Monday, June 19, 2017

At the Beginning (Again) With 'Anastasia'

I’m over the moon about the new Broadway musical Anastasia. Because it’s based on one of the movies that defined my childhood.

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Christy Altomare as Anastasia (

I remember seeing it in theaters, and then when it came out on VHS my mom said I had to clean my room before I could watch it. I cleaned my room and I watched it. And then I watched it again and again and again. Granted, it was years before I could sit through the nightmare scene (I had that problem with a lot of movies). But I learned all the songs. I knew all the quotes by heart. I loved having a heroine who both (a) kicked butt and (b) wore beautiful dresses. No, seriously, SHE. SAVES. THE. DUDE. AND SHE BEATS THE BAD GUY. SHE FREAKING KILLS HIM. That had NOT been a thing in animated princess movies before then, to my knowledge. And the shot where she steps on the reliquary is immensely satisfying. #GirlPower

And ‘Anastasia’ is just the most beautiful, perfect princess name ever. Not only that, but, as Vlad says in the movie, “The name ‘Anastasia’ means she will rise again.” Funny, how the musical is breathing new life into the fandom. It’s really amazing to be seeing this happen on the Internet.


If I had to pick my favorite non-disney animated movie, it would be a tie between Anastasia and Thumbelina. It just did something for me that few other movies could. The story, the animation style, the movie satisfies me the way Anastasia does. The themes and the story tie into a lot of my other fandoms--and, yes, I can’t help noticing the connection with a certain Soviet super-assassin with a metal arm. Hence I feel the need to share this crossover fan art:

Comrades in Love
Is that Bucky and Natasha or Dmitri and Anya? Yes. (Pinterest)

The movie was my gateway drug to all things Russian. The fairy tale led me to the story of the real Anastasia. The real Anastasia led me to Russia’s beautiful history and culture--golden-domed churches, curved kokoshnik tiaras, Ivan the Terrible, Moscow, Catherine the Great, and of course Saint Petersburg.

One of the other impacts was that it gave me a taste for stories about amnesiac princesses--that became a common trope in some of my childhood daydreams. Also magic necklaces.

When I was older and recovering from the trauma that was middle school, I felt like I had to find myself again. That was when the songs “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December” became real to me.

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Hello Giggles

My freshman year at BYU I took an introduction to sewing class. During the lab period the other students and I would take turns playing our music. One day, “At the Beginning” came on and some of our classmates said they’d never heard it before. The rest of us thought that was ridiculous. So a few lab days later, we watched Anastasia in class so they could get the reference. The professor happened to come down that day to check on us--she told us we couldn’t watch movies in lab anymore. But it was worth it.

(Not to mention, I went to a friend's wedding last Friday, and you'll never guess what song they played for the bride and groom first dance).

The last time I sat down to watch the movie was right before I graduated college. More recently, I was able to buy the movie soundtrack at a thrift store. I don’t listen to it nearly as much as I ought to.

Also, this happened on Tumblr a couple years ago:

Tumblr screenshot

I was neutral bordering on, I’ll admit, a little hesitant when it was announced that Anastasia was going to be revamped for a Broadway musical (although I couldn’t tell you why). But the soundtrack, the photos and the stage footage we have seen about it in the last few months is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s really brought back the magic. I have an aunt who is going to see Anastasia on Broadway in September and let me tell you I am so jelly.

The new musical makes significant changes to the story and some of the classic songs as well as adding a lot of new material. I don’t really miss Rasputin and Bartok, tbh. But the changes they made for the stage were a tribute to the real history of the Russian Revolution, the Romanovs, and what came afterward. And honestly, those changes make me want to see it even more.

Just like
Every other
Nineties kid
I went home
And learned about
The real
And I learned to like
that version too

And I can understand the need to make a story originally produced for the big screen fit better for a 2-hour stage performance where all you have to work with are humans. I took a Theater 101 class in college. Film and stage share some elements of visual storytelling, but the stage is three-dimensional and tactile to an audience and some story elements cannot be conveyed to the same effect as they would on screen. You have to tell the story differently. Yet the nods we do have to the original film give you chills: the blue gown that Anya wears to the ballet, the absolutely stirring performances of “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December,” a few measures in “Stay, I Pray You” borrowed from “In the Dark of the Night”, the ghosts of the Romanov family. It’s familiar and brand new at the same time. .
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justjaredjr I mean HOOOOLY CRAP

I was able to listen to the soundtrack almost all the way through last weekend, thanks to YouTube. Christy Altomare brings an innocence and freshness to Anya’s character, at least in her singing. “In My Dreams” is my favorite new song. It’s a waltz like “Once Upon a December,” but with more major notes, and it conveys the depth of the loss and trauma that Anya has experienced as well as her hope.

I can’t really say much about the new villain, Gleb, without having seen the stage show. But the songs he sings hint at not only his internal conflict but his keen awareness of how revolutions bring out the worst in humanity. And the point is, the bad guy wants to kill her.

I have to admit, I don’t really like the new finale. Probably because I was expecting a reprise of “Journey to the Past,” “Once Upon a December” kind of kills the optimistic vibe about Anya choosing to be herself and go with Dmitri. But, I haven’t actually seen the performance and I don’t know when I’m going to, so I’ll give the jury more time to deliberate on that. So far I still like the movie better--but the musical does a lot for me. It can stay.

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I don’t blame the creators of the stage version wanting to go back and explore some of the themes that were hinted at in the film, because there is a LOT to work with.

The Soviet Union and Communism was never mentioned directly in the movie, although we had a couple of cues (Vladimir’s passport, the “People’s Orphanage,” people calling each other comrade. The musical, however, lets us know all about that.  In the new version of “A Rumor in Saint Petersburg,” we open with a speech from Communist party leaders and people complaining about bread lines, and a brief mention of Saint Petersburg being renamed Leningrad. I went to a Russian Choir concert at BYU around easter, and the choir sang a lot of wartime Soviet ballads--let me tell you, “Stay, I Pray You” really draws from that genre. But it also conveys the idea that Russia is still Russia no matter who is in charge of it.

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Dmitri, Vlad, and Anya in the Hartford stage production (pre-Broadway) (Hartford Stage)

Anastasia is the story of a young woman who is trying to figure out who she is in terms of both where she came from and who she can be, a journey from the past (Saint Petersburg) to the future (Paris). If you know anything about history, you would know that Paris during the roaring twenties is a major artistic and intellectual hub for people suffering post-World War I Disillusionment. The musical shows us the Russian expats who escaped the Revolution and expressing their bitterness in “Land of Yesterday”. In real life, we had a lot of American expats living and writing in Paris at the time, most notably Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A person who walks into that kind of a scene might be provoked to ask certain questions. World War I destroyed a lot of faith that people had in the old way of doing things--monarchy, empire, aristocracy, religion, morality, and so on. Paris, more relevant to the story overall, represented the forward-thinking and forward-mindedness of the future, and it is a place where Anya has to come to terms with what she really wants. Russia at the time is a Communist country where the government dictates the economy and brainwashes people to be loyal to the State, it represents stagnation. Capitalist, glittering Paris is a gateway to opportunity, freedom, and exploration of self.

The movie is probably best thought of as a fantasy that represents working through your inner demons. Rasputin and his minions are a reminder that childhood is, from a child’s perspective, scary. The things that are trying to separate you from what you want are simply understood as monsters and demons and dark magic. You also live in a world where adults say one thing but mean something else. If you don’t believe me, someone at The Atlantic had similar comments to say about Jim Henson’s Labrynth. But, anyway, back to Anastasia, the movie goes to show, those monsters can be slain. The “good magic” if any, comes from what is safe and familiar--the ghosts of her lost family, the lullaby, finding her grandmother again.

The Broadway musical, I guess, is about adulthood, about transitioning into the world emotionally and spiritually. You’re physically an adult, but inside you still have to do some growing up. It is also a reflection of today’s world where there is so much social upheaval and young adults like me go through a lot of displacement, from home, to college, to the job field, and then the challenge of trying to figure out who they are. Anya’s stage journey from Saint Petersburg to Paris is an analogy of this, where we’re coming from versus where we’re trying to get to. Which brings me to another point: somehow I relate more with the lost Anya the Orphan than the snarky teenage IRL Anastasia, because Anya doesn’t know who she is or where she belongs, and she has to find that out for herself. And that’s a journey people tend to get lost on.

I wish I could write like this movie's writers. The story between Anastasia and Dmitri is beautifully done.
One of the most important meta posts ever written about any movie (Pinterest)

Just because we have this new version of the Anastasia legend does not mean we have to discard any version that came before. The good thing about telling stories is that they can be told over and over again. And if you tell a story in a different way each time, then you learn something new from it. It's still something you can enjoy without being uptight about the (lack of) historical accuracy. The important thing is not who or what Anastasia is about but about the journey the characters go on, and what we learn from going with them. The message has always been, and will continue to be, that following your heart is the most important thing. When you know who you really are, then everything else will fall into place. Anastasia is a story that was important to me in my childhood and teen years. It is a story that I continue to find a lot of meaning in.

anastasia's journey
20th Century Fox/Pinterest

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"I'm 'A', Obviously": Happy Birthday to the Real Anastasia

June 18th is the birthday of one of the most adored young women of recent world history. You may know her as the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaievna, fourth daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. 


Her family, however, knew her as the resident schvibzik, which is Russian for "Imp," because of what a prankster she was.

Grand Duchess Anastasia

No, I'm not lying. 

People have impersonated her, novels and movies have been written about her, myths have been blown out of proportion, but the real Anastasia and her family continue to delight and fascinate everyone--including yours truly.

This is Anastasia when she was fifteen--the current age of my baby sister.

Grand Duchess Anastasia 1916:

Being a 90s kid, of course, the 1997 fantasy Anastasia blew my mind (and it's still one of my favorite movies ever, and it's now spawned a really awesome Broadway musical). But that, of course, was just a small taste of what Anastasia's real story had to offer. 

When I was older, I came across the Royal Diaries series, and Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess by Carolyn Meyer immediately caught my attention. I read it multiple times and there are lines that I can still (almost) quote by heart (including the one I used for the title of this post):

“Tatiana says that if I eat too much blini I will turn into a blin. That could prove interesting!”
"Someday I will dye my hair red and wear a veil. Won't Mama be appalled!
"My derriere hurts" Say 'figure', Anastasia!' snaps Tatiana. "Okay, then the part of my body that was in contact with a saddle for the last three hours hurts!"
"Grandmama forbade all talk of the war and asked me instead about my French studies--that, of course, proved to be a total disaster."
"Why wasn’t I born knowing all these languages?
"I wanted to KICK Derevenko"
"I was hoping we would be free of lessons until we were truly free. No such luck"

Remarking about riding their bikes down the halls of the Alexander Palace with Marie: "so far we have had several spectacular crashes"

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More than any other title in the Royal Diaries Series, The Last Grand Duchess made the subject likeable and real to the reader. But more than any other royal family in history, the family of Tsar Nicholas II--Empress Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, Anastasia, and Alexei--are a lot more real and accessible to people today because of how well-documented their lives were. Nicholas took tons of photos--and some of them were really, really candid.

Tsar Nicholas II and Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna Romanova of Russia.:
Nicholas with Tatiana, Pinterest

There's this family photo that is too reminiscent of the painfully awkward family photos of today, Anastasia is on the far right:
Sometimes historical figures are actually way too #relatable.

"Hey, Olga, can you get out of bed?" "NO"
Also, note that the bedding is not super-fancy

Just being a normal family here. Move along.

Tatiana, Olga, Maria and Anastasia:
Pinterest :) 

Sometimes it blows my mind that something referenced in a fictional diary actually happened. I remember Anastasia talking about Olga's public presentation when she turned sixteen: here is a photo from that very event.
Olga Romanov looking beautiful on her 16th birthday, beside her members of her regiment:

One thing that Meyer describes in the fictional diary is the Romanov family tradition of building a huge snow fort/mountain every winter. This is the one they built in Tobolsk, Siberia, before the guards decided to tear it down.

Snow fort built by the Tsar, his daughters and soldiers during captivity in Tobolsk Siberia before it was ordered destroyed because the prisoners could look out over the wooden fence to the outside world.

They're royalty, but at the same time they're the family down the street. Reading their story just makes you feel, not to be tacky or anything, right at home. I mean, they look almost like anybody's kids. We love them because we relate to them. And we have access to everything they made because it all happened a hundred years ago or more--no privacy rules, no social media, everything is fair game to their fans.

“Children of the last Russian Tsar playing aboard the imperial yacht Polar Star, 1905”:
Pinterest--Anastasia on the right

And of course, we still have many of their real letters and diaries and first-hand accounts from the people who knew them. You get the sense that the Romanovs loved each other very much. True, they pulled back from the public spotlight quite a bit because they didn't want anyone to know that the baby brother, Alexei, had hemophilia. So they kind of had to be close. But they got to be a real family.

Tsarina Alexandra with her son Tsarevich Alexei Romanov. as Alexis was diagnosed as a haemophiliac and was not expected to live long. Both parents devoted much time to the boy and left the government of Russia to others. Alexandra was a very protective mother, but she was also determined to see that her son became tsar. Alexandra believed that she was more suited to do this than her husband::
Empress Alexandra with Alexei. Alexei did not want his illness to keep him
from having fun like any other boy, as we can see in this photo (Pinterest)

The four sisters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia, were known collectively as OTMA. They were that tight.

The four Romanov sisters in 1914.A♥W:
OTMA in 1914, the year part of The Last Grand Duchess is set. Anastasia on the left. (pinterest)

The real Anastasia was feisty, sassy and spirited.

"Grand Duchess Anastasia grew into an energetic child. She was the shortest of the daughters and the least ethereal, with dark blonde hair and blue eyes. What everyone remarked on was her quickness and sense of humor. She loved mischief and playing tricks, not all of them nice... Anastasia was known to trip people; her cousins complained she played too rough. Anastasia didn’t seem to care. She climbed trees and adored animals. She ate chocolates with her gloves on. She was a brilliant mimic and shone in family theatricals. Anastasia disliked her lessons and showed little aptitude for grammar or spelling, but she was considered by some the most intelligent of the four daughters." 

Maria Nikolaevna & Anastasia Nikolaevna on Horn Island (Vyayke-Pakri), 1912:
Anastasia with Marie. Same of the pictures she's in show her with a bit of attitude. (Pinterest)

A more detailed account from Your Dictionary:

Nicknamed shvibzik, meaning "imp, " Anastasia was mischievous, and loved making others laugh. She delighted in mimicking pompous guests, as well as instigating pranks on nurses and tutors. In his memoirs, her French tutor, Pierre Guillard, wrote, "She was the imp of the whole house and the glummest faces would always brighten in her presence, for it was impossible to resist her jokes and nonsense."
Anastasia did not enjoy most of her schoolwork. According to Hugh Brewster, author of Anastasia's Album, her English teacher remembered her trying to bribe him with flowers so he would raise her poor marks. When he refused, she gave them to her Russian teacher. She adored creative subjects, however, and wrote, "I excelled at composition. I must say that all my poems were satires, lampoons, from which no one was safe." Her drawings, paintings, and photographs are well documented in family albums. She often spent hours illustrating letters with drawings, and hand-coloring photographs to highlight a special aspect.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. 

Like the Grand Duchess Anastasia, I too had really long hair and bangs until I was in my late teens. I feel your pain, gurl.  
Anastasia with her father - What if?:
Anastasia with her father. Pinterest

She would really have loved the 21st century--she mastered the art of selfies before selfies were a thing.
"I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling."-exerpt from a letter written by Anastasia to her father on October 28, 1914:
"I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling."
-excerpt from a letter written by Anastasia to her father on October 28, 1914 via Pinterest

Also making really weird faces. Can you believe that a real historical figure would do this? It's the absurdity of it that makes her appealing.

That's a face that could appall Mama!

Honestly, if they get that feisty attitude across in the movies, more power to her.

It makes sense that the movie would have changed some of the details of the story. However, in other aspects they actually did their homework. 
My edit
On the left is a photo of the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna in her gown for the 1903 costume ball. On the right, of course, is the Dowager Empress in the movie Anastasia (1997), dressed for the costume ball in the opening scene. The outfits are not identical. BUT they do have similar design elements. The design of the crown in both, for instance, is similar, both having prongs above the fur brim and a veil in back. Both gowns have a narrow waist and similar horizontal and vertical bands. It's enough of a resemblance that when I saw the photo of the real gown I could tell that it was familiar. 

My edit
Far left, a screenshot of the princess gown and tiara from the movie. The middle panel is a portrait of Anastasia's oldest sister Olga wearing a court dress. The far right is Alexandra's coronation portrait. Notice the similarities of all three: the curved kokoshnik tiara, the sash around the front, lower shoulder line, and the long, open sleeves. To have confirmation that one of her gowns from the movie is based on the actual fashions of the Russian Imperial Court is astounding.  

And last but not least, prepare to have your mind blown:
(Screenshot from Pinterest)
Remember this line from the movie: "Olga made me so mad she said it looked like a pig riding a donkey!...She was right."

It's just so...affirming that the people who created the animated film went to those lengths to include some things from the world that the real Anastasia actually lived in. And then to have a random fictional diary include so much of the real details is thrilling. I think Anastasia is part of the reason I'm a history geek.

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. After Nicholas abdicated, he and his family were kept under house arrest in Tsarskoe Selo (palace compound outside of Saint Petersburg) for several months and then moved to Tobolsk, Siberia. When the Bolshevik/Communist Party took control of Russia, the Romanovs were moved to Ekaterinberg, where, in July of 1918, they were all brutally executed.  Anastasia was only seventeen. The remains of all the family members have since been found and identified. So, no fairy-tale ending here. But the important thing to remember is that she lived. She lived with her hair down and chocolate stains on her gloves. Dreaming about her escaping can be a fun pasttime. But celebrating Anastasia's life is the best way to go about remembering her--and we do that by living our own lives to the fullest.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Lizy Reviews: Wrath of the Storm by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I have done the thing--I just finished reading another wicked awesome fantasy series. Wrath of the Storm was an interesting conclusion to the Mark of the Thief trilogy.

I must admit, this story feels a little anti-climactic after the first two action-packed volumes. Probably because, ironically, there is so much happening. Or probably because the main characters are trying their hardest to get the heck out of Rome and keep thinking that everything is resolved. But, as Nic's experience shows, it's not over until its over. Caela and Callistus both return but they are both woefully underused. Most of the animal action (Key word: most) comes from the terrifying dragon known as the Mistress and, occasionally, a creepy spectral deer.

my edit

Nic is trying to do everything in his power to NOT create a Jupiter stone, but inevitably, he realizes he has to attempt it in order to complete his escape. Also spoiler, Nic's brush with death was a little too cliche. We pay one last trip to the arena and that scene is very satisfying, and we even spend a day or two in the Roman courts. The gods themselves never come out to reveal themselves or work out their issues in person--I really would've liked to see Nielsen's take on them--and the final action is left up to humans. But the final scene is still very epic.

The new characters in Wrath of the Storm, if any, aren't worthy of note--except for the fact that the Roman Emperor is actually involved this time. Nic, of course, has a hard time trusting ANYBODY, including his friends. Especially his friends. Every time someone who is not Nic tries to fix something, it almost never goes as planned. He doesn't trust the people in power who are watching his case, because, at least according to Nic's perspective, they all have ulterior motives, which is true, but in some cases it doesn't make so-and-so a bad person. And Nic doesn't want anyone else to sacrifice themselves for him even though they gladly would, and do. The stakes being as high as they are, I don't blame him for wanting to do everything himself. Grandpa Radulf, for instance, has finally moved past the antagonist stage, in fact the only opposition he creates is repeatedly telling Nic to PLEASE JUST STOP. Everyone's goal is for Nic to walk away from this mess alive, while Nic insists that he has to make sure everyone else is okay even if it means paying the ultimate price. What else is new?

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This book has a lot going for it. We have some interesting demonstrations of Nic testing the limits of his power, and using his abilities to full effect so that he can get back up and keep fighting, so the action scenes can keep going in a believable way. Nic and Aurelia finally sort out their issues--yes, it does draw the attention of the enemy but I think Nic's insistence on having to protect Aurelia was the only real issue. Aurelia, as we well know, can take care of herself. So yay for having Nicelia confirmed. Crispivia is hinted at but not really a central part of the story. I can live with that. Crispus continues to be the real MVP of the squad. What really sold the book for me, though, was the unexpected redemption story, but if I said anything else then it would be giving away too much. The Mark of the Thief trilogy is definitely up there with my other favorite fantasy series.

Mark of the Thief

Rise of the Wolf