ANASTASIA Costumes Raise the Bar

by Genevieve Holt

Anastasia costume designer Linda Cho and costume builder Eric Winterling have raised the bar on Broadway costumes.  Literally.  Some of the dresses they created for the Broadway production of Anastasia are so heavy, a pulley system had to be rigged up at New York’s Broadhurst Theater to lift the more elaborate pieces.

The Broadway production of Anastasia, based on the 1997 animated film about the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, features more than 125 costumes designed by Cho and built-in Winterling’s shop.  The costumes in this show are, to quote the New York Observer, “gorgeous, luscious, and lavish.”

At the top of the show, we see Russia’s royal Romanov family in sparkling white gowns and suits, an indication of the family’s grand wealth and stature.  “I looked at photographs and paintings of the royal family,” Cho told Playbill earlier this year. “Tsar Nicholas was an early photography enthusiast, and he took thousands of pictures of his family… There are royal portraits and there have been some costume exhibits, so I looked at the catalogs, and actual clothing at the museums.”

One particularly exquisite look in the show is the Tsarina, who is dressed in a sparkling ensemble that weighs 50 pounds, including a stunning 8-inch tall crown.  The costume is so heavy, it has to be stored on the stage level because it can’t be transported up and down stairs.  “Historically, the Tsarina would have been the most dazzling,” Cho told Playbill. “And that real gown was covered in real diamonds and pearls. Historically, that dress would have been worth $10 million.”

Winterling notes that the show’s version of the dress “is intricate.” He adds, “It has ten different kinds of trims, five different fabrics, including silver lace over a pink brocade. There are Swarovski crystals, swan’s down, beaded appliques, and fabric with real metal in it, that’s actually cold to the touch. It’s a dress that’s appropriate for the Tsarina.”

He notes that in theatre costuming, there’s a delicate balance between historical accuracy and practicality.  “We have to respect the history because we have pictures; that’s what we studied in order to make this. This was a real person. But the modern sensibility is that it’s eight shows a week. It is a theatrical costume and so we have to make sure it’s resilient, that the stones stay on, that nothing falls off and that it lasts.”

Following the early scenes featuring the Romonov family, the timeline of the show moves on.  “It’s a period change,” notes Winterling. “It goes from the 1910s to the twenties to the early thirties, which means there was a lot of research involved. As time moves on, dress foundations are not as structured, there’s a lot more dancing.  The twenties were the Jazz Age, so something on every dress needs to create movement.”

While Cho and Winterling took inspiration from the historical record and the film, they also had the opportunity to invent, change and recreate styles to make maximum impact.  But on one particular costume, they ended up having to take some direction from the original film’s enthusiastic fans.

Just as Disney’s Frozen has its legion of young girls who can belt out “Let It Go”, the original animated Anastasia film captured the imagination of a generation of girls (now women) for whom the song “Journey to the Past” is a lifelong favorite and the central character is as beloved as any princess in pop culture.  Those fans, dubbed “Fanastasias” have a special place in their hearts for the original film.

When Anastasia had its pre-Broadway tryout in Hartford, CT, Cho, and Winterling had designed an elegant light pink dress for a scene where Anastasia attends a ballet at the Paris Opera.  But they soon learned that for fans of the original film, Anastasia’s original blue dress in that scene represented her transformation into a regal version of herself, and they missed seeing that vision come to life onstage.

“The Fanastasias, they wanted a blue dress,” says Winterling, “because in the animated feature she’s in a blue dress. So we had to hurry up and make a blue gown before Broadway.”

It’s an important dress for an important scene, he notes.  “She goes to the ballet and is presenting herself as royalty to meet up with her grandmother. She has to look like a Russian princess.  The dress has a wonderful sequin fabric that’s done in an art deco design. It has a chiffon overlay and then we’ve strung all these beads together on fishing line so they don’t break. Then she has this big, fantastic cape in the back. This dress has a beautiful glitter tulle, which really makes the dress and makes her into a princess.”

Winterling believes costumes are key to telling the story.  “Costumes tell the who, what, where. They have to tell a story. It doesn’t have to tell the whole story, but we need to get a sense of “Are we in Russia?” or “Are we in Paris?” Is the person royal or is the person poor? There are all sorts of things that when we see someone we need to be able to instantly identify where they are.  You have people from the Russian countryside. We have vintage furs, which is a display of wealth, for the women in Paris. There are Bolshevik uniforms for the Russian Revolution. It’s a big story to tell.”

About the Show

Inspired by the beloved films, the romantic and adventure-filled new musical ANASTASIA is on a journey to Cincinnati at last. From the Tony Award-winning creators of the Broadway classic Ragtime, this dazzling show transports us from the twilight of the Russian Empire to the euphoria of Paris in the 1920s, as a brave young woman sets out to discover the mystery of her past. Pursued by a ruthless Soviet officer determined to silence her, Anya enlists the aid of a dashing conman and a lovable ex-aristocrat. Together, they embark on an epic adventure to help her find home, love, and family.  ANASTASIA features a book by celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, a lush new score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) with direction by Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak.

Learn more about ANASTASIA here.

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