Sometimes, when history is too terrible to be true, we create a fairy tale that allows us to dream and to hope.
The musical coming through ASU Gammage later this month starts in the story of a revolution—and the family that was massacred so it could get its start. But it then creates the fairy tale from the rumors and dreams and con artists that followed.
“Anastasia” is the Broadway musical of the Russian Revolution and the execution of the Romanovs. It asks what might have happened if, as many people throughout history supposed, the youngest of the princesses escaped execution and somehow survived to carry on the family name. It is a story that provides hope among tragedy, dreams among horror.
In the musical version, we meet a young woman named Anya on the streets of Russia who is suffering from amnesia and may or may not be the missing Princess Anastasia.
The show was a dream come true for Linda Cho, the Tony-winning costumer of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” who created create the more than 125 stunning gowns, uniforms, and period costumes from Moscow and Paris for “Anastasia.”
“I like the scale and scope,” Cho says. “What we aspire to do as costume designers is to tell these magnificent stories. What’s great about ‘Anastasia’ or an epic opera is not only the scale of the show and the costumes, but the sweeping arc of the story. That’s what is exciting about these big projects.”
Cho made her Broadway debut in 2013, designing the Edwardian costumes for “Gentleman’s Guide” that were impressive. They were striking in variety and appearance, and allowed the lead actor to make a parade of quick costume changes in less than a minute.
Before that, Cho had a long career creating costumes for theater, dance and opera.
Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, was somewhat of an amateur photographer and many of photos he took of his family are preserved in museums Cho visited. It was educational for Cho.
“What I found so delightful was the intimacy of this family who in their day would have been like gods,” Cho says. “But in their everyday life, he was a very shy man as was his wife. They preferred the company of their immediate family. They functioned like a small, tight-knit family. The girls were given daily cold baths so they would never forget to be humble, to toughen their constitution and to keep them from being spoiled.”
Cho says there was an embarrassment of riches when it came to researching this show’s costumes because there is so much information about the late 1910s and the 1920s.
“You have to choose and commit at the end of the day when there is such a great volume,” Cho says. “I got to pick my favorites—the greatest hits of the research. I chose whatever jumps out and helps me tell the story, what would read to the audience as either feeling very Russian or very Parisian or very wealthy or very rustic.”
Cho likes to work in layers and her creations are always textured to create a beautiful stage picture. One of her dresses—one worn by the tsarina—weighs nearly 50 pounds. In the Broadway production, it had to be lifted by crane to the actor’s dressing room. More than 45 different types of jewels are sewn into it. She says the tsarina’s actual dress would have been covered in diamonds and pearls and cost close to $10 million.
Her favorite costume was the black gown the dowager empress wears to the ballet in Paris.
“It was a cross between a royal, imperial gown—the long train and the dust ruffle was reminiscent of the tsarina—and the style of an older woman,” Cho says. “She is an older woman in 1927 and would have kept her things for a long time. I thought that period looked so beautiful. I enjoyed figuring out what that dress should be and how it could look the most regal, the most expensive and the most impressive on that stage at the ballet.”
After the research, Cho starts her design process with a black and white sketch on pencil and paper that she shares with the director. After getting notes, she goes back to color it. The dress is finished within a few days to a few years, depending on the project. She says she typically has a few years lead time with an opera and only a month for regional theater.
For “Anastasia,” the finale’s dress—the iconic red number with hundreds of jewels, yards of ruffles and a 16-karat gold crown—was created quickly.
When the show was in previews, the director came to her and said that he thought they needed something else other than what was currently on stage.
“So, I basically had 20 minutes to design it on paper,” Cho says. “We built it in three days. We had six people working on it, building it and we got it up in three days.”
When designing the original costumes, changes were made to make the outfits more utilitarian and to assist in telling the story. For example, in the 1920s, the ideal figure was that of a teenage boy—slim hips and no breasts. But not all women are built that way.
“Costume designers employ tricks when we look at period research,” Cho says. “I take the liberty of having the general feeling of that period, still retaining the drop waist, but having a more curvaceous silhouette and a fuller skirt. A ’20s dress would have gone straight down, but you can’t dance and do high kicks in that.”
Whenever an outfit is built, the costumer works with the actor to make sure it fits correctly.
“The quality of the work—I have to give credit to the dressmakers and stitchers and tailors,” Cho says. “That speaks to their skill and care and love for the art.”
“Anastasia,” ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, asugammage.com, various times Sunday, October 29, to Sunday, November 3, see website for ticket pricing.