Hear this song and remember
Soon you'll be home with me
Once upon a December
The Screen-to-Stage Adaptation of Don Bluth's 1997 animated film Anastasia (although it should be mentioned that Bluth was not involved with it). Like its predecessor, the musical takes elements from real Russian history, a 1956 Ingrid Bergman film, and the animated fairy tale to tell the legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova. After the death of the imperial family in 1918, legends swirled for decades that the young princess might have survived. What if those rumors were true?
For 300 years, the Romanov family ruled imperial Russia. Anastasia, along with her sisters and brother, enjoyed the grandeur of life at court — although only Anastasia had a special bond with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress. But in 1917, the family is overthrown and imprisoned by revolutionaries. All of the Romanovs were killed, or so it seemed.
A decade later, twenty-eight-year-old Anya is a street sweeper in St. Petersburg, suffering from amnesia since she was eighteen. Her terrified reaction to the sounds of a backfiring car draws the kindness of a Chekist officer, Gleb, whose father was among those who imprisoned and killed the Romanovs. Armed with only the bits of knowledge gleaned from her strange dreams, Anya is determined to go to Paris in search of answers. She joins up with a sarcastic young forger and con man named Dmitry and his genial partner in crime, Vlad, who are seeking a young woman to impersonate the missing princess in order to collect the reward from the Dowager Empress. Despite Dmitry's initial misgivings, the pair are able to convince Anya that she might, perhaps, be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and offer to educate her and bring her to Paris to find out the truth—failing to mention their true scheme.
As the trio moves closer to Paris and the Dowager, Anya's memories begin resurfacing in occasional, sometimes disturbing, ways. Meanwhile, Gleb is under orders to pursue this rumored Anastasia and either make an example of her if she's an imposter or execute her if she is truly a Romanov — an assignment that brings him increasing grief considering he's plagued by inconveniently romantic feelings for Anya himself. And there's something blossoming between Anya and Dmitry...
The musical places more emphasis on the culture, history, and politics of this era in Europe than the animated film's magical fairy tale. Most notably, the entire magical plot involving Rasputin and his demonic minions has been excised. The show opened in Hartford, Connecticut in the spring of 2016, and eventually opened on Broadway in April 2017 with Christy Altomare in the title role. The musical has been produced in many countries around the world. Its 2020 Japan run was mostly cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and when it returned in 2023, top star Naoto Kaiho played both Dmitry and Gleb (both roles were shared). The only non-replica production was created by the Takarazuka Revue in 2020-21, featuring an original song, "The Secret She Kept".
This musical provides examples of:
- Adaptational Backstory Change: In the musical Dmitry's backstory was changed from being a palace kitchen servant before the revolution to being the son of an anarchist who lived in the city.
- Adaptational Dye-Job: Anastasia's hair is light blondish brown rather than red. Sophie (renamed Lily here) also has black hair instead of blonde, though it varies depending on what wig was chosen for each actress.
- Adaptational Personality Change: Anya is less snarky and carries more trauma from her lingering memories than the version from the animated film, though she retains her resilience and hopefulness.
- Adaptation Expansion: Several elements of the animated film are filled out further in the musical:
- Dmitry gets a backstory: his mother died long ago, and his father was an anarchist who was killed in a labor camp when Dmitry was still just a boy. His emotional arc is given more focus, with two solo songs dedicated, respectively, to his affection for his city and his realization of what Anya has come to mean to him.
- Likewise, Vlad is given a more complicated past. Instead of being a member of the imperial court, he was a fraud whose lies were revealed by the Dowager Empress herself. His romance with Lily (Sophie in the film) is correspondingly expanded and complicated.
- We are allowed to see more of the Dowager's growing frustration and heartbreak than in the film, particularly in scenes with Lily and other escaped Russian nobles.
- The politics of the Russian Revolution, infamously absent from the animated film, here form a part of the plot, with the entire first act in post-revolution Russia and the primary antagonist being a government official.
- Adaptation Explanation Extrication: In the animated movie, Marie and Anastasia avoid the execution and are separated at the train station, which gives Marie a reason to believe Anastasia is still alive. In the play, Marie left Russia for Paris years before the revolution and Anastasia is believed to have been executed with the rest of her family, meaning there is less reason for the Dowager Empress to focus solely on Anastasia, other than that she was Marie's "favorite". While there are rumors and impostors of her, the Dowager Empress apparently still has issued a reward for whoever brings Anastasia — and only Anastasia — back to her.
- Adaptational Jerkass: Dmitry is initially much more caustic towards Anya, particularly during "Learn to Do It" where his frequent snipes at her nearly causes her to quit.
- Lily, the play's equivalent of Sophie, is this. Compared to Sophie who in the movie was a Big Fun, Lily is rather fatalistic and bitter about how her life in Paris, while still high class, is leagues away from the riches of her life in Russia. She spends most of her evenings drinking and dancing with other displaced Russian oligarchs. She also cheated on her husband with Vlad while they were all still in Russia and is pretty flippant about how her husband returned to Russia only to find himself in front of a firing squad. Though despite all this, she still shows Undying Loyalty to the Dowager Empress Marie, and despite her haughtiness towards him, she seems to genuinely loves Vlad (and her haughtiness is part of what makes her attractive to him.)
- Adaptational Mundanity: The stage show does away with the fantastical elements in favor of a more down-to-earth story. With this change, the villain is no longer an magical undead Rasputin but an agent of the new Soviet government who is out to quell any rumors that any of the Romanovs are still alive.
- Adaptation Name Change:
- Vladimir's surname is changed from "Vasilovich" to "Popov".
- Likewise, Sophie Stanislovskievna Somorkov-Smirnoff is now Lily Malevsky-Malevitch.
- Adapted Out: Rasputin, Bartok, and Pooka. Likewise, Rasputin's Villain Song, "In the Dark of the Night", was cut out as well, although its melody was reworked into the song "Stay, I Pray You". Instead, the Big Bad (of sorts; he's significantly more sympathetic) is a general named Gleb, who has been sent to kill Anastasia.
- Age Lift: Anya is 18 years old throughout the course of the original film. Here, she's in her late 20s by the time she meets Dmitry, as the real Anastasia would have been in 1927 if she had survived.
- Almost Kiss: Anya and Dmitry nearly kiss at the end of "In a Crowd of Thousands", but at the last moment, he pulls back and kneels to her, having just realized her true identity.
- Allohistorical Allusion: After finding Anya to be the real Anastasia but unable to go through with the murder, Gleb decides to cook up a story that Anastasia didn't survive the revolution to begin with and the notion of her surviving was just rumors proven to be untrue, a nod to the real story of Anastasia.Gleb: There was never an Anastasia; she was a dream... [...] A dream only time will fade... [...] The new order has no need for fairy tales. The case is closed.
- Anti-Hero: Dmitry and Vlad are conmen essentially attempting to take advantage of an old woman's desperate hope for money. Anya only goes along with their plans because she thinks they may actually be right about her being Anastasia, more so than they do. Dmitry develops into a better man as he falls in love with Anya and comes to believe that the lie may be true as well to the point that he ultimately turns down the reward for bringing Anastasia to Dowager Empress Marie in order to convince Marie of his sincerity about who Anya is, an action that Marie ends up respecting a lot.
- Ascended Extra: Lily has a considerably larger role here than in the film. She's given much more stage time, and her relationship with Vlad is expanded upon.
- Arc Words: From the Dowager Empress, about Anastasia: "My favorite. Strong, not afraid of anything."
- Artistic License – Linguistics: In Russian, the name "Anastasia" is pronounced ah-nah-sta-SEE-yah. Both the film and the stage version use the English pronunciation.
- Artistic License – History: Less so than the original movie, but of course, any story with a surviving Romanov is this; of course, if not for Anastasia's body being found, this could have been considered a possible but unlikely scenario.
- At the Opera Tonight: Technically, the ballet, and it's Swan Lake.
- "Back to Camera" Pose: The poster for the Broadway run has Anastasia running to something in the distance with her back turned from the viewer.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Anya and Dmitry cannot seem to be in the same room as each other without arguing, but they also are clearly attracted to each other, particularly when Dmitry shows her St. Petersburg and when they dance in the "Learn to Do It" sequence.Anya: I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to pay me a compliment.
- Beta Couple: Vlad and Lily, in a parallel to Dmitry and Anya. Both couples consist of a con man and an aristocratic woman, although Vlad and Lily seem to have a much easier time rekindling their romance than Dmitry and Anya have of admitting theirs.
- Bittersweet Ending: Anastasia is briefly reunited with her beloved grandmother and finds genuine love with Dmitry, but the rest of her family has still been murdered by the Bolsheviks and she has spent the rest of her life on the down low and under a false identity in order to stay safe from the Soviet government.
- Book Ends: The story begins and ends with Anastasia and her grandmother Marie parting ways, unsure when they will see each other again.
- Canon Foreigner: Gleb, who replaces Rasputin as the story's antagonist.note
- Casting Gag:
- This isn't the first time Ramin Karimloo plays a villainous character who's into the main heroine, even though she already has a love interest. It's also not the first or second time he's played a revolutionary.
- Christy Altomare and Derek Klena previously played love interests in the 2012 off-Broadway revival of Carrie: The Musical.
- Composite Character: Like most dramatizations of the story, the play conflates the February Russian Revolution together with the October Bolshevik Revolution.
- Contrived Coincidence: Gleb's father just happens to be one of the assassins who murdered the royal family.
- Cool Crown: In the prologue, the Romanov women all wear historically accurate tiaras, and Anastasia gets one again to go with her princess gown at the end.
- Costume Porn: As one might expect from a fairy-tale-tinged period piece, the costumes are incredibly detailed and exquisite. Special notice must go to the glittering, detailed Romanov women's costumes in the prologue and dream sequences, as well as Anya's glittering blue ballet dress (straight out of the movie) and full-skirted princess gown for the final sequences.
- Dance of Romance: Dmitry and Anya share a dance during the "Learn to Do It" montage and clearly feel a spark of something. Several scenes later, upon seeing their angst, Vlad lampshades this with the song "I Never Should Have Let Them Dance" (renamed "Meant to Be" for the Broadway run).
- Dances and Balls: In the prologue, we see the teenage Romanov princesses dancing with suitors at a ball before the revolutionary violence interrupts the party.
- Darker and Edgier: The musical eliminates the film's fantastical elements and focuses more on history, the politics of the time, and the rise of the Bolsheviks. The train sequence is a notable example of the show's more serious tone; in the film, Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad narrowly escape death after Rasputin's forces derail the train. Here, they escape the train after the police arrive and start executing passengers.
- Dated History: Justified Trope in this case, since the source material was written before the real-life Anastasia’s body was discovered. It could almost qualify for Alternate History even.
- Deconstructed Trope: The antagonist of the animated movie, an Evil Sorcerer Gregori Rasputin, is replaced with a Soviet military general named Gleb for this story. The stage musical makes it clear that the Bolsheviks would not have been happy with a member of the previous rulers surviving the massacre, as it could potentially embolden the old Romanov loyalists who'd want to use Anastasia to reinstate the royal family back into power somehow. Thus, this is no Rags to Riches story in which the Rightful King Returns; the fact that Anastasia will have to spend the rest of her life laying low for her own safety is made even more explicit here than in the movie.
- Defiant to the End: When Gleb has Anya alone at gunpoint at the end of the story, rather than beg, Anya defiantly tells him to shoot her just like his father shot the rest of her family. Though ultimately he can't bring himself to do it.
- Elopement: Anya and Dmitry, presumably, in the finale.
- Everyone Can See It: As in the animated film, the last people to figure out that Anya and Dmitry are in love are Anya and Dmitry themselves. Lily has her suspicions, Vlad definitely sees it, and the Dowager Empress refers to Dmitry as "your young man" and Anya's "different kind of prince."
- Fake Aristocrat: The plot revolves around Vlad and Dmitry's plan to pass off a commoner as royalty — not knowing, of course, that they have stumbled upon real royalty. Vlad himself also turns out to have been a fraud, not a true member of the nobility.
- Forgotten First Meeting: Used as a plot device. Dmitry had an encounter with the young Anastasia when they were ten and eight, respectively. He has never forgotten it (in exceptional detail, no less). At first, Anya doesn't recall the scene, but then she does suddenly remember a specific detail: Dmitry bowing to her, which he hadn't mentioned, thus proving her true identity.
- Gay Paree: The song "Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart" shows off the swanky, fashionable and romantic aspect of 1920s Paris, as well as several glamorous figures of the day.
- Grief Song: Exaggerated. Stay I Pray You is about the characters leaving their beloved homeland (Russia), never to return, not just a single friend or loved one.Count Ipolitov: Let me have a moment,
Let me say goodbye...
To bridge and river, forest and waterfall
Orchard, sea and sky...
Harsh and sweet and bitter to leave it all...
Count Ipolitov and migrants: I'll bless my homeland till I die...
- Hammer and Sickle Removed for Your Protection: Averted, possibly in reaction to the presence of this trope in the animated film. The primary antagonist is a Chekist officer, and we spend time in his office and with him and his fellow officials dealing with implementing the new administration. Additionally, the tension in the train sequence is ramped up by the presence of government officials onboard who are seeking out and killing certain escaping members of the former aristocracy.Soldier: Oh, he had the right papers. But he had the wrong name.
- Happily Ever After: The musical ends with Anya reunited with her grandmother but choosing to lead an incognito life with Dmitry, and the ghosts of her family surrounding her and Dmitry as they head off to start a new life.
- Heel–Face Turn: At the climax of Act 2, Gleb, knowing now that this is truly the Grand Duchess Anastasia, chooses to not kill her and instead makes a deal to return to Russia and say she was nothing more than a rumor.
- Heel Realization: In the final scenes, Gleb realizes he is no better than his father if he goes through with assassinating Anya/Anastasia.Gleb: [arms his gun] Be careful what a dream may bring!
A REVOLUTION IS A SIMPLE— [hesitates to pull the trigger, eventually setting his gun on the floor]
- Held Gaze: Anya and Dmitry have a tendency to catch each other's gaze, only to have it broken by someone's entrance or by their own nerves.
- High-Class Gloves: Anya, Lily, and Marie, as well as the female ensemble, wear long gloves to the ballet, as was the fashion at the time.
- Historical Domain Character: The Romanov family was real, although Dmitry, Vlad, and Gleb are invented (though representative of actual types of people in the era).
- Historical Hero Upgrade: But of course for a musical depicting Anastasia's survival. The Romanovs still have a very small role, although we get to spend a little time with them in the prologue, where they are depicted in a family context, with emphasis on Nicholas dancing with his young daughter and the sisters dancing with their suitors. In reality, the Romanovs were hardly ideal rulers, leaning toward the oppression of ethnic minorities, among other things. The story also starts considerably before the revolution, but their mismanagement of World War I is not even mentioned. They've historically gotten a good deal of sympathy due to the way they were horrifically killed (with Anastasia herself having been only seventeen when she faced the guns), and the Soviets were pretty terrible in their own ways.note Plus, because Anastasia is the heroine of the story, they automatically become sympathetic due to being her dead family members.
- I Am Not My Father: The reason for Gleb's Heel–Face Turn is a determination to not be like his father, who was one of the guards who killed the Romanovs and lived with that horrific memory the rest of his life. Though it takes him until the end of the show to get there, for most of it he tries to convince himself that his father did the right thing and that he'll follow in his footsteps if need be when it comes to Anya.
- "I Am" Song: "My Petersburg" for Dmitry. It's technically more of an "I Am From Song," but he so thoroughly identifies with his hometown that it qualifies regardless.
- Inconsistent Spelling: In the 1997 movie, Dimitri's name is spelled with three i's, but the musical production changed the spelling to Dmitry.
- In Love with the Mark: Gleb is out to either bring Anya back to Russia or kill her, all to end the rumor that Anastasia Romanov is alive. But he quickly finds himself smitten with her and is torn between carrying out his duty and letting her go. When he has her alone at gunpoint, he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger, partially due to his affection for her and partially due to knowing how his father was emotionally destroyed by his involvement in the slaughter of the rest of the Romanov family.
- Love at First Sight: He is clearly smitten with Anya when they first meet on the streets of St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) in a brief interaction after she mistakes a car backfiring for gunshots. This ends up making things complicated for him when word gets to his higher ups that Anya is "pretending" to be Anastasia Romanov and send him to either bring her back to face punishment for this "lie" or kill her.
- Mood Whiplash: The somber "Stay, I Pray You" is followed by the cheerful, hopeful "We'll Go From There," and right back to horror with Count Ipolitov being dragged off the train and shot, followed by the protagonists' harrowing escape from the police.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Gleb's father went through this after executing the Romanovs. Truth in Television, perhaps, as some Cheka that shot the Romanovs, which would have included children, went through this. Even Lenin was reportedly shocked if the notion that he and Trotsky never issued the order to execute the Romanovs was true.
- No Full Name Given: Dmitry's last name isn't revealed.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: While Sophie spoke with a distinct Russian accent in the film, her stage counterpart, Lily, is portrayed with an American dialect. Likewise with Vlad.
- Parental Abandonment:
- The revolution leaves Anastasia an orphan.
- Both Dmitry's mother and father died when he was young, leaving him an orphan.
- Refuge in the West: While the animated film also featured the plot of the trio getting out of Soviet Russia and going to Paris, the sense of this being a refuge is more emphasized in the stage version, where the three are criminals being sought after, particularly Anya for the suspicion of either impersonating or actually being Anastasia Romanov. A former Russian noble is shot for boarding the train with illegal papers, adding to the sense of danger. In addition, many of the Russian nobility not killed during Red October turn out to have fled to Paris, where they all socialize at the Neva Club.
- Riddle for the Ages: Possibly as an homage to the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film, the musical leaves the audience with just a hint of ambiguity as to whether Anya really was the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
- She's Not My Girlfriend:
- Just before "My Petersberg", Dmitry and Anastasia arrive on a street where Dmitry's ex-con partners are gathered, drunk and still drinking. Upon seeing the duo, they tease him saying he got a new girlfriend to which he responds with the usual "She's not my girlfriend!", grab's her hand, and tries to walk away from the group, leading to a fight.
- After "The Press Conference", Marie asks Anastasia where her young man is, referring to Dmitry. Anastasia tells her he is not her young man and Marie tries again while Anastasia again claims they're not in a relationship.Marie: Where is your young man?
Anastasia: He is not my young man.
Marie: It's not plain to you that he loves you?
Anastasia: He is not my young man, Nana.
Marie: When he refused my reward for finding you, I thought 'Anastasia has found herself another kind of Prince. One of character, not birth'.
- Shown Their Work: Despite the inaccuracies (of the premise itself), the musical goes to considerably greater lengths to display accuracy than the film did in several aspects:
- While the motives for the Russian Revolution are still skirted around, the post-revolution life is depicted with more realism than it was in the film: the Chekists, the complaints about the new systems, the reality of how the government would have reacted to an apparent princess reappearing. Most notably, the actual location and circumstances of the Romanovs' execution are described accurately.
- Russian speakers often noted that the animated film got the nickname for "Anastasia" wrong; it would be "Nastya", not "Anya."* Perhaps in response to this, the musical deliberately uses the correct informal "Dima" for affectionate references to Dmitry. ("Anya" may not be short for "Anastasia", but it is Russian diminutive for "Anna", as in Anna Anderson. Also, the point is that Anya doesn't remember her name or identity at all, and so Anya is not intended to be short for Anastasia — in the song "In My Dreams", Anya notes that the nurses picked the name for her.)
- A common criticism of the film was that it ignored the fact that, in reality, the Soviet regime would have been less than pleased to find a surviving member of the Tsar's family parading around openly. The musical hinges one of its main conflicts on this very fact.
- Although Gleb is a fictional character, his surname, Vaganov, was taken from Stepan Vaganov, one of the real executioners of the Romanov family. Though he isn't mentioned by name in the show, he is all but stated to be Gleb's father, as a large part of Gleb's inner conflict is that his father took part in the massacre and was emotionally destroyed by it.
- In the opening scene while the family is dancing together the Tsarina Alexandra does not dance, spending much of the scene sitting on a chair. When she was six years old she was involved in an accident which seriously injured her legs. There are many photographs of an adult Alexandra in her wheelchair.
- In the prologue, Tsarevich Alexei is shown tripping and falling on the floor, causing his mother to panic and run over to him. In real life, Alexei had hemophilia, a blood disorder that impairs the body's ability to make blood clots. Alexandra kept strict control over her young son and doted on him constantly because even the smallest cut or bruise could have killed him.
- Significant Double Casting: Count Ipolitov, a refugee aristocrat who recognizes Anya as Anastasia at the train station and who is later arrested and shot for trying to flee Russia is played by the same actor as Anya's father.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: In the final scene, Anya and Dmitry loudly contradict each other, before Anya grabs his suitcase, slams it on the ground, and steps up on it to kiss him.
- Vlad and Lily have elements of this, though it's more foreplay for them than any true conflict.
- Take That!: One of the fake Anastasias that Marie had to deal with came from Cleveland. She says she's never even heard of the place, but it sounds dreadful.
- Truer to the Text: The musical is surprisingly more faithful to Marcelle Mourette's original stage play and its 1956 film adaptation than the 1997 animated film that inspired it.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Gleb is a true believer in the new communist order of Russia and upon arriving in Paris is disgusted to see the excesses of the exiled Russian oligarchs in exile. He also repeatedly tells himself that his father's hand in the slaughter of the Romanov family was justified and spends most of the story attempting to either capture Anya to bring her back to Russia to punish her for "pretending" to be Anastasia or else kill her (particularly if she IS Anastasia). Though ultimately he is not able to go through with executing Anya despite believing her to truly be the living Anastasia, choosing to let her go and report back to his superiors that rumors of a living Anastasia were just that:rumors.
Glowing dim as an ember
Things my heart used to know...
Once upon... a December!