ohof all the animated musicals of my childhood, Anastasia remains the most slept.
The 1997 musical follows an 18-year-old orphan with amnesia named Anya who discovers that she is, in fact, Russian royalty. The fictional story of the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian Imperial Romanovs as an event perpetrated by black magic by Rasputin. The only Romanovs to escape are Nicholas II’s mother, Empress Dowager Marie, and her youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia, but the couple go their separate ways. Years later, two crooks (Dimitri and Vlad) set up auditions for an “Anastasia” to claim the Empress Dowager’s reward for finding her, only to unwittingly stumble upon the real thing and take her to Paris. to claim the reward. Along the way, a romance breaks out between Anya and Dimitri, and Rasputin tries to use his dark magic to kill the last of the Romanov line.
The film actually marks a hugely important milestone in the way animated films have been made due to its vocal cast. After the years 1992 Aladdin became a smash hit thanks in large part to Robin Williams’ transcendent performance as a Genie, Anastasia took the next step, launching celebrities for all of her lead roles: Meg Ryan (Anya), John Cusack (Dimitri), Kelsey Grammar (Vlad), Christopher Lloyd (Rasputin), Angela Lansbury (Marie), etc. Unfortunately for true voiceover artists, it has become the seemingly monolithic way of doing things now.
But because Anastasia was a Fox production during a time of dominance of Disney animation and all the theme park and merch brand that goes with it (though ironically through monopolizing the monoculture, it now airs on Disney + ), the film more or less fell into the proverbial memory hole despite a successful box office race.
Which is a shame because Anastasiathe music absolutely burst.
The soundtrack compares to any of its top Disney peers – The Lion King, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid – while offering a more diverse and engaging song set than any of them. Songs written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (as well as the score by David Newman) come to mind more than other animated musicals because their styles span the musical spectrum more than their Disney brethren – who tended to be excellent but remain on a more homogeneous path.
The opening of the film “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” is a classical, grandiose and lively musical opening, interspersed with notes of Russian folk and choral traditions, as well as a calm and strong natural dynamic emanating from the whispered rumors. It effortlessly traverses the exhibit’s information dump and sets the plot in lyrical motion while being ideal for the spectacle of an entire city dancing in the street. It is quickly followed by “Journey to the Past”, a scintillating and soaring pop ballad and a perfect example of the hopeful dreamer’s “I Want” musical theater trope, which fully establishes Anya’s personality and desire to be. family (the song won an award for Best Oscar Nomination for the original song, although it didn’t stand a chance against Titanic‘s “My heart will continue”).
When Vlad and Dimitri explain her Russian royal history to Anya via “Learn How to Do It,” the song serves as both a training montage song and a relationship builder. The frenzied comedic rhythm makes the trio’s trip to Paris smoothly in the blink of an eye.
The killer stylistic curve comes from Rasputin’s only song, “In the Dark of the Night”. The mystic has an absolute ball musically exposing his sinister plan with a chorus of gruesome insects. It’s a theatrical rock number reminiscent of Meat Loaf’s Bat out of hell with a dash of heavy metal and Russian choral styles for edgy pizazz.
But it’s “Once Upon a December” that most often appears in my noggin. Set at the start of the film as Anya wanders the abandoned Imperial location, it triggers faint flickers of memories, the ghosts of her past. The song is a completely haunting and emotionally beautiful blend of Russian waltz, music box melody and lullaby.
Aside from “Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart” – a bouncy number used for a montage of exploring the city (cleverly portrayed through French Impressionism-style backgrounds in the film), but one that feels more casual and less emotionally resonant – the other five original Anastasia the tunes are worthy of being considered classics of pop music. That’s a standard number (if any) from Disney productions or true Tony winners can claim.
Win this spirit, it was obviously logical to adapt Anastasia for the Broadway scene. If you like the animated version of Anastasia, I have news. The good news? AnastasiaThe Broadway Touring Company’s production arrives in Spokane from December 28 through January 31. 2 race.
Now for the bad news … that sort of throws a lot of the animated film in the trash.
One might think that the adaptation Anastasia as a live musical would be pretty straightforward. The film features a story with fun twists and turns, a believable romantic arc, and plenty of magical elements that would be interesting to see performed on stage – similar to other Broadway adaptations of the film like The beauty and the Beast.
Instead, the Broadway version – which received mixed reviews over its two years – rewrites some of the songs in the film, shuffles the plot order, totally changes the story of Dimitri and Anya’s relationship, and Completely removes Rasputin’s sinister mysticism, replacing him with a “more realistic” outright Communist Bolshevik general (Gleb) who falls in love with Anya while trying to kill her.
But really, it’s the music that suffers the most from the screen to the stage.
While Ahrens and Flaherty are still at the musical bar, the choices they make in the adaptation are scratchy. The lyrics to “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” and “Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart” are substantially rewritten, the former adding duller complaints about communism, while the latter removing some of the comedic zeal.
While “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” are thankfully intact, they are mixed around the series, which dramatically changes their context and impact. Instead of being the songs that basically establish Anya’s outlook at the start, “Once Upon a December” is moved to the middle of Act I to slow Anya’s self-discovery and “Journey to the Past” is the act I closer, changing the meaning of the song from that of a young hope to perseverance.
Worse, without Rasputin, “In the Dark of the Night” is cut, only for its melody to be strangely lifted for a moderate ode to Mother Russia (“Stay, I Pray You”). While spreading patterns through songs is a centuries-old tradition, the choices here are confusing. And the only new track for the stage that comes close to the original tunes is “My Petersberg”, Dimitri’s song about the rambling nature of his hometown, which sports a Dear Evan Hansen rising piano atmosphere. But overall, the sound packaging for the scene lacks the dynamic ranges, inflections, and character of the film.
Despite all of this, my continued affection for the animated original will likely lead me to a seat at First Interstate to see if the live show can capture the spark. If Anya can be a hopeful dreamer, so can I. ♦
Anastasia • 28 Dec.-Jan. 2 • $ 42- $ 100 • Premier Interstate Center for the Arts • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • broadwayspokane.com • 509-279-7000