lyrics helps you better understand the character.
Dimitri gets an upbeat song, My Petersburg, as he tells Anya a different backstory than the palace kitchen boy we know from the animated movie. He was a street urchin who survived with his father’s advice and by his own wits. In the Broadway cast recording, Derek Klena’s vibrant vocals give this song contagious musical energy.
The two new on-the-road songs in the Broadway musical are my favorites. The first, Stay I Pray You, is a melancholy and bittersweet farewell to Russia. It sounds like a dirge. It means something to any of us who have left home towns/states/countries. It repurposes part of the tune of Rasputin’s song in the animated musical, In the Dark of the Night, and plays it gently. It’s a beautiful conversion of a previously creepy song, and it captures the sound of Russian folk and choral music.
The second travel song, We’ll Go From There, is a jaunty trio between Vlad, Anya, and Dimitri as they ride the train out of Russia. I find it more fun to listen to than Learn To Do It, although the blocking was restricted as they were on a small revolving set piece that functioned as a train car.
Right as our heroes finally arrive in Paris, we get to enjoy Journey to the Past. Anya wrestles with her nerves before climbing the hill to see the Eifel Tower in the distance, finishing the song with her signature arms-out pose. On Broadway, the LED screen behind the actress portrays the scenery in a welcoming purple hue. What’s missing in the stage version is Anya’s cute mutt, Pookah!
Now we’re in Act 2! In Paris we get a revamped Paris Holds The Key. There are no “ooh la las” (possibly because it was deemed an insulting French stereotype), and, instead of focusing on Paris as the city of romance, the new lyrics describe Paris as a city of art and opportunity. It’s not a bad update, but it was never one of my favorite songs in the movie, either.
One of my favorite added songs in the second act of the Broadway musical is Crossing a Bridge. As Vlad goes off to find his old flame and Dimitri heads to the hotel to take his first hot bath in years, Anya sings about being at a crossroads as she walks across Anastasia’s grandfather’s bridge in Paris. Yes, I know, Journey To The Past is also a crossroads song, but Crossing a Bridge is like a lullaby. My favorite line is: “Halfway between where I’ve been and where I’m going. In between wonder why and finally knowing.” For anyone who’s been stuck in a place of waiting while desperately wanting things to change, words like those are comforting.
Anastasia’s grandmother also gets a very somber song about her dying hope. Close The Door is heartwrenching performed by Mary Beth Peil on the Broadway cast recording. Then we’re taken to the Neva Club where former Russian social elite gather to dance, drink, and reminisce about old Russia. During a very 1920’s flapper dance number/song, Land of Yesterday, we’re introduced to former countess Lilly Malevsky-Malevitch (on Broadway played by Caroline O’Conner from Moulin Rouge). She is the musical’s version of Sophie – Vlad’s old flame and retainer to former Russian Empress Maria Federovna. Lilly is still both of these things, and Vlad and Lilly have their own love song called The Countess and the Common Man to the tune of the Learn To Do It Reprise (the reprise itself, called Meant To Be, is present later with altered lyrics to fit its new placement in the timeline).
Anya and Dimitri have their own love song, In a Crowd of Thousands. Instead of Dimitri being the kitchen boy who helped Anastasia escape in the movie, he was a street boy who had admired Anastasia from afar during a royal parade. The moment he had made the young princess smile sticks with him all these years later. Unbeknownst to him, this memory he shares with Anya is what triggers her own memories of being Anastasia in that parade. They are clearly in love at this point, but Dimitri wants Anya to find her family more than anything now that he is certain she’s Anastasia, so he doesn’t give in to his feelings.
If you’ve seen the movie you’ll remember that Vlad convinces Lilly to help Anya meet Maria at the ballet. In the musical, they put on a beautiful rendition of Swan Lake with a Once Upon A December reprise mixed in (called Quartet at the Ballet). During the intermission, Anya goes to meet Maria and Dimitri sings a nervous waiting song as he realizes that the fortune he wanted doesn’t matter as much to him as Anya does (Everything to Win).
The royal reunion doesn’t go well because Maria is tired of con men sending her fake Anastasias, and Anya gets mad at Vlad and Dimitri for tricking her into believing she could be Anastasia. Dimitri is so convinced she is Anastasia that he stomps on the former Empress’s cape to try to get her to hear him out about Anya. Maria reluctantly agrees to meet with her, and she and Anya realize that she is the real Anastasia as they sing Once Upon a December together with her music box. Then we get a Newsies style song (The Press Conference) where reporters are ready for Anastasia’s royal debut.
Anya has her own Everything to Win reprise where she realizes she loves Dimitri. She’s about to choose him over life as a princess (with her nonna’s blessing) when Gleb confronts her with a gun. He begs Anya to drop the masquerade but Anastasia tells him she is who she is. They have a reprise of Gleb’s 2 songs (Still/The Neva Flows) as they face-off. After battling inner turmoil and witnessing Anastasia’s compassion and courage, Gleb decides not to shoot her. He promises to keep her secret. Anya runs to tell Dimitri how she feels about him and they walk off into the sunset as both the press conference and a Communist debriefing take place. Both Maria and Gleb deny the existence of Anastasia. A closing version of Once Upon a December is sung by the cast, then the curtain falls.
The musical is missing Anya’s combat scene, which is a favorite for many in the animated movie because it was rare in the 90s to see a princess fighting. I was also disappointed that Dimitri and Anya didn’t get an In A Crowd of Thousands reprise at the end of the musical, but as you can tell the show was already long enough.
The music (new and old) is still beautiful, and it’s one of my go-to feel-good soundtracks. Unfortunately, the stage musical had to end its US tour early because of COVID-19, so you can’t go see it in person now, but the soundtrack is on Spotify and practically everywhere else you can find music if you’re interested in giving it a listen. It’s one of the few musicals I love just as much as the movie, if not more. Both versions masterfully tell a story of self-discovery and finding home, love, and family – heartfelt lessons that can touch each of us.
Artwork by strawberry_usagi_ on Instagram and used with permission.
Episode 011 | Say Goodnight Kevin Podcast
Tyler Smith, film critic, podcast host, and director of the film “Reel Redemption”, joins Kevin for an exciting conversation about the history of Christian film and the state it is in today.