Once upon a December, we were waiting in anticipation for the Broadway adaptation of Twentieth Century Fox’s 1997 film Anastasia to open at the Broadhurst Theatre. Now that the show has been officially on since April 24, naturally we need to pick apart the show with a finetooth comb and compare it to its source material. So take a journey to the past, and explore six of the major differences between the animated 1997 feature film Anastasia and its Great White Way interpretation.
In the animated feature, we are treated with a maniacally mystical Rasputin, voiced by none other than Christopher Lloyd, as the raised-from-the-dead villain out for revenge on the Romanov family, i.e. its remaining member Anastasia. Though barely rooted in any kind of historical realism, his character (along with his endearing bat sidekick, Bartok) add a lot of fun, comic relief and, yes, terror to the film.
In the Broadway production, we are instead presented with a more historically accurate villain in Bolshevik officer Gleb. Gleb represents the communist regime in a post-imperial Russia, and he’s also the son of one of the guards tasked with carrying out the assassination of the entire Romanov family in 1917. It’s through his character that we see the struggles of transition between governments as well as public mentality at this point in history.
As mentioned before, there is a lot more focus on the history of the Romanov Empire and its subsequent demise. There is a lot more time focused on what the actual Russian government looks like between the years 1917 and 1927, when this musical takes place, and how its radical changes have affected the mentality of Russia during this time period, and therefore how it would shape our characters’ motivations. For example, when Anastasia, Dmitry and Vlad board a train to Paris to escape the turbulent St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, to root ourselves in history), the train is stopped by Soviet officers to the tragic end of one of its passengers. This veers significantly from the reason Anya and her companions leave the train in the animated movie, which instead featured evil apparitions sent by Rasputin to literally derail the train from the tracks.
In the animated film, we are introduced to a John Cusack-voiced charming con man in Dmitry, who as a boy worked at the palace as the Romanovs were being taken away. He then helps young Anastasia flee the revolutionaries by sending her through a secret passage, and that’s the entire backstory for his character. In the Broadway production, we learn a lot more about his character. The secret passage escape is scrapped entirely, and instead we learn he was orphaned young, grew up on the streets of St. Petersburg and though he did share a moment with young Anastasia, it was at a parade in a crowd of thousands (illustrated in the new song “In a Crowd of Thousands”).
In the animated feature, Anya, Dmitry and Vlad head to Paris with the intention of meeting up with Sophie, the bubbly French lady in waiting of the Dowager voiced by Bernadette Peters. Though the Dowager’s lady in waiting is the former paramour of Vlad in both the movie and the musical, the similarities stop there. In the Broadway production, the Dowager’s lady in waiting is Countess Lily, our sassy and rambunctious eyes into what Paris looks like for the remnant citizens of imperial Russia. Played by Caroline O’Connor in the Broadway production with pure energy and charisma, Countess Lily quickly becomes a crowd favorite.
The majority of the animated film’s plot is focused on the journey to the Dowager Empress, with the final third of the film taking place in Paris. In the musical, the entire second act takes place in the City of Light, and we are given insight into what Paris looks like for Russians who’ve escaped to the city after the Bolshevik revolution. In the play, the ballet scene is also extended, the musical given the setting an entire musical number complete with actual ballerinas performing at center stage.
Though the Broadway musical retains six of the animated features songs—including fan favorites “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past”—the animated feature’s songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have also added more than a dozen new songs to fill out the Broadway production. Notable addition include: “My St. Petersburg,” a song sang by Dmitry giving the character more backstory; “In My Dreams,” a expository solo number sang by Anya toward the beginning of the show; and “Land of Yesterday,” a swinging jazz number performed by Countess Lily at the Neva Club in Paris, complete with elaborate dance numbers.
Regardless of how closely the show follows the film, it’s worth checking out—if not for the amazing performances and showstopping musical numbers, then at least to see the differences for yourself. And if this list has inspired you to rewatch this classic film, it’s currently on Netflix!