“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)

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.

The Julie Andrews Appreciation Blog

We love Julie Andrews. Naturally, she’s on our mind since The Sound of Music opens tonight, June 5, and runs through the weekend.

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No, Ms. Andrews doesn’t make an appearance in the new staging of this masterpiece, but for many of us, we can’t even see the words “the hills are alive” without picturing her sweeping, open-armed twirl atop a picturesque Austrian meadow.

It’s worth noting that some areas of the Alps can receive 78 inches of rainfall a year (for comparison, Tampa averages around 46 inches annually), so capturing a lithe young woman’s pastoral anthem with a stunning blue sky in the background was a bit of a challenge. Couple that obstacle with the fact that the shot, filmed on a camera strapped to a man who was strapped in the doorway of a giant helicopter, required several takes. With each re-set of the scene, the explosive downdraft of the helicopter’s rotor blades knocked Andrews off her feet, toppling her into the grass.

But you’d never know, right?, watching her sail through the sea of grass as Maria von Trapp, her austere postulant’s uniform transforming—for one wait-for-it kind of moment—into a delicate black bell as she swirled into the unforgettable opening words of the title song. Andrews’s voice, itself pitch-perfect and bell-like, rang out across the mountain tops as though Maria von Trapp, not the hills, were alive with the sound of music. It was the kind of iconic filmcraft that changed a Hollywood actor into a Hollywood star.

Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp made an odd Hollywood siren: she was a somewhat androgynous ingenue (see: hair-do) with a wizened sense of selflessness, a waifish warrior comforting children in thunderstorms and during Nazi attempts at world domination. She was, in a phrase, easy to love.

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Yet we loved her already from her turn as another non-traditional Hollywood heroine: the magical nanny with a really cool umbrella and the perfect solution to nasty-tasting medicine. The governess role came naturally to Andrews as she’d nailed the part of Mary Poppins with an Oscar for Best Actress in 1964, the year prior to the release of the film version of The Sound of Music (1965). Both musical films became staples of annual television broadcasts in the late 70s and early 80s, so Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp seared themselves into the pop-culture subconscious of the pre-Information Age generation. Julie Andrews, with her clear, mirthful blue eyes and handsome face with its dainty features, produced a commanding on-screen presence even before her four-octave, crystal-clear voice turned a Richard Rodgers’ tune into gold.

Here’s a fun bit of Broadway-Hollywood history: the other voice-related role Julie Andrews made famous was that of Eliza Doolittle during the Broadway run of My Fair Lady in 1956. In the 1964 Hollywood film, the studio offered the role of Eliza to Audrey Hepburn instead, saying Andrews lacked name recognition. This was, of course, prior to Andrews’ Oscar win with Mary Poppins and Oscar nomination for The Sound of Music. Hepburn, who had earned icon status already with her portrayal of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, confessed to Andrews backstage at the 1965 Academy Awards that Julie should have had the movie role of Eliza. Soon after, Hepburn and Andrews became friends. In 1969, Andrews married Blake Edwards, director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Edwards later directed Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982), which garnered Andrews a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actress and a Golden Globe Best Actress win.

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Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews at the 37th Academy Awards in 1965.

All of that being said, let’s shine a light on Andrews’ most important work (at least for the generation of children watching Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music on TV): The Muppet Show. Jim Henson’s ground-breaking prime time “show about a show” mixed A-list artists of the day in skits with his cast of wacky puppets—Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Rowlf, Fozzie Bear and countless others. Not many people remember that The Muppet Show owes its success, in part, to an appearance on The Julie Andrews Hour in 1973. The Muppets joined Julie for several song-and-dance skits, including Rowlf’s duet, “Do You Love Me, Julie?” and the hilarious “Flower-Eating Monster” sketch.

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The Muppets landed their own show in 1976 thanks to the influence of British producer Lew Grade, who produced The Julie Andrews Hour. Andrews and the Muppets were a match made in heaven: full of magic, humor, a love for the ridiculous matched by a love of show business and an easy on-screen rapport. Julie and the Muppets worked together several times, creating some excellent comedic spoofs like the “Big Spender” sketch with Cookie Monster and the “Lonely Goatherd” reprise from The Sound of Music featuring a yodeling goat and Miss Piggy. So true was her connection to Kermit that Julie composed the dare-you-not-to-cry love song especially for him, “When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish,” which aired during season two of The Muppet Show.

Here’s a clip of Julie singing the song to Kermit in season two of The Muppet Show.

In 2015, the Hollywood establishment spent the year recognizing the 50th anniversary of the film version of The Sound of Music. Vanity Fair published a darling interview with Andrews and “Captain von Trapp” Christopher Plummer with the requisite high-fashion-art photo by Annie Leibovitz. Lady Gaga paid tribute to Andrews with a special medley of The Sound of Music’s most memorable songs at the Academy Awards that year, training herself to sing in the exact key and pitch performed by Andrews in the original film. Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert (who let Andrews stuff his mouth with grapes as part of an elocution acting exercise) hosted Andrews on their shows, neither one hiding his enchantment with her.

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To this day, at 82 years old, Andrew still casts her spell of elegant charm and exquisite comic timing.

If you love Julie Andrews as much as we do and you have 33 million dollars to spare, you can purchase her old house in London’s Chester Square. The palatial townhome, which she shared with husband Blake Edwards during the early years of their marriage, went on the market this spring. The place was also home to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mick Jagger and Margaret Thatcher at various times although after a complete remodel, we’re assuming the renovation can’t be quite as supercalifragilistic as it was in 1972. 

Or, for a lot less money, you can just come see The Sound of Music at The Straz this weekend and appreciate the timelessness of this musical masterpiece. Get your tickets here.

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The Family Play

Author Alison Bechdel reveals what it was like to see her very personal graphic memoir Fun Home transformed into a Tony®-winning Broadway musical. An exclusive from the Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine.

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Photo: Elena Seibert

In 2015, an innovative, poignant and bold little musical swept the Tony Awards®, netting Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Best Direction. Something of a dark horse, Fun Home unfurled no epic celebrity life story, no sweeping revival or rollicking adaptation of a hit movie.

It was, however, an impressive musical adaptation of an acclaimed graphic memoir by an underground lesbian icon, Alison Bechdel. The book, which she laboriously constructed from memories, photos and a painstaking illustration process, lays bare (often to pitch-perfect notes of dry humor) the Bechdel family secret – Dad’s unexplained rage and obsessions had a source, one that was very closely tied to Alison’s own sense of identity.

You would think that a story built around a father’s suicide, a funeral home (the “fun home” of the title), the social torture of being gay in a straight world and a woman’s examination of these family dynamics may be a bit dark and heavy. In the case of the musical Fun Home, you’d be wrong. It’s a sweet story of an earnest person’s role in a complicated family, the misfirings of familial love and the awkward stumbling toward an understanding of our true selves. And, there’s a winning homage to “Partridge Family”-style gumption in the face of life’s often overwhelming realities (“Raincoat of Love”).

The Straz Center’s magazine caught up with Alison by phone at her Vermont farm to talk about her creation of Fun Home and then being the observer to Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s adaptation of the book into the award-winning musical.

INSIDE MAGAZINE: Let’s talk a little about you and your cultural thumbprint. It started with your underground hit comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and continued with “The Bechdel Test” about how to spot gender equality in films that came from the comic. Now, these huge works of literary cartooning, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?. How did you get here, to icon status?

ALISON BECHDEL [laughs]: I often ask myself that question! I don’t know. I guess … a strange thing happened in the world of comics. When I graduated in the ‘80s, cartooning was not about a career path. It was kind of a sketchy thing to be doing with your life. I loved writing cartoons about lesbians, this very marginal culture, but I wasn’t thinking about being a success or making money. I was caught up in being a part of this community – especially as someone who had had a traumatic loss in my family [her closeted father’s suicide], and writing comics for this community became a mission for me. I was doing the comic for fun, then a job came out of it, and things happened from there. The big shift happened when people realized that comics weren’t just for kids, that comics could tell really powerful and complicated stories for adults. Attitudes changed with [Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his father, a Holocaust survivor] Maus. I was able to continue to work and draw because of this shift.

IM: Do you think you’ve come out of the underground with the success of Fun Home the musical? Do you consider yourself mainstream?

AB: No, I don’t consider myself mainstream. Superman is mainstream, so I’m not mainstream in that sense at all. I’m more mainstream than I was though. Yeah, I was a subcultural phenomenon for a long time, writing this soap opera-like comic strip about lesbian friends. Then, when I moved to tell this story about my family and growing up with my father and his sexuality … for whatever reason, that touched a bigger audience than the comic strip.

IM: There are a lot of children who loved fathers who had major unresolved issues and emotional secrets. Perhaps that’s the universal appeal of Fun Home, that it’s a family story that touches on that confusion. In the time between publishing the book and the book’s success, did you suspect the family relationships would be so relatable?

AB: No! I had no idea that was going to happen! It felt like such a particular, idiosyncratic, unique, weird story. I couldn’t imagine who was going to relate to it. I was trying to envision my audience as you’re supposed to when you’re a writer, and I was thinking about the audience for my comic strip. But, they wouldn’t like it because it was too weird … it was asking something else of my reader. So, I decided to write the book for myself. I was my audience. For whatever reason, that thinking paved the road for other people to relate.

IM: In the graphic memoir, you tackle so many deep philosophical questions – who am I?, what does it mean to be me?, what is the true self and what does that have to do with the people who were my mother and father?. In reading the book, we didn’t know so much was going to be demanded of us intellectually. Do you still consider yourself a cartoonist? You seem like so much more than that.

AB: I’d argue that’s what cartoonists do, what cartoons can do. I feel excited and committed to this process of taking these complex internal experiences and rendering them in comics in words and pictures. I want my work to be accessible, and it’s from an inaccessible place, I acknowledge that. But, it’s a good challenge.

IM: With the success of Fun Home and the book about your relationship with your mother, Are You My Mother?, you’ve done it as the artistic, sensitive child. You fulfilled the impossible emotional needs of your parents: you got your dad out of the closet and we all accept him for who he is, and you got your mom on Broadway [she was an actress in Pennsylvania]. How are you feeling about that? Is it a triumph?

AB [laughs]: I never thought of it that way, that’s so funny! I do feel good about it. But, I think if you went back to Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, and asked that same question, you might run across some objections. I’ve talked with many of my parents’ friends, and mostly they’re supportive, even in spite of the personal tolls the works may have taken. I feel really good about the whole project.

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First appeared in New York Magazine – April 6-19, 2015.

IM: So, your very dense, very literary, very enjoyable and gut-wrenching personal story became a hit Broadway musical. That must have been a surreal experience.

AB: I saw it evolving slowly. It wasn’t a Broadway thing at first. It was happening at The Public Theater downtown. After years of development … I hadn’t seen any of it, and my first experience of it was that Lisa and Jeanine sent me a CD of a workshop and a script. So, it was me in my office listening to the CD and reading a script. I hadn’t known what to expect, but it was so moving to have my family brought to life like that. It was a year after that, I saw a workshop of the play. It was really powerful.

IM: When you saw the actors performing you and your family members, how was that experience for you as the real Alison Bechdel?

AB: In a way, I felt like I was getting a taste of my own medicine. [laughs] I’d written about my family all these years, and here I was being turned into a character. Maybe because I am a writer and that transmutation of life into art is something I understand well, I adjusted pretty quickly to it. It wasn’t exactly me, it wasn’t exactly my family … but, it was, in a strange way. These characters captured the essence of who my family was.

IM: The songs in the musical are fantastic. We love “Ring of Keys” and “Changing My Major.” Do you listen to the cast recording as you work, or do you consider the musical version something that belongs to Lisa and Jeanine and you leave it alone?

AB: I feel both of those things. Clearly, the musical is their creation; it belongs to them. I didn’t have anything to do with making it beyond writing the book. But I do love the musical, the soundtrack. I temporarily can’t listen to it … you know, you reach a certain point [and you just have to step away.]

IM: You’ve reached your super-saturation point?

AB: Yeah, but I listened to it like a million times before I reached that saturation point. And, I listened to so many versions of the songs. There were so many beautiful songs that got cut along the way.

IM: I heard Lisa and Jeanine scrapped song after song. We would have wanted to quit after writing so many songs that didn’t get used. They didn’t seem daunted, though.

AB: I know. I cannot imagine working the way they do, that sort of collaborating with so many different people, so many moving parts. It seems impossible to me. The key is to be ready to scrap your stuff and start over. They could do that over and over again.

IM: Lisa and Janine seem to be as powerful in their milieus as you are in yours. They seem to be the exact right team to have turned your memoir into a musical. One of the great successes of the show is that homosexuality is treated as just a place you come from, like the Midwest. No morality, no agenda. It just is. What do you make of Lisa and Jeanine’s achievement with your text?

AB: We’re all the same basic age, the same generation. Lisa and I grew up as part of that movement that was making that change [regarding homosexuality] happen. So, part of it is that’s where we all came from. I also feel like what made their adaptation so spot on was that they were willing to approach the whole project fresh. They completely made it their own by going through a lot of the same processes I had to go through to tell the story in the first place. To be open to the material, to not make a foregone conclusion as to how it’s supposed to be. They could hold it but not impose a shape on it. That’s part of what took so long developing the musical.

IM: It’s an incredible adaptation. You can’t try to adapt a graphic memoir as a graphic memoir to the stage because musicals require a different set of skills. What you were able to accomplish with images and words, they could do with music and lyrics. The same tension was created.

AB: That’s really good insight. There’s a way comics and the musical form are similar. It’s so rare there’s a good movie adaptation of a book … to have a great movie made from a great book is rare because the needs of a novel and a movie are opposed. Lisa and Jeanine found a way to put the story on to great effect.

IM: We can’t wait for the show to get here. We’re really excited for our community to see it. Is there anything that you would like to say to an audience member who may not be familiar with you or with your work but who likes musicals and is going to be in the audience?

AB: One thing I would say is … I don’t want to step on anyone’s experience of the play before they see it. But, I do want to assure people that this play is about a funeral home, a family that is, in some ways, unhappy, and even though there’s a suicide in it … somehow, it manages to be a very uplifting and often very funny play.

Fun Home plays in Morsani Hall Nov. 28 – Dec. 3.

 

The Thief and His Thief-Taker General

The unbelievable true crime story behind the swinging jazz standard “Mack the Knife.”

Once upon a time, there was a five-foot-four London folk hero who inspired John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which contained the song “Mack the Knife,” which became a snappy lounge tune for jazz bopper Bobby Darin.

This is the true tale of Jack Sheppard, born into poverty in 1702 in Spitalfields, England. Sent to work at six years old after his father died, Sheppard lived with a new master, Jonathan Kneebone, who eventually apprenticed Jack to a carpenter when Jack became a teenager, and life was good. For a time.

As fate would have it, Sheppard fell in with a charismatic, strapping yet morally suspect woman, Elizabeth Lyon, who was known about the neighborhood as Edgworth Bess for her propensity to liberate objects from their owners, including money for carnal knowledge that she possessed.

She introduced Sheppard, a young man of 21, to the vices of the London underbelly at the Black Lion, a local tavern. Quickly, Sheppard discovered he liked the Black Lion and Elizabeth more than carpentry, and in 1724, he made a life-changing (and, as you will discover, dear reader, a life-ending) decision to forego his upstanding path as a carpenter for a life as a petty thief and an escapologist of remarkable talent.

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Sketch of Jack Sheppard in Newgate Prison shortly before his execution, attributed to Sir James Thornhill.

Elizabeth introduced Jack to Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, a well-known thief. With his new associates, Jack began pilfering, earning a reputation as one of the city’s notable housebreakers.

After stealing spoons from Charing Cross, Jack landed in prison in February 1724. Tying strips of his bedsheets together, Jack escaped after breaking a hole in the roof and lowering himself to freedom. This stunt garnered public attention and admiration after people learned that Sheppard got away scot-free by standing amongst them, pointing at a rooftop and shouting “Look! There he is!”

A few months passed, yet Jack was caught pickpocketing in May 1724 and was thrown into a more substantial prison. Elizabeth visited him, was arrested herself and locked in the cell with Jack. As man-and-wife, they were moved to a new prison. Friends sneaked in a few small tools, allowing Jack to saw through the manacles. With a 25-foot drop to the ground, Jack needed more than his bedsheets, so Elizabeth gave her petticoat to the cause. Unfortunately, the 25-foot drop was into another prison yard. Jack drove spikes into the wall, the two climbed over and fled into the city.

If Jack’s exploits sound like make-believe, wait until you read about the next escapes.

A bigger problem for Jack arrived in the form of the self-appointed “Thief-Taker General,” Jonathan Wild. Wild was an utterly contemptible criminal who’d fashioned himself as a champion of the people by configuring an elaborate robbery scheme whereby he magically “found” people’s stolen property and scooped up all of the reward money. He could find all of their goods because his gang of thieves stole them in the first place. Wild ran the London thieves’ underground from the police station, and he pretty much ran the police department. He had the press wrapped around his finger. No one could rat him out or he’d cry “thief” and have the person hanged without trial. It was a good gig for Wild until he decided that nabbing Jack Sheppard would be his coup de grace. But he had to find Jack first.

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A book illustration of Jonathan Wild by Charles Knight.

Wild found Elizabeth, made nice and got her drunk, wherein she divulged Jack’s whereabouts. Wild’s goons apprehended Jack, threw him in Newgate Prison, and the court sentenced him to hang.

By now, everyone knew Jack Sheppard. Public opinion of the law and the upper class turned sour, especially as the disparities in treatment between the rich and poor became glaringly obvious. Jack was low-born, clever, unstoppable, heroically in love and handsome. No one actually wanted him to pay for his crimes. They wanted him to outfox the authorities forever. Suddenly, Jack was the champion of the people, not the smug Thief-Taker General.

Elizabeth, smarting from her betrayal, gathered another one of Jack’s paramours, Poll Maggot, and the two conspired to help Jack from his latest predicament. They smuggled him a nightgown. After loosening a bar on his cell window, Jack squeezed through the bars into a hallway, donned the nightgown, walked unrecognized across the reception area and out the main door. He escaped Newgate Prison with Elizabeth and Poll only hours before his gallows bell tolled. News of this flagrant escape spread like fire. People cheered him as the Hero of London.

Wild hated it. He managed to capture Jack again, this time chaining him to the floor with handcuffs. In October 1724, Sheppard somehow unshackled himself, broke open the padlocks on six separate prison doors and shimmied up the chimney to the rooftop. Once there, he realized he forgot his trademark sheet. So, he returned to his cell, grabbed his sheet, shimmied back to the roof through the chimney, then lowered himself to a neighboring house before spiriting into the night.

Just the day before, in a confounding turn of events, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake found himself against Jonathan Wild in court. Wild, still considered the law, gave damning testimony about Blake, who was sentenced to hang. Enraged, Blake drew a blade, slashing Wild’s throat. Chaos ensued, authorities rushed Wild to the hospital.

Jack burgled a final time and was apprehended, drunk, in a tavern wearing the clothes he’d purloined. Carted to the maximum-security room in Newgate Prison, Jack was chained to the floor under 300 pounds of irons. Prison guards charged four shillings for a glimpse of the great Jack Sheppard, raking in mountains of money.

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“The Last Scene” engraved by George Cruikshank in 1839 to illustrate William Harrison Ainsworth’s serialised novel, Jack Sheppard.

In November, Blueskin Blake hanged, and five days later, the gallows cart trundled to Tyburn Hill for the execution of Jack Sheppard. Reports say 200,000 people followed Jack to his hanging, with women throwing flowers and men fighting for the chance to shake his hand. Jack Sheppard died, well-admired, on November 16, 1724, nine months after the start of his life of crime.

And Wild? Well, he recovered physically, but his reputation was never the same. Despised, Wild fell from favor, his gang of thieves turning evidence on him one by one. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Wild met the gallows at Tyburn Hill six months after Jack Sheppard. There was also a large crowd that day, but no one clamored to shake Wild’s hand.

The courts banished Elizabeth Lyon to America, a fitting place for prostitutes and moral degenerates, though her story is lost after she arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after Jack’s death.

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Portrayal of Macheath and Peachum in Jobsite Theater’s upcoming version of The Threepenny Opera.

The impassioned tale of Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Elizabeth Lyon captured the public’s imagination. Only four years after Jack hanged, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, with the main characters of Macheath and Peachum inspired by Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild respectively.

In 1928, Brecht and Weill remade Gay’s work into the ribald THE THREEPENNY OPERA, adding, at the very last minute, an intro number for Macheath called “Mack the Knife.”

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Original poster for The Threepenny Opera from Berlin, 1928.

Though Macheath is a psychopathic interpretation of the Jack Sheppard legend, “Mack the Knife,” took on a life of its own, becoming a hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and most memorably in its lounge-worthy Bobby Darin rendition.

If you want to hear “Mack the Knife” and see what Macheath and Peachum are up to, catch up with Jobsite Theater as they perform The Threepenny Opera, Oct. 18 – Nov. 12, in the Jaeb Theater.