“Anastasia” will be the holiday show at the Fox. That’s appropriate, since the real-life event that begins the story – the execution of Grand Duchess Anastasia and the rest of the Romanov family by the Bolsheviks – took place 100 years ago, in July 1918.
It seems that only stories that have demonstrated their crowd appeal in other media get to be Broadway musicals. Anastasia has inspired an animated film, a live-action film, a television mini-series, a ballet, a stage play and several books.
In its long career, the story has gone through many changes. If you go to the Fox, you’ll see a show that simplifies and brightens historical events, gliding over World War I and the Russian revolution. You needn’t fear that you will see that brutal, sordid execution. It’s been cleaned up a lot.
The Romanovs are shot, though, making the musical more realistic than its immediate source, the 1997 animated movie, in which they discreetly disappear. It wasn’t made by Disney, but it’s in the Disney style. The villain, Rasputin, resembles Maleficent more than the historical Rasputin.
In both show and animated movie, Anastasia survives, but loses her memory. She doesn’t know she’s the Grand Duchess. But the audience does.
That’s a big change from the 1956 live-action film, which keeps us in doubt to the end. The film stars Yul Brynner as a con-artist after the Romanov fortune. He picks up a suicidal tramp (Ingrid Bergman) from the street and trains her to impersonate Anastasia. In a witty twist on the Pygmalion myth, he ends up convincing himself that she is Anastasia. The superbly-acted climactic scene has Bergman convincing Helen Hayes, as Anastasia’s grandmother, that she is for real. Or if she isn’t, the grandmother never wants to know.
This outlandish tale is more historically accurate than you would expect. There really was an impostor who sprang up from nowhere and succeeded in convincing many people that she was Anastasia. But she didn’t need a Yul Brynner; she came up with the idea herself.
In Berlin in 1920, a young woman was institutionalized after a suicide attempt. She could not remember who she was, and eventually she announced that she was Anastasia. Some survivors of the Romanov family and household accepted her claim, others did not. In 1927, an investigator established that she was Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker who suffered from delusions.
Yet she continued to attract supporters. They provided her with rooms in their mansions and paid her lawyers, who began the longest lawsuit in German history. She visited America, where she was fêted by New York society. She eventually settled in Charlottesville, Virginia. An American supporter married her so that she could remain in this country, which she did until her death in 1984. In her last year, Peter Kurth wrote a book supporting her claim. It became a bestseller and hit TV movie.
In 1993, DNA testing established that Anastasia had died with her family in 1918, and that the impostor was indeed Schanzkowska. This was a fatal blow. Schanzkowska had managed to keep the game going for 60 years, but the public quickly forgot about her.
She even ceased to inspire fiction. The 1997 movie is a fairy tale about a lost princess, as is the musical. Old stories are remarkably resilient, but it seems the tale of Anastasia has reached its final form, without Schanzkowska.
That’s too bad, because I think it will never be told the way it should be told.
In all its versions, the story is a real downer. It expresses hopeless yearning for a vanished world. The Romanovs were one of three European dynasties that fell in World War I. People wanted to believe that at least one survivor had crawled out of the wreckage.
But so what? No happy ending to the story is conceivable. Even if Anastasia was real and able to convince the world of it, she would end up as the centerpiece of a court in exile. Her family, her throne and her country are gone forever. It’s a gloomy, mouldy, European story.
I think it should have been a bright, sassy American success story in our great rags-to-riches tradition, with Schanzkowska as heroine. She starts with nothing, not even an identity. She – or my fictional version of her – would ask herself, why can’t I be a grand duchess?
A canny entrepreneur, she spots a need that she can fill. Demand exists for a Romanov survivor, and she supplies it well enough to live a long life in the lap of luxury and fame. My version would be a jolly tale, full of bold tricks and hair’s breadth escapes.
Like the real one, my impostor would end up in America. We’ve always welcomed brazen con-artists. Just look at our current president.