Thursday night I sat in the front row of Anastasia on Broadway, and confirmed the reason I love costume design. Sitting that close to the action, I could see every seam and every details – right down to some of the structures under the dresses – and I loved every minute of it. I always get a thrill from live theater, but it’s the costumes that get me every time. I love how atmosphere, character and setting can change with just a simple change of clothes.
The costumes were designed by Tony award winning Linda Cho, and they are a true feast for the eyes from beginning to end. I was fascinated looking at all the different fabrics and textures she used, and how it changed with location. In Russia, the characters wore drab colors and heavy fabrics likely to present the oppression the characters felt that eventually forced them out of their native land. In Paris, they were more carefree, wearing shorter skirts, and lighter colors and textiles. Skirts moved differently, flowing and airy, and everything felt lighter (see examples in the two images below). In an interview I watched with Cho, she talks about her firm belief in depth and texture, which immediately makes her one of my new favorite costume designers, as this is something I am always striving for.
Cho faced a challenge many costume designers face: how to take the familiar and make it your own. Many people love the animated film this musical was based on, the “costumes” included. The blue dress above is a prime example of how the designer took something iconic that the audience recognized and wanted, but changing it to fit into her vision. I face this problem often when I am at work, and I call it “keeping it in everyone’s comfort zone, but making it mine.” Cho definitely succeeded at this, as the audience applauded when this look arrived. From what I’ve read, in the original trial run the dress was different and the consensus from the audience was that the blue dress was greatly missed. It returned for the Broadway production.
In true me fashion, I read up on the costumes as much as I could after I had seen the show. Turns out, some of them were so heavy they had to have an elaborate pulley system to move them to the dressing rooms! Of course, this has made me create a fantastic picture in my mind of the rush of being backstage with ghost costumes flying up a stairwell. I would love to be part of that backstage experience – and imagine being in that costume room!!
I love that there’s a small trove of information on these costumes, which are a combination of history accuracy and what works for the actors and actresses playing the characters. For a little more on how the costumes are made, watch this. And while this video isn’t technically about the costumes (it’s about Altomare playing Anya), it shows the complexity of her first costume by detailing the hidden undergarments and the detail and texture in her first costume or this one which shows more of the costumes up close, as well as the wigs (there’s a whole series of these “Royal Misfits” videos, and they’re very entertaining – once you get to the first one you can link to the others).
Truth be told, this show could’ve been godawful and all I would’ve see was the costumes. However, the show itself is very good, despite the fact that Christy Altomare (pictured above) was out and we saw her understudy (who was good but not great). In retrospect, I should’ve guessed this might be the case when my tickets for the first row weren’t insanely overpriced, but at the time I just saw a good deal and I went for it. I have no regrets, though now I will have to go back and see Altomare in the title role!
When I was in high school, my father took my sister and I to the premiere of the animated film the musical is based on, and I became enthralled with the mystery of the missing princess, so I was familiar with the storyline. For the most part, it was the same but they did remove Rasputin as the villain and replaced him with a Russian military general. I have to say, it was a good change. It made the story more realistic. However, all the major scenes and songs were included: Once Upon a December, Journey to the Past, etc. along with some newly written ones for the musical. Before seeing the show, I listened the soundtrack obsessively (which is partially the reason I was disappointed in Altomare’s absence – I was used to hearing her voice and had been looking forward to seeing her performance).
The sets were interesting. While there were traditional moving set pieces that the actors interacted with , a lot of it was made of screens with projected images that moved subtly with the action of the story. During one of the songs (pictured above), I was watching the projected image behind the actors, and the water moves ever so subtly, much like it would in real life. One particularly memorable scene using this technological set was a train ride. The scenes on the screens moved, giving the audience the feeling of moving along with the train. Combine that with the moving set piece, and it all added to the atmosphere.
Everything – the actors, the sets, the costumes – all came together to create a magical experience, one that I am eager to repeat!