“Miss Unknown” and Rise of the Anastasia Romanov Myth

The next Broadway blockbuster to hit Morsani stage is ANASTASIA, a tale of bravery and finding one’s place in the world spun from a shocking turn of events in 1920, a mere two years after the brutal assassination of the entire Romanov royal family.

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The Romanovs, 1913. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra sit in the center. Behind, from left to right, are their daughters Maria, Olga, and Tatiana. Their youngest daughter, Anastasia, is seated on the stool, and their son Alexei kneels in front.

2019 marks 100 years since the Bolsheviks murdered Russian royals Nicholas II and Alexandra Romanov, their five children and four servants in the basement of a Siberian country house. Out of this grisly horror emerged an immortal hope—a hope that sparked a series of theatrical tales about charming and precocious Anastasia, the youngest of the four Romanov girls.

It all goes back to 1920, to a mysterious woman with eyes of “Romanov blue” who was fished out of a Berlin canal. Authorities dubbed her “Miss Unknown.” She wasn’t unknown, she’d tell the authorities—she was Anastasia Romanov.

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Painting of Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche.

Before we get there, however, we need to rewind to the man who started all: Peter the Great. If you dust off your training in Western Civ, you’ll recall this Russian powerhouse was the first Romanov, the man who launched the dynasty that would last 300 years, forge the lusty and ruthless Catherine the Great and establish Russia as a world superpower. Nicholas II, the father of Anastasia and the one who perished that fateful July morning in 1918 at the hands of a communist firing squad, was the last of the Romanov tsars, bringing their illustrious beginnings to quite an unfortunate and gruesome end.

Nicholas—as historians agree—did all things people hate in a ruler: he believed God put him on the throne, he married an outsider, he instigated bad wars, his arrogance blinded him to his unpopularity and, eventually, he cozied up to the “mad monk” Grigori Rasputin, a religious fanatic with no morals. The Russian people were fed up with the Romanov autocracy and ripe for revolution. Enter Vladimir Lenin, who led the revolution and created a communist power center. Nicholas abdicated the throne.

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Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia.

But now what?

At first, the Bolsheviks took Nicholas and his family to a posh castle where they lived in a manner in which they were accustomed. In time, the military moved the Romanovs to a country estate outside of the Ural mountains, when it was becoming glaringly obvious to everyone except Nicholas that the family’s execution was imminent. The Reds had already dispatched Rasputin with a combination poisoning/shooting/dumping-in-river murder plot, and Lenin knew there was no way to completely win the hearts and minds of the people without erasing the final traces of the autocracy that so oppressed Russia. The Romanovs adapted to country life, entertained by their actress-artist daughter Anastasia, who wrote her own plays, and, lacking proper resources for auditions, enlisted her little brother and older sisters into performing the other parts.

Their circumstance went from bucolic to bubonic in a matter of months, however, when, on July 17, 1918, at 1:30 a.m., their guards received orders to take the family and their attendants to the cellar under false pretenses then murder them all.

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The Ipatiev House, where the Romanovs and their servants were killed.

What happened next is the subject matter for a different type of show, or perhaps a Rob Zombie film, but let’s just note that the execution was bungled at best and twenty long minutes of unspeakable torture for the Romanovs at worst. The guards did not know that the royal diamond jewelry was sewn into the girls’ corsets and undergarments, so the bullets bounced off, merely breaking bones and creating internal hemorrhaging. Nicholas and Alexandra, his wife, as well as the servants, were the only ones to be killed in the initial volley of shots. In a panic, the guards—who had also hit each other with ricochets—resorted to bayonets and rifle ends to complete the mission. The burying of the bodies went even worse, with the poorly-thought-out-plans backfiring in bizarre ways until the commanding officer improvised a disposal scheme that involved sulfuric acid, gasoline, a gigantic hole and the off-loading of two of the kids in a different part of the woods.

Not much to sing and dance about, right? But these stomach-turning details didn’t see the light of day until the last few decades, when Russian officials finally released previously-hidden documents to Romanov biographers after the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters including Anastasia were discovered in the woods some miles from the country estate/crime scene in 1991. (The house had been bulldozed in the 1970s). The Russian Orthodox Church canonized the Romanovs in 2000, making some peace with this inglorious past, and laid their bodies to rest in the traditional tsar’s cathedral in St. Petersburg. The other two children’s remains—Alexi and Maria—were found and identified in 2007.

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On July 17, 1998, The Romanovs were laid to rest in the traditional burial place of the tsars, St. Petersburg’s Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, 80 years to the day of their murder.

Since the Bolsheviks wrapped up the details of what happened to the Romanovs and refused to proffer any details other than “the Czar is dead,” popular imagination filled in the blanks. Something seemed unacceptable … the Russian royal bloodline couldn’t be demolished, could it? If there’s no proof of death, someone could have survived, right?

A Tatiana popped up in rural England. An Alexi appeared in Poland. People wanted to believe one of the children escaped to somewhere else in Europe, but the claimants ultimately proved to be imposters.

Then, in 1920, Berlin authorities responded to a call that a woman had jumped into a canal, presumably as a suicide attempt. When they pulled her from the water, the woman carried no identification. Admitted to a mental hospital, she hid for months under her covers. There was something … familiar … about the way she looked, though.

Wait a minute, her fellow patients noted, she looks like grand duchess Tatiana Romanov! No, others said, she’s too short. Why, she must be Anastasia!

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Anna Anderson, who adopted the identity of Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.

The woman, whose silence earned her the name “Fraulein Unbekannt”—Miss Unknown—reluctantly admitted she was, indeed, Anastasia Romanov. She revealed that the guard carrying her to the woods the night of the assassination realized she was unconscious, not dead, and spirited her away. She renamed herself Anna Anderson, took the guard as her lover, yet he perished in a street brawl. She looked like Anastasia. She had the eyes, the ears. Without being able to confirm or deny her identity, the public and the press flew into a frenzy.

Ironically, the name Anastasia is Greek for “resurrection.” The child, the young woman, the possibly escaped royal took on renewed life in the mind of the world. It was almost as if humanity reserved some small hope that innocence found a way to survive the brutality of the times; that, maybe, if Anastasia could persist to live another day, then all wasn’t lost? Couldn’t she symbolize everyone’s struggle to find their way back to who they really were—someone special, someone royal?

Anna Anderson maintained a tight grip on her claim as the Russian princess, never indicating she was anyone other than Anastasia Romanov. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after the real Romanov remains had been DNA tested, that scientists could prove Anna Anderson had zero Romanov blood. Those same analysts linked her to the Polish factory worker Franziska Schanizkowska, confirming a story about her real identity that circulated in Germany.

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The animated Anastasia (L) and Ingrid Bergman in the live-action film Anastasia (R).

Roughly around this time, 20th Century Fox released their animated version of Anastasia, a film inspired by the 1956 live-action movie of the same name starring the regal and captivating Ingrid Bergman. The hope inspired by the notion that Anastasia somehow survived the most terrifying circumstances continues to spark the modern mind, which is how we got the spectacular song-and-dance tale of an orphan discovering her true self in Broadway’s Anastasia, which opens May 7.

As Anastasia lyricist Lynn Ahrens told Town and Country magazine in 2017, “I think the legend of Anastasia has persisted for a century because we’re all romantics at heart, yearning for happy endings, especially in dark times. We want to imagine that the lost princess really did find ‘home, love, and family’ in the face of terrible odds.”

9 - Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. (Photo: Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

Wink, Wink; Nudge, Nudge

Broadway offers a passel of snortingly good times with its unending parade of parodies. The latest on our roster of roastables is Spamilton: An American Parody, which opened last week and runs until May 12.

Behind every iconic work of entertainment lurks a laughing matter waiting to be born. Whether those matters manifest as films like Airplane! or stage productions like our current hit Spamilton, a nothing-but-love full-length jibe at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus, the parody stands as an art form all its own—and one that has seen a spike in popularity since the shocking success of Evil Dead: The Musical.

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The cast of DISENCHANTED in Tampa, 2014. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

At The Straz, we’ve hosted quite a few of these side-splitting skewerings. Maybe you saw 50 Shades! The Musical Parody, or its distant cousin, Spank!. We produced DISENCHANTED, a peppy, adults-only side-eye of a show geared towards examining the princess culture of a certain animation company. This list also includes the one-or-two-man-complete-works-of spin-off parodies like Potted Potter (all the book plots performed by two guys), and Charles Ross, who launched One-Man Star Wars and One-Man Dark Knight, both of which played in the Jaeb. Ross also created One-Man Lord of the Rings and performs all the shows under the One-Man Trilogy package, which manages to heroically blaspheme the major fantasy canons of the 20th and 21st century in one fell swoop. (Batman pun intended.)

The general rule seems to be that if something is really popular, then someone should probably make fun of it. Ergo, Off-Broadway has seen shows riffing on Friends (Friends!: The Musical), Back to the Future (That 80’s Time Travel Movie), Harry Potter (Puffs: Seven Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic about the Hufflepuff house) and Game of Thrones (Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical—An Unauthorized Parody).

 

Of course, we return to that parody of parodies, the old chestnut Forbidden Broadway, which takes uproarious pot shots at our beloved blockbusters from the Big Apple. We love the show—most Broadway buffs do—so much we’ve brought it to Tampa several times over the years and had the show here last in 2017.

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Despite its rib-poking and raspberry-blowing nature, the parody must, to some extent, be a love letter to the source in order to hit the right notes with the audience. You’re having fun at the original’s expense without hurting anyone’s feelings. The parody is like the annoying little brother, chasing after the big sibling he admires so much. With no genuine respect for the source, a parody transforms into a vicious satire, which may be funny, but satires generally leave us feeling smug whereas the parody leave us feeling a little happier about things in general.

To wit, LMM blessed Spamilton just as Sam Raimi, director of the titular film, blessed Evil Dead: The Musical.

So, it’s okay laugh; although, with a parody, you never need permission. And, that, dear readers, is part of what makes them so much fun.

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One More Time from the Top

The explosive partnership of Broadway star Gwen Verdon and choreographer/director Bob Fosse finally goes mainstream in a new miniseries from F/X starting Tues., April 9.

Even if you know absolutely NOTHING about Broadway, you know about “jazz hands.” And if you know a little about Broadway, you know the man responsible for crystallizing the impact of jazz hands in a musical is Bob Fosse. If you know A LOT about Broadway, especially Broadway dance, you know that Fosse is kind of a god, kind of a sad sack of a boy-man, and completely credited with inventing the modern musical on stage and screen.

And if you really, really know a lot about Broadway dance, you know Fosse’s jazz hand style came straight from Al Jolson and the Nicolas Brothers and his ascension into mythical status wouldn’t have happened without Gwen Verdon. (Or dancer Joan McCracken, but that’s another miniseries for another time.) In other words, Fosse didn’t happen in a vacuum, and there’s a lot more to his legacy than the man himself.

Around here, we don’t care how much or how little you know about Broadway history, but we do get excited to see such an important story in the evolution of American art get the royal treatment from a major network—and a gigantic advertising budget to ensure the word’s getting around.

On the off chance you’ve been distracted by other news lately, we’ll bring you up to speed: Sam Rockwell (Charlie’s Angels; The Green Mile; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among a million others) plays the cigarette-booze-pill-and-sex-addicted mercurial, enchanting and inspiring Bob Fosse. Tony-winning evergreen ingenue Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, The Greatest Showman and the play Blackbird) stars as redheaded triple threat and saving-grace-guiding-light-hard-as-nails-showgirl Gwen Verdon. The series, Fosse/Verdon, starts on Tuesday, April 9. The series plays out over eight episodes, taking audiences through fifty years—thirty of which center around the Verdon-Fosse creative collaboration that overtook their lives and changed the American entertainment landscape forever.

Verdon and Fosse were colleagues (she was a huge Broadway star when he was an up-and-coming choreographer with only The Pajama Game under his belt), then lovers, then spouses, then parents, then separated. During that time, the combined force of Bob’s visionary genius and Gwen’s dancing/comedic/technical/personal brilliance delivered Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Chicago and Cabaret to name a few. Their daughter, Nicole Fosse, co-executive produced the miniseries and guided much of the artistic interpretation of the source material, Sam Wasson’s metaphorically and physically heavy biography, Fosse.

The Fosse/Verdon production involves current Broadway game changers. Lin Manuel-Miranda also produces the show, and Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson penned the teleplay. Seasoned fave Norbert Leo Butz stars as Fosse’s intellectual pal, the playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and previous Chicago stars Susan Misner (a.k.a. Stan Beeman’s Wife from The Americans) and Bianca Marroquin play McCracken and Chita Rivera, respectively. Newcomer Kelli Barrett (Getting’ the Band Back Together) landed the choice role of Liza Minelli, and we’ll get to see Ethan Slater (SpongeBob in the selfsame musical) tackle Joel Grey. A few newly-minted recognizable faces from hit television shows also make an appearance, namely the lithe and lovely Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, Fosse’s ultimate girlfriend-of-girlfriends after the split with Verdon.

In all, it’s a heck of a cast, a dynamite production team and a timely moment in entertainment history to attempt a more authentic look at the disturbing behaviors that drove such a towering creative partnership. It’s also time for Gwen Verdon to get her due for the living generations of Broadway fans who know Fosse but say “Gwen who?”

Another note, since we’re talking Fosse, is that we decided to name our Straz Center coffee shop after the very dance that made Bob Fosse a Broadway name—Steam Heat, from the eponymous dance number everyone loves in The Pajama Game. It’s also worth noting that one of Ann Reinking’s students, Kelly King, now directs our Patel Conservatory Popular Dance Program.

Students posing with Ann Reinking at the Patel Conservatory’s ground breaking in 2004.

So, grab your ultra-sheer black tights, garter belts and French cut leotards for what we hope to be a *fingers crossed* riveting immersion into all that jazz.

Gimme a Beat

Ultra fan fave Tap Dogs returns with new blokes, new moves and new drummers—the jaw-dropping duo of Warped Tour veteran Caitlin Kalafus and Final Fantasy percussionist Noriko Terada.

Tap Dogs drummers Noriko Terada and Caitlin Kalafus. (Photo from Instagram: noriko_terada_drumsume)

For those of us who were around in the 90s when Tap Dogs made its first tours in the United States, the sight of barrel-chested, be-jean-shorted Aussie beefcakes slapping their Blundstone work boots around a minimalist construction zone was a revelation of the form. Tap Dogs drilled down into the idea of percussion as a prosaic, pedestrian fact of life. The show deconstructed (if you will) tap dance and rebuilt the notion of how beat-making could look and sound. Industrial. Rough. There could be flannel involved—and water and working-class sight gags.

Naturally, the show skyrocketed in popularity. By 1997, four separate tours of the show traveled the world to meet the demand of folks wanting to see the blue-collar dance phenomenon from Down Under.

Photo from Instagram: @tapdogsofficial

Dein Perry, the show’s creator and choreographer (himself a former steelworker from Newcastle, Australia), tweaked the show as times changed, leveling up the moves, upgrading sets and stunts, continually modifying the show to keep it as exciting as those first tours. Today, Tap Dogs is seeing a revival of sorts; it seems as if the next generation of live performance audiences finally got a gander at the show.

No doubt the new incarnation of Tap Dogs is greatly enhanced by the percussive talents of the show’s drummers, who now perform onstage with the Dogs. One they hired fresh off her Warped Tour and stint as Cyndi Lauper’s drummer and the other is best known for her unforgettable work as the percussionist for all the Final Fantasy video games.

The two—Caitlin Kalafus and Noriko Terada—symbolize why Tap Dogs maintains its popularity: they are really cool. And, like the Dogs, neither is reserved in the least when it comes to full-on hammering away with their tools. Their maniacal glee matches the intensity of the rough-and-ready dancing to a T, often pushing the guys to their limits as the women drive a relentless, fun, and mind-blowing force of sound for the show.

Caitlin Kalafus started gigging as a drummer at 12 years old, playing in bars and eventually winning Disney’s Next Big Thing competition with her band Kicking Daisies.

Here’s some grainy footage of an unknown Caitlin crushing the drums at The Orange Ale House on Cinco de Mayo 2007. She’s 13 years old:

And here’s Caitlin twelve years later warming up before the curtain rises on Tap Dogs in Durham, NC, just a few stops from the show’s run in Morsani Hall March 29-31:

Caitlin landed a spot with Mother Feather on the Vans Warped Tour 2017, then gigged with Cyndi Lauper’s band while the 80s icon toured last year. Kalafus has appeared as a guest drummer on Late Night with Seth Myers and as a spokesperson for Zildjian cymbals. She rocks.

Kalafus’s counterpart, the Japanese wunderkind Noriko Terada, joined Tap Dogs in 2012 after a super successful career as the percussionist for Video Game Orchestra, featured in the Final Fantasy series. Terada’s training began at 3 years old with piano, but at 11 she discovered the drums and that was that. Terada—as you will see and hear in the show—can play anything that makes noise. She’s fun to watch, which you’ll discover at the show, too. She also rocks, gigs everywhere and represents Japan for Hits Like a Girl, the international, girls-only drum competition.

Check out the Tap Dogs official Insta account for some killer videos of Caitlin and Noriko rehearsing for the current tour, like this one:

I Wanna Baptize You

And other Valentine’s Day sentiments from Broadway songbooks

Broadway boasts a canon of funny romantic songs, some thinly veiled innuendos (see title of this blog, a lyric from “Baptize Me” in The Book of Mormon) and others outrageously explicit (“You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want” from Avenue Q).

Here are just a few of our fave irreverent, hilarious or otherwise atypical little ditties from Broadway about love and romance in honor of Valentine’s Day this Thursday.

We Choo-Choo-Choose You.
Love,
The Straz

“The Song That Goes Like This” – Spamalot
Hahahaha … we can hardly type about this song without chuckling. This spot-on parody of the formulaic Big Love Song Number in boy-meets-girl musicals is an embarrassingly explanatory duet about said Big Love Song Number. “Once in every show/There comes a song like this … A sentimental song/ … We’ll over-act like hell/This is the song that goes like this.” Spamalot is Monty Python’s musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so it’s comedy gold from the kings of parody.

“Changing My Major” – Fun Home
For everyone who caught this Tony-winning family drama at The Straz last season, you may remember this guffaw-inducing show-stopper from a sexually-revolutionized college-age protagonist. After meeting and falling for Joan, Alison allows their relationship to go to the next level. The following morning, she’s dizzy with the awakening of her womanhood. She does the only natural thing in a musical, which is to burst into song about her new love. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, last night!/I got so excited/I was too enthusiastic/Thank you for not laughing/Well, you laughed a little bit …” Alison makes the most important proclamation of any college freshman: she’s changing her major. To Joan. With a minor in kissing Joan.

“I Really Like Him” – Man of La Mancha
In our humble opinion, the most endearing aspect of this Don Quixote adaptation is the loyal, lovable sidekick Sancho Panza. And, as sidekick songs go, this number captures the inexplicable commitment of someone who hitched his wagon to a starry-eyed fool. Some Broadway buffs argue that Sancho is romantically in love with Quixote and this song reflects that devotion; others argue that “I Really Like Him” is about accepting the simple fact of unconditional love—it is what it is. No matter the interpretation, we all agree that “I Really Like Him” is sweet and absurd, very much like the Man of La Mancha himself. “Why do you follow him?” Aldonza asks Sancho. “Because,” he sings in replay, “I really like him/I don’t have a very good reason/Since I’ve been with him, cuckoo-nuts have been in season/…You can barbecue my nose, make a giblet of my toes/…Still I yell to the sky though I can’t tell you why/I like him.” If that’s love, it seems totally legit.

“Model Behavior” – Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown
Originally performed on Broadway by Tony-winner Laura Benanti (who was also here in a solo cabaret show last season, ICYMI), this Spanish-flamenco-salsa-inspired allegro features Candela (Benanti) leaving a series of increasingly panicked messages for her friend Pepa. The new boyfriend Candela picked up at a club and moved into her apartment may not be the squeaky-clean Romeo she wanted him to be. “But this one really is a mess. I think I’m gonna freak.” The song escalates as Candela’s frustration with Pepa never picking up the phone transfers to a memory of their friendship: “I know you say I’m an alarmist, but I’m not/Remember there’s that time I thought I saw a spider/But you said “nah, it’s a raisin,’ but it suddenly started moving and it crawled over and bit me on my toe/So if you’re gonna stand and judge me that’s how much you know/It’s a good thing I didn’t eat it.” The song is hysterically funny, revealing Candela’s mild paranoia about picking the wrong kinds of men and her need for her best friend, an underlying love story buried in the comedy of her predicament.

Living to Write their Stories

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By now, Hamilton’s meteoric rise from Broadway musical to cultural phenomenon fills many-a-page from magazine articles to blog posts to Instagram accounts. Its singular effect was solidified last year as the Kennedy Center decided to award the musical an unheard-of special Honors for being such a groundbreaking work of art.

What remains unfathomable – even more unfathomable than the runaway success of a based-on-a-true-story hip-hop musical set during American Colonialism – is that Hamilton achieved unprecedented fame and glory with so many fans who have never, to this day, actually seen the show.

What we have seen, or who we have seen, rather, has been much more of a public spectacle. In other words, though most of us will never claim to have seen them in Hamilton, the actors themselves launched from the Hamilton springboard into television, movies and other musicals, allowing us HamFans to cozy up with Netflix and say, “That’s King George!” or “Look, there’s Eliza Schuyler Hamilton!” Of course, we never say, “wow, that’s Alexander Hamilton!” since everybody knows and loves the LMM. Here, we look at what Lin-Manuel Miranda and other Hamilton cast members got up to after the big gig.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda
When he’s not busy saving the world, appearing everywhere all the time in his ubiquitous AmEx commercial and making hilarious appearances on Drunk History and talk shows around America, Lin-Manuel Miranda can be found starring in blockbuster Hollywood films (Mary Poppins Returns) or making headlines by reprising his lead role during a run of Hamilton in Puerto Rico. Wherever the winds of awesomeness blow LMM, he remains poised to change our lives forever with either an amazing freestyle rap or some random viral video leaves us breathless, basking in the glow of his infinite talent.

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Photo from Instagram: @moulinrougebdway

Karen Olivo
Raised in Bartow, Fla., Karen Olivo fell in with the LMM crowd during his first Broadway show In the Heights, when she played Vanessa. Olivo, who happened to spend quite some time at The Straz as a Florida State Thespian, won a Tony® as Anita in West Side Story, then entered the Hamilton scene as Angelica Schuyler in the Chicago run of the show. Her newest role is as Satine in the highly-anticipated, Broadway-bound musical version of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

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Leslie Odom, Jr.
Perhaps you were one of the lucky ones who caught the original Aaron Burr, sir, at The Straz in his solo cabaret show? Leslie Odom, Jr. debuted on Broadway in RENT as a teenager, had his breakout role in Hamilton and now has a successful singing career as well as a motivational book, Failing Up, to inspire young readers. There’s also the oft-played Nationwide TV ad (“Nationwide is on your side”). If you watched Person of Interest or Law and Order: SVU, you saw Odom, Jr. in his pre-Hamilton years. He also had roles on Gilmore Girls, Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Wife as a well as starred alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench in the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express. Heads-up—Odom, Jr. is slated to start work on an ABC pilot TV show.

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Renee Elise Goldsberry
Some HamFans may have recognized the original Angelica Schuyler as Evangeline Williamson on the soap One Life to Live. Renee Elise Goldsberry, who portrayed both characters, also appeared on 43 episodes of Ally McBeal and now performs as a series regular on the Netflix series Altered Carbon. If you caught the end-of-summer movies, Goldsberry appeared in The House with a Clock in its Walls with Cate Blanchett and Jack Black. Goldsberry netted a Tony® for her role in Hamilton.

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Wayne Brady
Fans of Who’s Line is it Anyway? and Let’s Make a Deal who also happen to love Hamilton got their prayers answered when Wayne Brady joined the show as Aaron Burr in the Chicago run. Brady rocked the red thigh-highs as Lola in Kinky Boots a few seasons ago and debuted on Broadway as slippery lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago.

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Daveed Diggs
Known for his role on Blackish, Daveed Diggs won a Tony® and Grammy® for his Broadway turn as Marquis DeLafayette/Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Last year, Diggs released Blindspotting, a film he wrote, directed and produced. Last week, the supernatural horror Velvet Buzzsaw premiered on Netflix, in which he appeared alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette.

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Jordan Fisher
Disney Channel favorite and Dancing with the Stars winner Jordan Fisher performed with the magical LMM on the Moana soundtrack after completing his Ham stint in the roles of John Laurens/Philip Hamilton on Broadway. Fisher parlayed his DWTS championship into co-hosting Dancing with the Stars, Jr. alongside Frankie Muniz. Broadway fans were treated to Fisher in Fox’s recent production of RENT Live!

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Jose Rosario, Jr.
Our very own Tampa-born Jose Rosario, Jr. starred as Peter Schuyler/James Reynolds for a year and a half in the Chicago run of Hamilton. He also served as stand-by for Alexander Hamilton, performing the role many times. He headlined the Straz Center’s Broadway Ball last October.

Of course, many other great and talented musical theater actors stepped into the golden breeches and corsets of Hamilton roles, and surely more shall continue to do so. The show is a magnet for exceptional talent, and we are thrilled to present it this season.

You Know This Wise Guy

Chazz Palminteri took a moment of his childhood and parlayed it into the cultural phenomenon known as A Bronx Tale. We’ve seen him in The Usual Suspects, Bullets Over Broadway, Analyze This and as a cop, mobster or some form of tough guy in a ton of other film and TV roles. We caught up with Chazz on the phone in December to interview him for the “Behind the Persona” feature of INSIDE magazine and talk about the musical adaptation of A Bronx Tale coming to The Straz Jan. 29. [Note: Chazz isn’t in the musical but he did write the book and DeNiro directed.] During the conversation, we uncovered what he thinks is the greatest acting work he’s ever done—which happens to be a little film that not many people know about. And, shockingly, it’s not A Bronx Tale.

We published the whole interview on Act2, our official podcast, this week, and we’d love for you to hear the wealth of stories Chazz brought to the conversation.

For this blog, though, we’re going rogue. We’re going first person.

Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale on Broadway. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Hello, Strazzers. Marlowe Moore here, the senior writer for The Straz and normally the anonymous voice of this blog on behalf of our favorite performing arts center. I decided to step out from the fourth wall on this occasion because my conversation with Chazz revealed the kind of tales and insights that performing arts nerds like myself die a thousand deaths to know.

With Chazz, I died two thousand deaths—first, when he shared the anecdote about the time Arthur Miller (Death of Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, husband of Marilyn Monroe and my personal writing hero) gave him writing advice; second, when he disclosed that he believes his greatest acting work was his role as the father in Dito Montiel’s shattering and extraordinary film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

Chazz in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

In 2014, I met Dito Montiel at the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference, which, by the way, happens to be one of the dopest writing conferences in the country. I went, not because I am dope but because I am frugal. SIWC is also in the sweet spot budget-wise for nonprofit mavens like myself. If you’re a writer, a dope person or frugal, you should check it out.

I had no idea who Dito Montiel was, but screenplay writing happens to be my favorite form, and Dito was slated to talk about how he managed to land A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints in Hollywood. I found a seat in the small classroom, then a shaved-head, thick-shouldered New Yorker ambled through the door, taking a small space on the side of the room. “Hey, everybody. I’m Dito,” he said. “I’m not really sure I’m qualified to give this workshop, but here goes.”

Dito and Dwayne Johnson filming Empire State.

Often gazing at his shoes or shifting his eyes toward the doors and windows, Dito unfolded his life story. A kid in Queens. A bad neighborhood. A best friend. An affront by a rival gang member. A baseball bat.

Dito got out. He wrote. He played music. He kept his head down after his boy got a life sentence and found a way to Los Angeles. But he lived with the ghosts. To make peace with them, he doodled a graphic memoir during a day job in an audio lab. He titled it A Picture Guide of Saints.

“This is really good,” a friend told him. “Hey, did I ever tell you I know Robert Downey, Jr? Bob? I think I could get this to him. This is the kind of weird shit he loves.”

The doodles made it to Bob. Bob made it to Dito. They became friends. In 2001, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito’s memoir of his friends in Astoria, gets published. In 2006, RDJ—along with Sting and Trudie Styler—produce the film.

“A lot of it was luck,” Dito told us during the workshop. “Bob and I are weird in the same way. It just worked out. I didn’t even know how to write a screenplay. I thought the ‘EXT’ for exterior shot meant ‘exit’ like the character was leaving the scene. I didn’t know. But I wrote the screenplay. I directed it. Things went from there.”

I realized at the end of the workshop that Dito Montiel is, by nature, a shy guy. I don’t believe he meant for the big take-away for screenwriters to be “hope you know a random person who knows Robert Downey, Jr.” Although, I do believe that’s probably honest writing advice. I think he wanted with his whole heart for his story to be known because he had—in his heart—a debt to pay to a friend he loved. In the weird way stories work, it found its way because Dito wouldn’t give up on it.

If you know anything at all about Chazz Palminteri and how Robert DeNiro ended up making A Bronx Tale into a film, you’ll understand why Chazz fell in love with A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

After the conference, I went home and checked out A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints from the public library. I was expecting the typical Mean Streets tropes, but this movie is different.

In the film, Robert Downey plays the adult Montiel with Shia LaBoeuf playing the younger Montiel in Queens during the flashback sequences. Antonio, Montiel’s best friend who ends up with life in prison, is played by Eric Roberts, whose acting in this film is The Pope of Greenwich Village-level. Just stellar. The young Antonio acting opposite LaBoeuf? Channing Tatum. Tatum, whose performance skills I’d just studied intensely in multiple viewings of Magic Mike and knew from his work in the Step Up franchise, changed my life. The fact that he can take himself to the place he had to go to for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints makes me even angrier about Jupiter Ascending. Nobody better talk junk to me about Channing Tatum’s acting skills. Nobody. We just need Dito directing every time I guess.

Dito’s foil, his antagonist, his god and his oppressor take the form of his emotionally complex father Monty, played by Chazz. “I’ve done 60 movies,” Chazz told me, “and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is one of my favorite all-time movies. I think it’s probably my best performance,” Chazz told me.

Hands-down I think it’s Palminteri’s best performance, and I believe his work as Sonny in A Bronx Tale is so sublime his gestures alone should win an Oscar. But what he does as Monty is whatever actors do when they go to that place beyond performing. When Monty enters the scene, my heart races, my blood pressure spikes, I feel so much loss for Dito that I can barely keep my seat.

The film conjures the thing we never talk about when we talk about tough guys, when we glorify their violence in films: that boys get sucked into a world that buries love in anger so thoroughly that, as men, they cannot function for their confusion about how to care for themselves and the people they love. “At the end of the film,” Chazz said, “when my voiceover is talking about, ‘Don’t worry, Dito. Antonio didn’t have anybody [to care for him]…’ Oh. I think about it even now, and I can cry.”

Which is precisely what I did at the moment Chazz refers to here. For reasons I still struggle to articulate, my natural reaction to the conclusion of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was to run in the bathroom, shut the door, fall on the floor and bawl. I lived alone at the time, so I had no reason to do any of those things. I could have cried in bed, but I was running from or to something that I needed to experience privately despite the fact that I was already alone; I don’t know. Dito—and Chan, and Bob, and Chazz and Shia—made me look at something so deeply sad about men trying to love in their culture of violence and being oblivious to the fact that they were trying to love at all that stayed with me all this time. There is something about men’s love and the debts they feel towards each other that I don’t understand. Dito’s story cracked some understanding inside of me, and I believe that’s what art is for, why we doodle our ghosts into existence. I consider myself profoundly lucky to have had a few moments to talk about it with someone in the film.

Please see Chazz in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Then check out the interview with him on the podcast. And see A Bronx Tale the musical. Chazz promised you’ll love it.