Anastasia, the new musical based on the beloved 1997 animated film, is both decidedly old-fashioned and perfectly suited to the world today.
Many people have developed a constant watchfulness born from distrust and worry. We check social media constantly for news and commentary; we watch the news (and participate in our own fact-checking). But it’s hard to consume that much information and misinformation without developing a nasty side effect: unadulterated cynicism. Read through some replies on Twitter—your own or someone else’s—or the comments on any article, and you’re bound to come across enough mean-spirited, cruel, and ignorant words to make you lose a tiny bit of faith in humanity. Repeat this over and over again, and it’s enough to make anyone feel jaded.
At first glance, it might seem frivolous to produce an opulent historical fairy tale (and a Russian one, at that) in this day and age. We need edgy, modern art, some would argue—art that reflects our world and cautions us of the possible consequences. Less Disney, more Handmaid’s Tale. And we do need that kind of art. But our psyches can’t take a steady diet of dystopia and cautionary tales; we need joy and hope to remind us that there is a great deal of good in the world, too.
Historically, the fairy tale wasn’t the Disneyfied, cheery comfort food we take it as today. Many have “happy endings,” true, but a darker, more gruesome side as well: the Grimm Cinderella variant involved the stepsisters chopping off parts of their feet to fit into the slipper, while a particular Snow White tale punished the witch by having her dance in hot iron shoes until she died. Initially, fairy tales such as the Grimm brothers’ stories were designed as “rough” entertainment for adults; only later, when youth-oriented tales proved more commercially attractive, did they clean up the stories to remove sexual (though not violent) content. And more importantly, they served as a controlled, heightened environment in which to explore the world, give warnings, and outline virtues held by a society. Scholar Jack Zipes, one of the foremost experts on the Western fairy tale, continually reminds us that these tales “don’t come out of thin air; they are produced at a certain time in history, and they reflect a society’s values and customs and processes.” Such tales are a lens through which we can safely explore both the positive and negative aspects of a culture or a society.
This is the kind of fairy tale we need more than ever, and this is what Anastasia strives to be. It looks at a world fractured into “before” and “after,” and at damaged people whose lives are defined by that dichotomy: orphans, petty criminals, refugees. Anya (a revelatory Christy Altomare) is an amnesiac orphan, found wandering the streets at sixteen, has spent a decade working odd jobs and dealing with fragmented memories and PTSD-like symptoms. Conman Dmitry (Derek Klena, as a deceptively complex character) is an orphan too, the son of an anarchist killed in a labor camp. The Dowager Empress Maria (Mary Beth Peil) transforms from the doting grandmother of the prologue into a cold, bitter woman who dwells on all she has lost. Gone is the animated film’s nightmare-inducing Rasputin (and the unfortunate historical implications his story line had); in his place is Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a Soviet official climbing in power who can’t escape his father’s violent legacy and isn’t sure if he wants to.
But, like the best kind of fairy tale, Anastasia suggests that it is, in fact, possible to heal. In a 2012 New Yorker article, Joan Acocella comments that the fairy tale can “provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world.” The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens does just that, pulling hope and beauty out of despair, and Terrence McNally’s book—though occasionally leaving a few plot holes or easy resolutions—does the same. You cannot go back, but there is a future beyond the darkness, if good people stand up and refuse to be forced into the past any longer.
Which, interestingly enough, is where Anastasia diverges from its fairy tale predecessors. Traditionally speaking, the fairy tale is a story of restoration. We have “Cinderella,” the noblewoman forced into servitude but who becomes royalty in the end, or “Beauty and the Beast” variants, generally featuring a prince who is cursed but then restored to human form, Sleeping Beauty restored to waking life after being cursed, and so on. The protagonists are knocked down, but their journeys restore them to their perches and the “rightful” order is restored. Anastasia takes the fairy tale format—a virtuous but lost heroine, a journey of discovery, a quest, helper figures, a romance—and modernizes it simply by taking the opposite view. Restoration of the past is not possible or even desirable; Anastasia’s happy ending comes about when characters accept that and forge a new path forward.
Thus, Anastasia isn’t quite a typical “princess story.” Instead, it takes that framework to tell a story about what happens to people whose lives are stripped away by change that does not care to take them into account. Everyone in the story has lost something, from the romantic leads who both lost their parents to the cruelty and intolerance of an oppressive regime, to the exiled emigrants mournfully promising, “I’ll bless my homeland till I die.” A raucous Act 2 number takes place at a Russian émigré club (which really did exist) in Paris. Jazzy and upbeat, it seems to suggest that life in exile isn’t quite so bad—until one realizes that these aristocrats lost everything, and literally all they have now is reminiscences of the “Land of Yesterday.”
The classic fairy tale heroine is more take charge than twentieth-century animation might have you believe. The unnamed heroine of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a “beauty and the beast” variant, conquers what she is told is impossible in order to right past wrongs. Even Cinderella, in some variants, actively participates in her own transformation. It is to this category that “Anya” belongs, and it is the means by which this story fulfills the fairy tale function of defining virtue. Persistent and hopeful even in the face of adversity, Anya’s roots as a 90s-era “modern princess” are visible. However, she’s also a scrappy orphan who fights, and not just figuratively. While her contemporaries from animated fairy tales often put up a token resistance before the hero must step in, Anya holds her own in a street fight, and it is her ferocity, not Dmitry’s, that scares off their attackers. In fact, all three of the central female characters are competent, complex characters (who, not incidentally, also help the show pass the Bechdel Test and a slew of other feminist barometers with flying colors). Two of them have romances, but care is taken to define them apart from those: Anya seeks to understand her identity; Maria fights to live in a world that has taken all she loves; Lily strives to find joy in new circumstances. This is a musical driven by women’s hopes, losses, dreams, and desires—some romantic, but many not.
And if fairy tales are a way for us to work through issues of our society, then Anastasia, in its resistance to a particular fairy tale trope, is exactly the tale we need today. The majority of classic fairy tales tend to define heroines by their physical beauty; as Zipes suggests in his book Fairy Tale as Myth, “All girls are supposed to become ‘beauties’; i.e., selfless and nameless.” Furthermore, those beautiful bodies are rarely under their own control and consent—or even their own gazes, as many fairy tales and their descendant tales are filtered through the eyes of the male hero who gazes upon her. Anastasia, on the other hand, is decidedly feminized (and feminist). While Altomare is, of course, lovely, costume designer Linda Cho wisely has Anya spend the entire first act as a scruffy, tomboyish peasant, with simple hair and clothes that denote her lowly status as, essentially, a migrant worker, before donning glittering, glamorous gowns in Act 2 as she embraces her possible royal identity. Her beauty is not the cornerstone of her virtue; that comes from her courage, hope, and defiant persistence.
Additionally, a subtle but running feminist theme is Anya’s control over her own body and physical space. Following the previously mentioned street fight, she brusquely explains to Dmitry that she “learned to take care of herself” while walking alone across Russia—one can extrapolate the various reasons (some gendered, some not) that implies. Even in her romantic arc, in which the classic fairy tale heroine is pursued, not the pursuer, Anya takes the lead. After Dmitry comes to check on her after hearing her scream from a nightmare, she asks him to stay for a little while, and they share an emotionally charged scene while clad only in a nightgown (her) and a tank top and pajamas (him). While G-rated, this scene bends the rigid “purity” taboos that tend to govern both the fairy tale structure and the historical milieu in which this particular story takes place. And Anya does not wait around for her “prince,” angst-ridden over their class differences, to kiss her—she takes charge, climbs up on a suitcase, and kisses him first!
“The new order has no need for fairy tales,” says Gleb at the end of Anastasia. He could easily be talking about the attitude of our society, concerned with more pressing and contemporary matters. But fairy tales are the means by which generations of children learn about how the world works. Today’s world needs fairy tales like this to gently but surely present more balanced ideas about romance and femininity, and to remind children and adults alike that there is more to the world than the bad things we see happening every day. Experiencing joy cannot stop those things from happening, to be sure, but finding happiness when forces conspire to steal joy is its own act of rebellion.
Oh, and one last note (and a spoiler warning). The show’s happy ending hinges upon a rising member of the government choosing to follow his own moral compass rather than the orders of a cruel and corrupt government. Maybe a fairy tale like Anastasia has more to say about the modern world than it seems…