When I was a child, the movie Anastasia was released, and even in the months leading up to seeing the movie, I grew infatuated with the Romanov family and their story. A stage production wasn't even in my thoughts yet, as I had never even been to New York yet. I loved the movie, the score, and the happy ending it imagined for the lost grand duchess, but somehow I longed for more historical accuracy – even as a child.
I'll never forget years later, when I was in a play production class (technical, business, and marketing aspects of theatre) in high school, we were directed to design a poster for a show to come to Broadway. I took this as an opportunity to imagine what Anastasia would be like on stage. I even started dream-casting people to take the roles from the movie – Bernadette Peters as Sophie and Angela Lansbury as the Dowager Empress, of course reprising their roles from the animated film. The crazy thing was, the poster I designed ended up looking a lot like the original poster for the Broadway production.
I was overjoyed when it was announced that a stage adaptation was in the works – from the reading in 2012, to the workshop in 2015, and the Hartford premiere in 2016. This was a show I knew I'd have to see. Then they announced the casting for the Broadway production – and this was the first time I saw the name Christy Altomare. Little did I know the impact this show would have on me, and how much of a dream come true it would be, and how perfect Altomare would be as Anya.
I noticed that they'd removed Rasputin and, I assumed, his song “In the Dark of the Night” from the score. I was actually really excited about that that. I'd always hated the character and his song as a child. I felt like he was unnecessarily gory and too scary for a children's movie. Plus, how would that translate to the stage?
I was so glad when I found out that Gleb was the new villain, son of the Romanov's executioner, and a Bolshevik leader. They'd taken out the magical aspects and given the show more historical accuracy, just like I'd wanted. Even if recent reports came out and the real Anastasia was found, so it couldn't be completely accurate, I know.
I got rush tickets one day in November of 2017, and saw the complete original Broadway cast. Altomare was marvelous and captured Anya's strength and sensitivity. Derek Klena was the perfect Broadway leading man. Ramin Karimloo was a perfect mix of alluring and dangerous as Gleb. Caroline O'Connor, whom I've loved since the movie Moulin Rouge!, was absoluely stunning as Countess Lily (Sophie in the movie). John Bolton was hilarious and perfect as Vlad. Mary Beth Peil was a wonderful Dowager and brought so much new depth to her.
The new songs completely flowed into the story and felt like they'd always been there. When the spirits began to dance around the theatre during “Once Upon a December”, I'll never forget how my friend and I glanced at each other, wide eyed, and then we broke down into tears. The sobs continued to “Journey to the Past”. I never expected this much beauty, and how this show lived up to – and exceeded my expectations.
Meeting Christy Altomare that first time was incredible. I tried to tell her how much the movie had meant to me and now, seeing it on Broadway was a dream come true. It truly was.
My next experience with this show live was last year at Feinstein’s/54 Below for the “Broadway Princess Party”, where Altomare and the singing voice of Anya in the movie, Liz Callaway, premiered their duet of “Journey to the Past”. It was incredible to hear these two beautiful voices blend, and to witness the shared joy between the two of them. I'm so glad they released the duet as a single.
It took me too long to return to the Broadhurst Theatre, and I don't know why. Somehow, I felt that the show would always be there, and become a staple for Broadway. I thought it would last at least six years or so, and that we'd see many Anyas cycle through the show. But perhaps Altomare was the only Anya meant for Broadway.
I saw the show next in Baltimore, with the tour cast. It brought back my love for the show and I knew that I'd be seeing the show again soon on Broadway. I finally saw the show in January of 2019, when I was in town for BroadwayCon. Thank goodness Christy Altomare and John Bolton were still in the show, as well as delightful new additions Cody Simpson as Dmitry and Vicki Lewis as Lily.
Then they announced closing, and I knew I'd have to be there with the other fans to celebrate this incredible dream of a musical, and to see it one last time.
March 31, 2019. It was less than two weeks ago, but the memory still lives in me. The energy and emotions as we approached the theatre, seeing that marquee for the last time. The line was around the block to get in. The audience erupted in cheers and applause during the pre-show announcement. Every single character got entrance applause, usually reserved for “stars”. Standing ovations mid-show are rare, but Altomare earned them for “In My Dreams”, “Once Upon a December”, and “Journey to the Past”, and John Bolton and Vicki Lewis got their own for “The Countess and the Common Man”, which is still probably the funniest song I've ever seen performed. The cast was visibly crying during several moments, especially “Stay I Pray You”, and Altomare cried during “Journey to the Past”. It made it more...real, and more emotional for the audience. I know I cried quite a bit. I can't imagine there was a dry eye in that audience.
At the end of the show, the last lines held more weight and more meaning.
“The Dowager Empress: As of today, there will be no more Anastasias. The reward for her safe return will be given to charity.
Gleb: There never was an Anastasia. She was a dream.
The Dowager Empress: A beautiful dream.
Gleb: A dream that only time will fade.
The Dowager Empress: So, no more talk of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov.
Gleb: The new order has no need for fairytales. The case is closed.
The Dowager Empress: Still...
[Then the entire company joins with one final verse of ‘Once Upon a December.’]
Far away, long ago,
Glowing dim as an ember,
Things my heart used to know.
Once upon a December!”
As of that day, there would be no more Anastasias at that theatre for sure, but she was more than a beautiful dream. Once upon a December, there was a beautiful adaptation of a beloved animated film that enchanted the Broadway stage, with an extraordinary cast of inspiring people. There was an actress named Christy Altomare who loved playing this princess and loved her fans and their enthusiasm so much, and touched the hearts of everyone who met her.
I couldn't have asked for anything better than this.