Out of the 2nd Dimension: Once Upon a December
One of my favorite things to watch are live action adaptations of animated shows or movies. Seeing how the impossible things that were drawn are translated into “reality” is absolutely fascinating to me, even as it’s getting easier and easier these days to make the unbelievable appear plausible on screen or stage.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite movies brought to life when my then-fiancé/now-husband and I went to Hartford, CT and saw the original run of the Broadway bound show “Anastasia.”
"Anastasia" is one of my absolute favorite animated movies; It’s probably neck-in-neck with “The Little Mermaid” for #1 (Ariel is just so much more accessible; you still see her everywhere). Anya is an incredibly strong and independent female lead, the likes of which are still hard to come by almost 20 years after she first appeared. The story still feels unique, even now as “boy & girl go on a road-trip adventure” seems to be the foundation most animated movies build their plots on. The villain is scary, the love story organic, and every character is fully realized with believable motivation and strong acting. "Anastasia" is also dark, not holding itself back or afraid to put its heroes in legitimate peril.
Considering all of my affections for the original 1997 film, I tried very hard to take of my Nostalgia Goggles as I walked into the theater. It was almost impossible at the time, but now that I’ve had some time to mull over the show I feel I’ve been able to at least peer through the nostalgia I hold for the movie and see the show for what it was; a standalone piece of work that’s more-so vaguely inspired by the movie it’s based on.
For those unfamiliar with the 1997 film, “Anastasia” is based on the urban legend that the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the assassination of her family, losing her memory due to an injury sustained during the revolution. The story of her survival has spread, and now two men, Dimitri and Vlad, are hiring an impersonator to fool Anastasia’s grandmother Maria and receive a monetary reward. These two men team up with an unknowing Anya and journey to Paris, through which Anya regains her memories of being the lost Grand Duchess. Along the way, they are chased by an undead Rasputin, trying to complete his unfinished business of destroying the Romanov family using powers he traded his soul to the Devil for. This film is itself a loose remake of the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman, but only retains the characters Anastasia and Maria, replacing everyone else with original creations, and changes the international adventure from Paris-to-Copenhagen to Russia-to-Paris. Considering the presence of the 1997 films’ characters instead of the 1956 films’, and that the plot also follows these characters from Russia to France, I am basing this review solely on comparison to the animated musical and not to the Old Hollywood movie.
The point of this adaptation from toon-to-stage is to set “Anastasia” squarely in the realm of possibility, not fantasy. Zombie Rasputin is nowhere to be seen, or even mentioned or alluded to, which is odd considering Grigori Rasputin was a real man who played an important role in the downfall of the Romanov family. Instead, the villain of the show is the Bolsheviks who took control of Russia, looking to wipe out any remnant of the previous leadership. While I missed Bartok the talking bat, this change was exciting because of how much it made sense. The leadership that took over after the Romanov’s assassination is the obvious choice to fill the hole left by Rasputin, and them going after any woman claiming to be Anastasia just feels natural. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks send a general named Gleb to do their bidding, and he’s just plainly bad at his job. He falls in love with Anya and is conflicted about being ordered to kill her, and while frustratingly incompetent, he’s not poorly written enough to undo the smart move of making the Bolshevik’s Anya’s enemy.
With Rasputin and his green glowing goblins gone, the rest of the story falls pretty nicely into reality. Instead of needing to jump off the train because Rasputin destroys a bridge, they have to jump off because the police are killing anyone who boarded the train illegally. Russia’s change in government is clearly not easy, with Russian citizens mourning the loss of the country they knew (Hence the song “Rumor in St. Petersburg” remaining intact despite the city being renamed Leningrad at this point in history) and Russians abroad reminiscing about their old lives in a club in Paris. The climax where Anastasia kills Rasputin by crushing his reliquary is replaced by a very tense confrontation with now-assassin Gleb that had me genuinely afraid Anastasia wasn’t going to make it out of. These changes made for a very sleek transition out of 1997’s animated realm of fantasy.
If that had been where the changes stopped, I’d have been very happy with this show.
The book kept tweaking things though, to the point where no small detail was left intact. Some changes were small and incidental, such as Maria’s hand oil being orange scented instead of peppermint. Some changes made sense artistically, such as the ballet where Anya tries to meet Maria being Swan Lake instead of Cinderella, with Anya caught between her love interest Dimitri and antagonist Gleb (as Odette is caught between Prince Siegfried and the villainous Rothbart). One change that really confused the “Anastasia” fan in me was when they changed Rasputin’s song “In the Dark of the Night” to “Stay, I Pray You,” which is meant to be a heartfelt goodbye to Russia as everyone’s boarding the train to Paris, but is hard to get behind when you’ve known the lyrics as being about murdering a young woman all your life.
Other changes brought the story farther away from sensibility though, the most prominent being how exactly Anya lost her memories. In the animated movie, she falls from a moving train, hitting her head on the way down. It’s not exactly clear what happens in the musical; it was my perception that she was shot in the head, but what I saw as a gun-shot others have seen as Anastasia standing in a room as it’s being bombed. Either way, a young woman walking away from a gun-shot or close-range explosion with memory loss as the only lasting injury feels less realistic than a child falling off of a moving train. I would say that this change was necessitated by what is possible on stage if they didn’t have a moving train on stage later in the same act. While raising more questions than it answers, this change and others like it weren’t hard to look beyond because they only lasted for a moment and not the entire show.
There are two huge changes the show made to the story that I have a lot of trouble looking past, and that is Anya’s character and her story arc. As I said before, the animated Anya is an impressively self-empowered character. She only decides to join Dimitri and Vlad because they’re going to Paris, which she had already decided to do because the only clue she has to her identity is a necklace that says “Together in Paris.” In this adaptation, our titular character is reduced to what I can only describe as a shrieking waif who doesn’t really rise above being a supporting character until she sings “Journey to the Past” at the end of the first act. She doesn’t even get her own introduction in this show, she is simply one of the girls who walks into Dmitry and Vlad’s audition because they have food, and agrees to go to Paris because Dmitry tells her she has nothing to live for in Russia (the necklace being excised from this version). Where animated Anya said “Men are such babies,” stage Anya said “I’m not as strong as you think I am” while weeping. Where animated Anya slapped Dimitri across the face for lying to her, stage Anya runs out of the ballet crying. Anya does find her confidence during the climax, as she boldly challenges Gleb to murder her while defying his demand to deny being Anastasia. It’s an incredibly powerful scene that left me wishing she had some of that confidence earlier in the show.
The other big change that broke my heart was how this show was less about Anya learning her history and more about falling in love. “Anastasia” always had a love story in it, but it happened almost by accident and wasn’t nearly being as important as Anya finding her family. This version of "Anastasia" shifted the focus away from a woman learning about who she is and onto a woman falling in love. One of the most powerful scenes in the animated movie is when Anya finally, undeniably remembers being the Grand Duchess because she smells Maria’s peppermint hand oil and reminisces about spilling a bottle, smelling it whenever she missed her grandmother. This scene remains in the stage show, but Anya already knows she’s Anastasia. She remembered after waking up from a nightmare and Dimitri comes in to comfort her. He gets into bed with her and sings about seeing Anastasia when she was a child in a parade, and Anya remembers seeing him “in a crowd of thousands” when she was in this parade. The whole song brought their romance to a painfully cheesy level, and them being in bed together left me unable to get that Family Guy joke about a man wanting to show his female co-worker how all of her problems can be solved by a specific part of his anatomy out of my head. It made me sad to see the revelation of her identity be taken away from Anya and Maria, and given to Dimitri…while literally in bed with Anya. It felt like such a step backwards from what this "Anastasia" originally was.
Other characters endured smaller changes; Dimitri is given more of a backstory that doesn’t involve him working in the palace, making the fact that a music box he has actually belonged to Anastasia purely coincidental. Vlad is played by a slim actor, but keeps talking about how overweight he is. French socialite Sophie is replaced by a Russian woman named Lily, who is also played by a slim actress who also keeps talking about how overweight she is. Vlad and Sophie were both large in the animated movie, and yet never complained about it.
As I said, no small detail from the movie is left unchanged, and this might have been out of necessity. My Brother-in-Law, who teaches theater at Plymouth State, informed me that when a musical is adapted from a movie, the production company has say over what can and can’t be retained. In the case of “Shrek,” he relayed, DreamWorks didn’t allow for any changes or additions to the story other than music. While I don’t how the production of “Anastasia” progressed, it’s possible FOX told them they could make the show, but only if it was drastically different from their movie, which would be a shame. Now fans of their movie will go see the show and some will walk away as confused and muddled as I did, if not outright angry that one of their favorite movies is almost unrecognizable.
That assumes everything I’ve just reviewed doesn’t change, though. The show I saw was a pre-Broadway run, which means that the show can change drastically between its close back in June and its New York opening next March. I hope the show can grow and change, giving Anya some of her original personality, and shifting the focus back onto reuniting with Maria. I don’t want it to just be a staged production of the movie, the movie already exists, but I do want it to regain some of the original energy and proverbial magic it stripped away. I’m excited for "Anastasia" to open next March because I think it could very easily be a good show that’s still its own unique piece, but also because I hope it inspires audiences to go on a journey to the past and enjoy the animated movie it’s based on.