Anastasia: 1997 Movie vs. Broadway Musical

  • Director: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
  • Rating: G
  • Starring: Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Hank Azaria
  • Screenplay: Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White
  • Animation Adaptation: Eric Tuchman
  • Music By: David Newman
  • Film Editing: Bob Bender & Fiona Trayler
  • Running Time: 94 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 16, 1997

Anastasia: The Broadway Musical

  • Originally published: May 27, 2016
  • Composer: Stephen Flaherty
  • Lyricist: Lynn Ahrens
  • Playwright: Terrence McNally

Synopsis: The last surviving child of the Russian Royal Family joins two con men to reunite with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, while the undead Rasputin seeks her death (From IMDb).

Review: The Russian Imperial Family came to a sudden and bloody end during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. This revolution dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the formation of the Soviet Union. Tsar Nicholas II was the last Tsar of Russia. Nicholas was married to Alexandra Feodorovna and they had five children: Olga Nikolaevna, Tatiana Nikolaevna, Maria Nikolaevna, Anastasia Nikolaevna and Alexei Nikolaevich. Alexei suffered from hemophilia, in desperation Alexandra turned to the ministrations of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man, for comfort and moral support. Rasputin ended up wielding great influence in the royal court.

Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra spent most of their lives removed from the poverty and social unrest of their citizens. Numerous social and economic issues boiled over in the early 1900’s and the Tsar failed to act. His inaction and seemingly cold-hearted approach to governance did not endear the Imperial Family with the general population. The Bolshevik Revolution arose to counter the inaction of the Tsardom. In November of 1917, the revolutionaries invaded the Royal Palace and kidnapped the Royal Family. The Bolsheviks formed a provisional government and imprisoned the Tsar, Alexandra, and their five children in the city of Yekaterinburg. In 1918, a civil war broke out between the revolutionary Red Army and the White Army, the anti-Bolsheviks. As the White Army advanced on Yekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks ordered the local authorities to prevent the escape and/or rescue of the Romanov family. During the early hours of July 17, 1918 the Imperial Family died via execution through firing squad. Those members unlucky enough to survive the bullets died from multiple stab wounds.

However, a myth persisted for many decades afterwards that Anastasia and maybe Alexei escaped. This led to numerous young women coming forward claiming to be the lost Grand Duchess. A few years ago, new archaeological evidence revealed the bodies of both Anastasia and Alexei near the graves of their siblings. Anyways, the fairy tale of a lost Princess and a family fortune captured the attention of the public. Anna Anderson, a mentally unstable woman from Poland, is perhaps the best-known Anastasia impostor. Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman starred in a 1956 dramatic version of the Anastasia story. If you liked the animated film but want a more “adult/dramatic” version, the 1956 movie is exceedingly well done.

 I loved the animated movie growing up, even though the Rasputin character was quite creepy. The music is superb. Surprisingly, the animated movie was not a Disney film. Twentieth Century Fox produced the film and it was the most successful non-Disney animated film in the 1990’s. Given the talent involved and the wonderful musical score, the film holds up to modern audiences and presents a lovely fairy tale about loss, redemption, and revenge. In 2012 the writers of the animated film were approached to write a Broadway musical adaptation, they said yes. The Broadway Play follows roughly the same narrative arc of the film, however the setting is more historically accurate than the cartoon. Given the changes in tone, the opening scenes of the movie and the play differ quite dramatically:

Play Opening Scenes: In 1907 St. Petersburg, Russia, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna is getting ready to move to Paris, France. Her youngest granddaughter, 7-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia, is saddened that her grandmother is moving. Before leaving, the Dowager Empress gives Anastasia a music box as a parting gift. The music box plays the opening chords of Once Upon a December. Ten years later in 1917, 17-year-old Anastasia attends a winter ball with her family when the Bolsheviks invade. As the Romanovs attempt to escape, Anastasia retrieves her music box, is shot, and presumed dead along with the rest of her family. The action than flash-forwards to 1927 and Gleb, the local Red Army military/government leader, announces that St. Petersburg is now Leningrad and that the Imperialist Era is over.

Movie Opening Scenes: In 1916 Saint Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II hosts a ball at the Catherine Palace to celebrate the Romanov tricentennial. The Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Angela Lansbury), is visiting from Paris, France and gives a music box and a necklace inscribed with the words “Together in Paris” to 8-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia. The sorcerer Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), a former royal adviser exiled for treason, interrupts the ball. Seeking revenge, Rasputin sold his soul in exchange for an unholy reliquary, which he uses to place a curse on the Romanovs. This curse sparks the Russian Revolution. During the siege of the palace, only the Dowager and Anastasia manage to escape with the aid of 10-year-old servant boy Dimitri. They make it the river before Rasputin confronts them. In a stroke of luck, he falls through the ice and the royals escape. The pair manage to reach a moving train, as Marie climbs aboard, Anastasia falls, hitting her head on the platform and suffering amnesia. The film then flashes forward to a new, communist Russia where everyone whispers about a missing Princess.

In the cartoon, Anastasia (Meg Ryan), Dmitri (John Cusack), and Vlad (Kelsey Grammer) must outwit the dastardly Rasputin and his sidekick, an albino bat named Bartok (Hank Azaria). The play version replaces over-the-top sorcery with political might and the conflicted Gleb, a rapidly rising military commander who represents Russia’s new political regime. Both Gleb and Rasputin fulfill the same function: attempting to prevent Anastasia from making it to Paris and claiming her birthright. They just possess different rationales for their actions. Rasputin wants revenge and the total annihilation of the Tsar’s family. Once they are dead, Rasputin can take over as the new ruler of Russia. Gleb, as the leader of a communist regime, views Anastasia as the last vestiges of an outdated regime who has the potential to embarrass the new Bolshevik government.

Different villains notwithstanding, both the play and the cartoon follow the same narrative arc. The Imperial Family dies and only the Dowager survives. Ten years later, whispers emerge that the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the Bolshevik’s attack and is in hiding. In an act of desperation, the Dowager Empress offers a monetary reward for anyone who has reliable information about the whereabouts of Anastasia. Multiple women come forward claiming to the missing Duchess and the Dowager loses hope. Dimitri and Vlad, two starving con men, devise a scheme to escape Russia and claim the reward money: train a girl to pretend to be Anastasia. They hold multiple auditions but doubt they will ever find a suitable impersonator. Than Anya, a young starving orphan/street sweeper walks in. She has an uncanny resemblance to the deceased members of the Imperial Family and has no memories of her life before the orphanage. Dimitri and Vlad train her in the arts and refinements of an aristocratic woman. After they deem her acceptable, they leave Russia with forged papers on the last train out.

This is where the movie and play diverge, significantly. In the film, Bartok, Rasputin’s albino bat minion, notices that the dormant reliquary suddenly awakens due to Anastasia’s reemergence. This revelation drags Bartok into the “limbo” world between heaven and hell, where Rasputin, slowly decomposing, lives. Enraged to hear that Anastasia escaped his curse, Rasputin sends some of his demonic minions to kill her and her companions. Despite two attempts, the demons fail.  Determined to kill Anastasia, Rasputin and Bartok leave limbo and travel back to the land of the living. They “reunite” with Anastasia in Paris.

In the play, Gleb realizes that Anya/Anastasia has escaped. His superiors, skeptical that she is the escaped Duchess but also worried that she might be, order Gleb to follow her to Paris. They order Glen to kill her if Anya is actually the Duchess. If Anya is nothing more than a lowly street sweeper, he must escort her back to Leningrad to face a trial for treason. Apparently, Gleb’s father was a guard at the palace who sided with the Bolsheviks and was in charge of executing the royal children. Gleb talks about his father’s extreme guilt over this act and how he is expected to be his “father’s son” and finish the task. However, he finds the mysterious Anya beguiling and struggles with the morality of killing her in cold blood.

Once in Paris, Dimitri, Vlad, and Anya struggle with securing an appointment with the Dowager. Vlad, a former paramour of Sophie (Bernadette Peters in the cartoon)/Lily, the Dowager’s lady-in-waiting, manages to secure an audience. During the Parisian Ballet, Anastasia meets the Dowager. However, the Dowager refuses to believe that Anya/Anastasia is her granddaughter. In the movie, Rasputin attempts to kill her after the Duchess’ rejection and fails spectacularly. While in the play, Gleb sneaks into the Dowager’s apartments and confronts Anya/Anastasia in the parlor. He suffers an existential crisis and cannot find it in himself to kill her.

Anastasia tries one final effort to convince the Dowager and pulls out the music box. In the movie, the necklace the Dowager gave her as a child doubles as the key to open the box. The necklace does not feature in the play. Finally, the Dowager accepts Anastasia as her granddaughter. She then convinces Anastasia to follow her heart and stay with Dimitri. Both the play and the movie end with the Dowager announcing the end of her search for Anastasia. Rasputin slinks back to limbo. Gleb goes back to Leningrad and denounces the myth of Anastasia as a flight of fancy.

Overall, I think the movie had a better-developed villain. Rasputin was mean, motivated, and willing to do anything to kill Anastasia. Gleb felt like a hastily compiled character who fell apart in the second act. The character lacked three dimensions and his sudden infatuation with Anya/Anastasia felt unnatural. Both versions of this “modern fairy-tale” present the narrative in age-appropriate ways. The music is superb and the cast of the play sang exceptionally well. None of the stage actors struggled with the music. The “Once Upon a December” sequence is one of the best scenes in the play. If you were/are a fan of the Anastasia movie, I recommend seeing the stage play. 

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